case study

Testing Your Design Principles

I just finished an article by Jared Spool entitled Creating Great Design Principles: 6 Counter-intuitive Tests. It was a good read that took me back about sixteen months to the time we started a revision of the Church’s Online Store by defining 8 or 9 guiding principles to help us focus. The new store launched without fanfare last June, with a more public launch in September after some refinements were made. Those principles had a big impact on design decisions, how products were highlighted on the site, and how we measured success. So this article was of particular interest to me, and I wondered how our principles would stand up to Spool’s “counter-intuitive tests.”

Here are his six tests, with a little elaboration on how our design principles fared when put up to these standards. (Since I haven’t checked with my stakeholders I did not feel comfortable listing those principles outright in this article.) If you want to apply these tests to your own design principles, I’d highly recommended reading the original article for additional context.

Test #1: Does It Come Directly From Research?

In our case, No, our principles did not come directly from research. We did gather a lot of input from key stakeholders, and conducted some research on key experiences we needed to support. Maybe not surprisingly, I think that the experiences we researched most are among the best on the Store—clothing display, for example.

Test #2: Does It Help You Say ‘No’ Most Of The Time?

Yes, several of our principles helped our stakeholders say No. Maybe one of the biggest examples was in helping us maintain a more reverent atmosphere on the site rather than a commercial one. Big blaring fonts? No. Flashing banner ads? No. More promotions than products on a page? No. Stronger “store” branding? No. Sales and coupons? No. Focus on “finding products to help you learn and live the Gospel of Jesus Christ…” ? YES.

Test #3: Does It Distinguish Your Design From Your Competitors’?

In our case, the main competition was Church-owned brick-and-mortar Distribution Centers and catalog ordering by phone. Few of our principles directly challenged this competition and some actually strove for harmony between the different distribution channels. One principle around ease of use did get close—we wanted it to be so easy that someone who had ready access to a physical store would still want to use the online store. While not very specific, this really helped us stretch, especially as it related to clothing, where fit and feel are so important.

Test #4: Is it Something You Might Reverse In A Future Release?

This test was truly counter-intuitive to me; Spool claims here that “Great principles aren’t ever-truisms. They are only useful for right now. By thinking through scenarios of when you’d reverse them later, you help define what it means to follow that principle now.”

None of our principles met that test. In fact one of them explicitly strove for long-term stability and consistency over time and cultures. But I can see his point; design principles that are too generic (and therefore approach universality) may not help you hone the edge of your Cut List.

Test #5: Have You Evaluated It For This Project?

This is a follow-on to the previous principle. Just because something was a guiding principle for the previous release does not automatically make it a guiding principle for the next release.

I was about to say that this didn’t apply to the Online Store… and then realized we have done several updates to the store without ever re-examining our guiding principles, or at least creating some focus statements for our minor releases. Maybe it’s time…

Test #6: Is Its Meaning Constantly Tested [and refined]?

Our principles relating to atmosphere, cost, and ease-of-use were re-visited many times in new contexts. Do we show prices on category pages or not? Is the cost of this customization to the e-commerce platform worth the usability improvement or not?

This test was another counter-intuitive one for me—wouldn’t it be better if the meaning were clear now and for always? We certainly don’t want patently ambiguous principles, but principles that require refinement as you drill down into design are not necessarily a bad thing; it keeps the team engaged in the principles and talking with each other about meaning and goals.

“Most Design Principles Fail Many Of The Tests”

Spool concludes with the depressing observation that your design principles probably don’t pass many of these tests. But “don’t despair. Start having the conversations. The best principles change as the team’s perspectives on design matures. Don’t be afraid to let your principles grow into something that will guide your team to create user experiences your customers will thank you for.”

I have to agree!

posted by Ted Boren on Wednesday, Mar 02, 2011
tagged with design, design principles