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What is the Role of Principles in Product Work?
When it comes down to it, principles guide all decisions in product and design work. Learn how.
By Anna Bradley-Smith
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9 minute read

Every day, product teams make key decisions to guide their work.

Those decisions are almost definitely based on market dynamics and corporate strategy, but are also always based on a company’s foundational product and design guidelines: principles.

Principles guide all decision-making in product and design work by setting out a framework for a team on which all work is based. The simple slogans or sentences summarize a company’s beliefs, values and vision into a direct action, which allows for consistency in all decision-making.

Here, the org looks into the role principles play in product work.

What Does a Product Team Do?

Product teams are collaborative, cross-functional teams within an organization that plan and execute an effective product strategy and create top-notch digital products.

Within a product team, roles generally include:

  • Chief Product Officer (CPO)
  • VP of Product
  • Product Design Director
  • Product Development Director
  • Product Manager
  • UX Manager
  • UX Designer
  • Product Engineer
  • Data Scientist
  • Associate Product Engineer

What Is a Product Principle?

Product principles are at the heart of every product, and every move that went into building that product.

Every decision can be checked off and justified against a product principle, like a guidepost ensuring a team is staying on path with its overall goals and values. They work as an agreed upon set of guidelines for decision-making on all aspects of a product, meaning that no decision should be made at random.

Product principles not only outline what type of products will be built by a company, but reflect what a company aims to be like and the experience it wants to deliver, highlighting its approach, values and goals.

Despite often showing the direction a company is working towards, product principles are not the same as a company’s mission and goals. Product principles inform execution, rather than long-term road mapping and planning.

They cannot be reached, existing instead as ever-present guidelines along the product roadmap. An easy way to view them is as a checklist. And because companies are always changing and developing, so too should principles to keep up with where a company is headed and what its users need.

What Is the Role of a Principle in Product Work?

Product principles keep product teams true to their vision and overall goals and help to keep them accountable. Some benefits are:

Alignment around core values

Principles get all team members on the same page and serve as grounding post as teams grow and work fast. They stop random decisions from being made and reduce the chance of unnecessary product work. Principles also help to foster a team culture and stop infighting due to their simplicity and importance.

Increase focus on core responsibilities

Product principles should stop team members from getting lost in product development work. They clear up what is relevant and irrelevant and provide direction when things get murky or confusing. The most effective principles are the ones that are clearest and easiest to follow, that allow team members to immediately determine if they are being abided by or not.

Consistency at scale

No matter the size or workload of a product team or company, the same principles should guide all decisions providing consistency. Regardless of who is making a decision and what level they are at, it should be able to be justified by all team members as following the product principle.

What Are Some Principles of Product Design?

Principles of product differ slightly to product principles, as they refer strictly to the design phase of a product.

Product design, which marries form and function, is imperative to the success of any new product, and has a solid place on the product roadmap often being the determining factor in whether a consumer first selects a product.

Principles play a large role in guiding design, and companies often share those principles as they are more centered on successful design rather than overall product goals, which are far more individual.

Product Plan pulled together five design principles from the world’s most product-centric companies. They are:

  1. Less, but Better
  2. Blow People’s Minds
  3. Don’t Cause Unnecessary Harm
  4. Let Function Inform Design
  5. Design Local, Think Global

Another core set of design principles came out in 1955, released by architect and designer Dieter Rams, who was recruited by Braun to serve as chief design officer (he went on to make the company a household name).

He continually asked himself “Is my design good design?” and to get to the heart of that he came up with his 10 principles for good design.

  1. Is innovative
  2. Makes a product useful
  3. Is aesthetic
  4. Makes a product understandable
  5. Is unobtrusive
  6. Is honest
  7. Is long-lasting
  8. Is thorough down to the last detail
  9. Is environmentally friendly
  10. Involves as little design as possible

All in all, his principles amount to simplicity, clarity and ease of use being the core factors in good design.

How Do You Make a Product Principle?

To define a product principle, you have to have your product philosophy in place and have defined the big picture things that matter to you as a company.

From there, it should be easy to lay out principles that lead product development and define why you are seeking a product in the first place, and what deliverables it will serve to users. That should be a cross team conversation that includes the voice of users.

The product principles developed should bridge the gap between the company mission and the day-to-day execution of product development, and should be distilled into a short sentence. Once you have come up with a list of principles, try to condense them down to less than five.

Some helpful questions to ask in the process are:

  • Do these principles link back to the company’s mission and values?
  • Are they easily understandable and concise?
  • Are they specific?
  • Do they state what is most important to product development?
  • Are they broadly applicable?
  • Are they translatable into day-to-day development?
  • Will they connect with employees at an emotional level?

How Product Managers Use Principles

Product managers are responsible for making sure product development fits within the parameters of customer needs and company objectives — in other words, product strategy.

From there, the product manager maps out product development and guides a team to make that a reality.

They are builders, experts, leaders and marketers, all in one, and, because of this, they are constantly making key product decisions.

It’s no doubt then, that principles are a foundation of the product manager role. Principles help product managers stay focused while scaling, and keep them accountable on all strategic decisions made. They also help product managers explain reasoning to development teams and stakeholders.

The product manager can also help the development team establish and integrate principles into their workflow. Principles need implementation practices, and a product manager can create a plan for sharing how principles are being followed, such as referencing them in workshops as they do at Slack.

Examples of Product Principles

Google says that above all else, it has to focus on the user. That is the company’s guiding principle and sets the framework for all its product development: “Whether we’re designing a new Internet browser or a new tweak to the look of the homepage, we take great care to ensure that they will ultimately serve you, rather than our own internal goal or bottom line,” the company says.

At Slack, the five guiding principles are:

  1. Don’t make me think
  2. Be a great host
  3. Prototype the path
  4. Don’t reinvent the wheel
  5. Make bigger, bolder bets

The company says: “By implementing these principles into all we build across teams—design, legal, marketing and more—they provide a shared framework for decision-making that keeps us aligned and therefore able to make better decisions, faster.”

At Stripe, a key product principle is “going deep.” For the product team, that means building products that penetrate the market — which it is clearly doing successfully achieving a $95 billion valuation in March 2021.

For e-wallet company Pay.com, three product principles guide all decision-making:

  1. We are not a bank. We disrupt banking.
  2. A sense of security and privacy is key.
  3. Merchants are the gateways to our customers, so our products must “wow” the merchant.

According to Mind the Product, an example of Pay.com following its principles clearly came when it made the decision to require an extra step to reveal users’ CVC numbers. Rather than going for an option that would be easier for users, they followed their second principle and prioritized security.

Just as companies and markets evolve, so too should principles. They are living things that can keep being worked on to reflect and represent the goals and ambitions of the company, and the needs of the consumers.

As teams use them, they will be able to judge and tweak their effectiveness to find the best and most concise principle for the stage of the company and product development.

So as much as developing solid principles is imperative to good productive development, so too is keeping an open mind to changing needs and desires.

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