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Season Three

Design Principles

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This is the Clearleft podcast.

Clearleft recently had the pleasure of working with Citizens Advice. One of the people on the project was researcher Maite Otondo.


The goal of the project was to learn about the experience of people when ringing to get advice from charities.

Citizens Advice

This call is free from landlines and mobiles.


We were not redesigning the experience. We were learning about the experiences of people when asking and receiving advice over the phone.

Citizens Advice

We’ll record your call to monitor the quality of our service and for training.


And they wanted to use this information to create an internal case of change. So the goal of the project was to support this case for change and then to help them make design decisions if and when they were going to start redesigning that service.

Citizens Advice

If you need help applying for universal credit, you can talk to one of our specialist advisors. Press two to get advice about claiming universal credit. If you want help with another issue, please stay on the line.


So we had to help them explain why the channel as it was and the experience as it was, was not fit for purpose. And then if they were going to hire a new provider potentially to help them understand how to assess the service and the platform that that provider was going to provide and how to design an experience that was better for the users.

So we thought we were going to just conduct research. And then the last couple of weeks, we were going to create like very nicely designed journey maps or experience maps or something like that. Some artifacts for them to use moving forward.

When you have a research project, you want to understand how those findings are going to be used so you can tailor the content and you can also tailor the format for it to be more useful. And as we were having these conversations, we realized that maybe having like a lovely, shiny experience map was not going to be the most useful thing for them, because it was about understanding the things that were not working well at the moment for their users.

But also it had to be high level . It had to facilitate these decisions.

So we thought, how can we create something that is going to facilitate decision making internally, and with potential providers ? So we ended up coming with the idea of creating design principles that could guide them and that could help them.


So the output of this piece of work would be a set of design principles. And these principles could then be used by Citizens Advice when they’re evaluating potential providers for their phone service. The design principles would be tools for decision-making.


Because this was taken from their users points of view, we were able to identify blockers. So we were able to identify priorities from people’s points of view. So you have expectations and you have needs and you have priorities. So we used all of that to create these principles that they can use not as a checklist for functionalities, but more as questions they can ask their providers.

We created five design principles. You take each one of them and your conversation with the provider is not, this is a checklist, but it’s more like, “How are you going to help me accomplish that? How are you going to take my service closer to what I want my service to be from the point of view of my users?”

We defined that design principles with a finalized set of values that act as a compass for their service. This is not our definition. That’s a generic definition for design principles, but then we talked about the different characteristics or the types of design principles.

So sometimes they are about processes and about the ways in which people work within organizations. And sometimes they are about the service characteristics.

One of the questions we discuss is why are we going to create these design principles? So we defined some goals. So we said we wanted to create design principles to facilitate alignment. So align the experience around the same principles. And also we wanted to use those design principles for decision-makers.

So make sure that, you know, everyone’s on board with the same priorities to make it easier to make decisions. And they also wanted the design principles for assessment. So having this set of criteria to evaluate ideas against.


I asked my colleague Chris How if design principles were part of his design toolkit.


There are some projects where we have started with design principles as a way that the team itself is going to work. So, and when I say team generally, I mean the Clearleft team and the team that we work with in the client organization that makes up one production team.

We will decide on, at a kickoff meeting, some of the ways of working and out of those ways of working, if we think it’s appropriate, we will list out some of the design principles that we want to adhere to. And they then become really useful as things that you can use and retros and further project kickoff sessions to have that sense check of, are we adhering to the principles that we’ve outlined? Are we working in the way that we think is most efficient? And if not, we can adjust to make sure that those principles are being used in a sensible way.

A good example of that would be working with a client who wanted to change from a very waterfall method of production to something more agile, and I know that agile is a very loaded word. But in that agile methodology we started using one of our design principles taken from Eric Riess’s Lean Startup of build, measure, learn. And that principle in itself was for this project really useful, that at the end of every sprint we could in the retro go, okay, what have we built? What have we measured? What have we learnt? Are we going through that cycle and that continuous cycle? And where we weren’t doing it and we were just building and launching, we would then be able to adjust the ways of working and say, okay, before anything gets built, we need a conversation about how we’re going to measure this. What are the signals we need to see to be confident in that work?

Equally the design sprints became much more about learning what added value and what didn’t, rather than just making sure that we were launching code into the world and seeing that deployment was the measure of success in the project.

That mantra of build, measure, learn enabled us to go "this sprint has been successful because we haven’t launched something, but we have learnt something." And that was equally valid for us.


Here’s Clearleft strategy director, Andy Thornton.


I think design principles are really good when your trying to ensure that the team designing something have the right amount of barriers or guidance to steer them in the right direction without constraining their opportunities. So the flexibility to be creative within a reasonably sandboxed environment, let’s say. Or, you know, that the sandbox helps dictate some of the outcomes you’re going to achieve that are consistent, because the principals are there to help steer you in the right direction so that you don’t end up with radically different user experiences or interaction choices based on the whims of designer A versus designer B who prefers this kind of creative style or this kind of animation or this kind of design direction to something else.


But how do you know if the design principles you’ve come up with are fit for purpose?


What makes a good set of design principles?

Why do we need them? How are we going to use them? And how do we want them to be?

They should be memorable. They had to be applicable. They had to be unambiguous. They had to be specific. They have to be selective and intentional. They should be used by everyone. And they should help them say no.

So we created kind of our own set of ideas of what makes a good set of design principles. And we use that to guide the process. So whenever we were creating and we were discussing or thinking about this might be a principle, we would assess it against these ideas that we defined as what makes a good design principle.

And we kept going back to those definitions in order to create these principles. And also the fact that they reflect how the service should be. It’s not the what, it’s the how.


Okay. Confession time. I’m actually kind of obsessed with design principles. I collect them. You can see my collection at Now, I’m not saying that they’re all good design principles. In fact, I’d say that most design principles that people publish aren’t good. Because they’re too agreeable.


I think there is definitely that risk that they’re not always explicit enough to be helpful. And I think you’ve got to design the right the right level of principle for the right scale of problem.

For instance, we did work with a bank at one point. And a lot of the design principles we came up with were steered by user research and insights from speaking to customers around what kinds of things were valuable to them, with their interaction with the bank regardless of the channel. And I think that sort of thing helps make sure that you don’t lose the essence of what came out in research to be able to carry through the essence of what you’ve learned and make sure that is retained within the solution.

Because actually the interaction design and the specific creative choices are kind of the level below the general direction of travel you want to take a solution in and making sure it’s still sensitive to those user needs.

So actually the more I think about this, Jeremy, and it’s a while since I thought about design principles, I think design principles is actually really great at bridging the gap between generative research, understanding customers, understanding behaviors, understanding users, and translating that intent into a general sort of manual or direction for the choices you make, when you come into interaction design or UI design.


If you had a picture of a whale’s tail slowly going into the ocean, if you put your design principle above that, would people roll their eyes and go, that is a platitude that seems on first read as if it’s important, but the more you think about it, the more you think it’s just an empty sentiment.

I think that’s a good test for design principles.

Design principles should be useful and used in a project. And if they’re not useful and used and discussed and talked about with the project team, then I would suggest that you should get rid of them. You shouldn’t pretend that you are using design principles if you are not reflecting during a project.


Here’s a good test for whether your design principle is workable. Is it reversible?


It should be plausible and possible to stand for the opposite of that principle and that still seem like a sound choice.

A principle it’s kind of saying this, not that, but it’s not speaking just to common sense. It’s a trade off. I think the best principles are the ones where you’re clearly saying we want to do this, or we believe in this at the expense of that. But to be that is equally valid for different companies, for different brands, for different organizations, for different scenarios.

And that’s when design principles are really, really When you create a design principle, you’re making a decision of how you’re going to move forward.


I asked Maite if they looked at anyone else’s design principles when they were working with Citizens Advice.


We didn’t want to copy anyone else’s design principles. We wanted to come up with something that was suitable for this. So we thought at some point it wasn’t really like a good idea for us to go through hundreds of design principles because we didn’t have enough context to understand them. Some of them are quite generic and some of them are quite specific. I think if you don’t understand the context, maybe it’s tricky to assess a design principle.

At some point we thought, you know what? We’re not going to look at anyone more design principles, because we wanted to feel that we were actually doing what was needed rather than thinking, “oh, but other people have taken this approach.”

There was a lot of involvement from everyone, basically from the core team, we invited all the people into that conversation. So it was a very collaborative process. And It was, I think, very specific to their context.

You can end up with like 50 design principles if you don’t know what you’re doing. So we wanted to keep it focused just to make sure that we were going to have a handful of them, but they were going to be great.


At their best, design principles are the messages carved in stone that you want to be paying attention to. At best they provide guidance in a project. They become things that inform what you’re going to do and equally for you to reflect on when you are reviewing work or you’re at a crossroads where you want to take a step back and check what you’ve been doing is going in the right direction for what you want to achieve.

And I think design principles help you to see the bigger picture, to reflect on the most important things that your design is trying to achieve.


One of the design principles for Citizens Advice is all about prioritizing speed, getting a caller to an advisor as quickly as possible. I know that might sound obvious. But previously the system was prioritizing accuracy. Getting the caller to the nearest advisor, even if that meant waiting longer.

Citizens Advice

We need to find out where you live so we can put you through to your nearest Citizens Advice. If you have a home or landline number, enter it now, including the area code. If you don’t, you can enter any local number. For example, the number of your dentist, GP practice, a takeaway shop, or a taxi company.


So where previously accuracy was prioritized over speed. The research showed that it was better to prioritize speed over accuracy. That’s what design principles are all about. Priorities. Tough decisions. Deciding what you’re going to focus on. And what you’re going to say no to.


Design principles have got a very narrow rope to walk along between being useful and instructional without being bland and meaningless. And sometimes the nature of those is very nuanced. You know, if you took a design principle such as “we put the user at the forefront of all our decision-making” as a user centered designer I would kind of roll my eyes and go, well, well, of course we do that. That’s, that’s part of the process. That’s how we design. That’s the approach that we take. There’s nothing revelatory within that. But there are many organizations where that is an exceptional way of working. That is very different from what they’ve been doing before. And you are making that statement in order to bring the whole organization on board with this is a new way of working. We are going to go out and talk to our customers. We’re going to pay attention to their goals, their needs, their context, and then use that as inspiration for how we design.

So maybe you can drop that principle after a period of time when you’ve, you’ve reached a little bit more UX maturity within your organization. That principal could be dropped.

So I think they’re interesting. They’re not the commandments. They’re not set in stone. I think they should change over time. But I think my golden rule would be, if we haven’t mentioned those principles, maybe we can drop them. Maybe they have just become part of our established culture and way of working. They’ve done their job.

And maybe that’s true of all the commandments. The success of them is nobody would disagree with them.


Amy Hupe worked on the design system at Government Digital Services where they’ve made their design principles public. I asked Amy whether those principles were front and center in the day-to-day work.


Yeah. They’re very ubiquitous at GDS.

They kind of just get into your bones. Like from the day you arrive, they’re plastered all over the walls everywhere. They’re talked about all the time. They’re referred to in a lot of presentations and blogs and things. So you are kind of bombarded with them.

And I think that, you know, actually 10 design principles is quite a lot to have. So it’s quite important that they are fairly omnipresent and that they are repeated a lot because otherwise I think you would probably forget them.

They’re not just there for show. They’re very much kind of used and referred to and exhibited in everything that GDS does.

Nothing at GDS is really for show. It all means something.


My thanks to Amy Hupe, Maite Otondo, Chris How and Andy Thornton.

If you want to know more details about the Citizens Advice project, head on over to the case study section of the Clearleft website,

Thank you for listening.