8 Product Design Principles For Better Work And Collaboration

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Solid product design principles help us navigate the messy world of discovery and make good decisions in the face of uncertainty.

Some principles act as decision-making criteria, others help us work better together, and some help us to evaluate designs and craft better solutions.

This article will share 14 invaluable principles for better work and collaboration.

We’ll discuss the different types of design principles.

And, we’ll share links to the principles we should all know by heart.

14 Product Design Principles to Live By

1. Understand the Business Objectives

Every project should start with a clear understanding of what the business wants to achieve. More often than not, the business will have a vague idea of what their objectives are. A good designer can help the business to clarify the business objective before jumping into any design work. This can be done through stakeholder interviews, alignment workshops, and a well-designed project initiation session. A business objective should be articulated in a way that is actionable and measurable. The objective can be broad and strategic or specific and tactical. Either is fine, but it’s important that it’s discussed and agreed upon before the work starts.

Creativity cannot happen in a vacuum. It’s an associative process that requires us to act.

2. Involve the User Throughout the Process

From user interviews to concept screening and usability testing. Customers should be involved throughout the process and provide input into each critical decision. Consider this a form of participatory design where the user is the client, and by consulting with them throughout the project, you give yourself the best possible chance of success. One way to ensure this happens is to start every project with a thorough and detailed research plan. The research plan should describe what you want to learn from users, how you intend to involve them, and how you’ll capture and use the data to make decisions. Do this with stakeholders for better buy-in.

A problem correctly defined is a problem half solved.

3. Obsess Over the Problem, Not the Solution

Einstein famously said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem, I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.” This is because a problem correctly defined is a problem solved. In the design world, we think by doing, so we should spend more time conducting activities that help us to understand the problem before we attempt to solve it. Hundreds of research and analysis techniques can help us do this, but the most popular ones are user interviews, surveys, prototyping, usability testing, and experience mapping. Prototyping and speaking to users regularly is a great way to help us understand the problem. This is why prototypes should be seen as tools for learning and not deliverables… More on that later.

Nothing exists in isolation. Everything exists as part of a system.

4. Take a Systems Point of View

Nothing exists in isolation. Everything exists as part of a system. And every component within a system is influenced by all the other parts. This is what makes problem-solving so complex when it involves humans and their ever-changing contexts, needs, and expectations. Likewise, the business will have stakeholders with conflicting goals, views, and opinions. To give our projects the best chance of success, we must understand how all of the moving parts relate to each other. That way, we can identify the relationships and components that matter the most and keep an eye on the myriad of other moving parts. This is where good discovery work comes into play, and tools like stakeholder maps, personas, and journey maps help to give us focus and direction.

5. Identify Some Specific Success Metrics

Not to be confused with business objectives, success metrics are often overlooked or defined in a way that’s vague and difficult to measure. A good success metric is concrete, actionable, and makes our lives much easier. They should flow naturally from the business objective and help us to make decisions on where to focus our design efforts. For example, if the business aims to improve the checkout experience, we would then need to define the customer problem. For instance, let’s say we learned that people abandon their carts because they aren’t clear on how long the products will take to arrive. We could then choose the metric, reduce cart abandonment and start to design solutions that help people to understand delivery times.

Creativity is all about connecting dots.

6. Collaborate With a Diverse Group of People

Creativity is all about connecting dots. In this instance, dots are the thoughts, ideas, and beliefs that come from life experiences. When we invite a diverse group of people to work together, we essentially invite a diverse set of dots into our creative space. This mix of unique perspectives creates the conditions for creativity to thrive. By encouraging people to share their ideas and experiences, we give ourselves the raw material to build upon. In this context, diversity means people with various life experiences, which usually come from different cultures, upbringings, life experiences, professional expertise, and personal values and beliefs. Every innovation project should include a diverse group of people to ensure an interesting dynamic.

7. Communicate Clearly and Often

However well we think we communicate, there is always room for improvement. When working in a group, communication is everything. Good communication keeps everyone on the same page. It makes goals clear, provides direction to the team, and keeps everyone aware of relevant progress and updates. Good communication provides a structure that allows a team to think on its feet and confidently make independent decisions. Whether you’re sharing research findings, project plans, or updates on milestones. All of this acts as the glue that holds the team together. If people know what you’re doing and what you’re goals are. They can more easily contribute their ideas and share relevant updates about their work that could help you.

8. Know When to Diverge and When to Converge

Context switching is the biggest killer of productivity. Focus is everything. This is particularly true during the design process, as it’s often necessary to switch between exploration and evaluation. Although it’s crucial that we wear both hats, wearing them at the same time can have a huge negative impact on your creativity and productivity. For example, if you’re evaluating ideas while you’re generating them, you’ll generate fewer ideas and limit your thinking. You’ll impose constraints and criticisms that could be solved further down the track. Likewise, if you’re trying to define a problem before you’ve gathered the necessary information, you’ll define the problem incorrectly. It’s critical we know when to diverge and converge and do them independently.

9. Make Designs Inclusive and Accessible

When we design accessible experiences for people with additional needs, we’re making the design more accessible for everyone. If a design is more intuitive, easy to process, and requires less effort to interact with, then everyones a winner. On top of that, we all benefit from accessibility features regardless of our abilities. For example, high-contrast text makes it easier for everyone to read, light controls help us adjust the settings to our environment, and narration features mean we can all listen to content on the go. Subtitles on media mean we can all watch videos in environments where we can’t have sound. These are just a few ways that designing with accessibility in mind is a win-win situation for all users.

10. Build Prototypes Quickly as Tools for Learning

A big myth in the design industry is that a prototype should resemble the final product. Prototypes are often designed as deliverables that are used to explain functionality to stakeholders and customers. Of course, this is a valid use case for a prototype. But, more importantly, building prototypes helps us to think. And discussing them with customers helps us to get a deeper understanding of the problem. This means we can make abstract prototypes early in the discovery phase purely as conversation prompts and discussion points. For example, to learn about attitudes towards privacy, rather than prototype the experience, we could imagine the solution was a loudspeaker conversation to learn which parts of the dialogue were sensitive.

Feedback from the real world allows us to make decisions with confidence.

11. Seek Feedback From Users Frequently

Feedback from the real world allows us to make decisions with confidence. The more we involve users in the process, the less risk we take and the higher our chances of success. Think of design as a participatory process where we design with our customers. We seek feedback often to help us make decisions, and we rely on them to keep us on track. This is what differentiates human-centered design from more traditional methods of problem-solving. The best way to make this happen is to design a research plan at the outset of the project that describes what you want to learn from customers and how you intend to engage them. By doing this upfront, you set yourself key milestones and allow yourself to focus on the work without worrying about planning research.

12. Embrace Iterative Design and Experimentation

Everything in life is a process of experimentation and learning. This is especially true within the design industry. At the beginning of any project is when we know the least. It’s when we’re most likely to make bad decisions since we have the least amount of knowledge and data. This is actually a blessing because acknowledging this takes the pressure off of the designer to get everything right. Rather, we lean on the discovery process to educate us before making any important decisions. Start every project with a beginner’s mindset, allow yourself to ask lots of questions, and seek feedback regularly. This is how you build the knowledge base to make informed design decisions that ultimately lead to world-class user experiences.

Most innovation happens through continuous improvement.

13. Innovate Through Continuous Improvement

When most people think of innovation, they think of disruptive innovation. Ideas that create markets and completely reinvent industries. Sure, this is the holy grail, but it’s not the only way to innovate. Most of us innovate through continuous improvement. This means small changes frequently over a long period of time eventually lead us somewhere great. This is because our knowledge and experience increase over time, and with every change we make and every product we ship, we get additional feedback to work with. All of this increases our chances of creating genuine value for our customer base. It makes us experts over time and provides us with more opportunities to be creative and solve complex problems or meet unmet needs.

14. Favor Taking Action Over Planning

It’s easy to get overwhelmed when confronted with a complex problem. We can easily feel drowned by too much information, making it hard to be productive and make good decisions. When this happens, some of us have a tendency to sit and make plans. Often this is a form of procrastination since you can only plan so much. Taking action and making things happen is usually the way to overcome the feelings of being overwhelmed. If you get stuck during a design project, rather than sit and make more plans. Try prototyping and speaking to users. Try running experiments and solving problems by taking action. As you move forward often, the path becomes clearer, and with every step you take, you slowly get back on track.

What Are Product Design Principles, and Why Do We Need Them?

A principle is a fundamental truth or law that serves as a basis for shaping behavior or decision making.

In design, principles refer to a set of guidelines, beliefs, or values that inform and shape the design process and any design decision. Design principles can be used to guide decision-making and ensure a consistent and high-quality outcome.

They can set the guard rails to produce innovative design, a logical design system, reduce cognitive load or to ensure design thinking is human centered. They provide a foundation for designing solutions that are user-centered, functional, accessible, and aesthetically pleasing, among other things.

By aligning to the right UX design principle, the UX designer can ensure that their work aligns with their goals, stakeholders’ needs, and the needs of the users they are designing for.

What Are the 3 Different Types of Product Design Principles?

Team Principles Guide Our Processes and How We Collaborate

Team principles are specific to how a product team agrees to work with each other. They align product management, the product designer and the developers to ensure they’re working in the best way to enable the product strategy. Similar to values, they describe beliefs the team has about how to collaborate and approach work to design great products. For example, being a builder, designing with data, and putting the user first, are classic examples of team principles.

Project Principles Guide Our Decision-Making and Keep Us Focused

Project principles act as decision-making criteria. They’re based on user needs, goals, and constraints that are unique and specific to the project. They help us to make decisions that align with our research. For example, content should be social and easy to share. Project principles can be about how to work together during product development, or they can be product principles that guide the UX Design and ensure customer success.

Universal Design Principles Improve the Quality of Our Designs

Universal design principles can be applied to any type of design project. They’re principles that we learn in college and university, like less is more, intuitive and easy to use, form follows function, and clear visual hierarchy. They’re principles that we all embody as designers and apply to everything we do. It could be a gestalt principle, useful mental models, UX Design principles or anything that guides us to make better decisions about the essential aspects of digital product design. 

What Makes a Good Product Design Principle?

  1. Be Actionable and Practical: A good product design principle should be meaningful and inspire action, allowing designers to know how to behave as a result.
  2. Be User-Centered: A good product design principle should prioritize the needs, goals, and experiences of the user.
  3. Be Clear and Concise: A good product design principle should be easily understood and communicated.
  4. Be Flexible but Decisive: A good product design principle should allow for creative freedom while still providing clear guidance.
  5. Be Supported by Evidence: A good design principle should be based on research, data, and best practices.
  6. Be Relevant to the Problem Being Solved: A good design principle should directly address the design challenge and goals of the project.
  7. Be Consistent With Business Goals: A good product design principle should align with the overall objectives and vision of the organization.
  8. Be Inclusive and Accessible: A good product design principle should ensure that designs are usable and accessible to the widest possible range of users.
  9. Foster Collaboration: A good product design principle should encourage teamwork and cooperation among the design team and stakeholders.

Key Takeaways

  1. These 14 product design principles can help us to work better and collaborate to design great products.
  2. These principles include understanding the business objectives, involving users throughout the process, obsessing over the problem not solution, taking a systems point of view and identifying success metrics.
  3. Product design principles can be used to create an innovative technology, visual design, or decorative objects.
  4. Everyone can benefit from establishing design principles. From industrial designers, product managers, or even if you work in graphic design. 
  5. Additionally, it’s important to collaborate with diverse groups of people, communicate clearly and often, and know when to diverge or converge on decisions.
  6. It is also essential that designs are inclusive & accessible, while prototypes should be built quickly for learning purposes rather than deliverables.
  7. Feedback from users should be sought frequently in an iterative manner through continuous improvement whilst favoring action over planning whenever possible.

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