A company proves that it has a strong creative process bydeveloping successful products repeatedly. We see this in companies like Apple, BMW and Google. Founders such as Steve Jobs formed a corporate culture with an intense focus on creativity and design. This culture highlights two core elements in the creative process: the ideas and the team.
The creative process can be described in one sentence: Ideas begin with a small team of creative people at the heart of the company who communicate easily with each other.
While many companies are founded on principles such as value, quality or customer service, an innovative company is built with design at its core. With invariable dedication to design principles, a company distinguishes itself by following a creative process led by a skillful team of product designers and engineers. The purpose of this article is to answer the question, “What do the greatest product designers consider to be the most important product design principles, and how can we apply them to our products?”
In this article, you will learn:
- six core product design principles,
- how to apply these design principles, with the aid of 15 product examples.
As a guide, I’ll be quoting from some of the world’s greatest product designers, including Apple’s chief designer, Jonathan Ive, and Apple cofounder Steve Jobs; PayPal and Tesla cofounder and SpaceX founder, Elon Musk; Raymond Loewy, the “father of industrial design”; and Dieter Rams, the German functionalist designer of over seven decades.
Six Product Design Principles
Here are the principles:
- irreducible simplicity
- immediate intuition
- beauty underneath
- approachable innovation
- form and color agreement
- replicable methodology
To make decisions, we can use these principles as a test by rating a product on a scale from 1 to 10 for each of the principles above. The lowest rating is a 1, and the highest is a 10. Each explanation below comes with examples to give you an idea of how to rate your product. Keep in mind that creative analysis is, ultimately, subjective and personal (like appreciating wine or a painting); therefore, each person’s rankings will be different.
But keep in mind that the purpose of this “test” is to facilitate a thought process that leads to the best product iterations possible. Let’s begin.
You’ve created a product to meet a need. (If this isn’t true, then stop reading this and first build something helpful.) Now ask yourself, “Does my product have extraneous features that diminish the experience and satisfaction it provides?”
Take a car. A car is created, in its most basic form, to get you from point A to point B. The audio system doesn’t help you get from point A to point B, right? Therefore, should the audio system be removed for the sake of simplicity? No. The audio system is left in because it makes the experience of getting from point A to point B more satisfying. The goal of any product design is to reduce everything until you reach the point that satisfaction is not sacrificed.
Some might say, “My product is too complex to remove features.” There are cases where multiple features are combined to make up “the product” — such as an iPhone, as opposed to, say, a spoon. Take, for example, a product with a large number of features: the Vantage Elan, a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) system, manufactured by Toshiba in Japan.
The basic hardware components on an MRI scanner include a graphics window, components of the imager, the superconducting magnet, the gradient coils, the radiofrequency coil, a patient table that has a positioning accuracy of 1 millimeter, the control console and an array processor. Additionally, the software that tells these components how to work with each another is as complex as it is critical to maintain safety.
How on earth do we apply the principle of irreducible simplicity to something so complex?
Here’s how: Apply the principle to each feature of the product on its own. Byapplying the principle to each feature of your product, the product’s gestalt (or the sum of the parts) will remain simple.
In each feature, the Vantage Elan reduces size, power, sound and time but captures incredible high-quality images. This makes the huge machine feel like a simple experience for both doctors and patients — an indication of an excellent product. In our test, I would give the makers of the Vantage Elan an 8.5 for reducing complex components in size, encasing the machine in a round and friendly body, with clean white and baby-blue accents, and maintaining a high-quality image output that will help save lives.
Now, look at your product and apply the principle of irreducible simplicity:
- What single problem does it solve clearly and thoroughly?
- Does each feature solve a single problem clearly and thoroughly?
- What features can be taken away without sacrificing satisfaction?
You’ve read about the central tension between Android and iPhone: an open system versus a closed one. Google allows its users to tinker extensively, allowing full customization of its software, whereas Apple controls the user’s experience by setting up parameters and standards that limit the iPhone’s flexibility. (For example, an iPhone app cannot be programmed to close another app.)
While both mobile providers would argue that their approach is best, they have both created products that make different statements about the principle of immediate intuition. Google is essentially saying, “We’ve made a product that could be more intuitive — and we want you to help us figure it out. Enjoy!” Apple is claiming, “We’ve made a product for which there is no rational alternative. Enjoy!”
The market share split between Android and iPhone suggests Android is more popular (78% to Apple’s 17.8%), but Apple’s 92% profit share in the smartphone industry suggests a stronger product that people are willing to pay more for. This tension highlights that what is intuitive to me might not be intuitive to you. So, remember that, when designing for intuition, empathize with your target customer.
PRODUCT EXAMPLE: THE MATERIOUS CUBBY
After emailing each other for a while, two design professors fell in love. Stephanie and Bruce Tharp felt butterflies over the same passion: that good design is obvious. Their story led them to open Materious, their own independent design studio that produces interesting products, including the Cubby.
How is the Cubby immediately intuitive?
- You don’t need an instruction manual.
- It’s difficult to break.
- A six-year-old would know what to do with it.
- It’s effortless for the mind.
The Materious Cubby performs magnificently across these criteria, and for these reasons, I would give the Materious Cubby a 9.5 out of 10
Analyze your own product against the principle of immediate intuition using the following questions:
- How does using it reduce stress?
- How long would it take someone to fully understand it?
- In what ways can it be improved?
A SECOND DATE
Let’s say you put your dating hat on (or back on) and take an attractive and interested person out to dinner, sharing wine and having a great time. As the night goes on, it dawns on you that this person has an incredible story, a humble self-regard and a genuine heart for others. You stop seeing their physical attractiveness and are now passionately curious to really get to know this person. Hence, a second date. In the same way, when the user of a product unexpectedly discovers beauty underneath (the hidden value), they will want to continue using the product.
A bad product is one that does exactly what it says — and that’s it, no more. Continuing the date analogy, if you instead found the attractive person to be self-absorbed and gossipy, then you would have ended the night with no desire for a second date. Conversely, a good product does exactly what it says, and then adds a “lagniappe.”
If you are an entrepreneur, then you must add this French word to your vocabulary. Lagniappe means “an extra bonus or gift.” A lagniappe is the 13th doughnut in a baker’s dozen. It is the warm chocolate-chip cookie waiting for you on the bed of your DoubleTree hotel room.
Loudcloud introduced cloud computing five or six years too early; people didn’t get it. The Palm Pilot was a breakthrough in the market for personal digital assistants, but Palm didn’t innovate enough to keep up. Instagram, on the other hand, beautifully reduced the clutter in the social photo-viewing experience.
These are stories that demonstrate that, for an innovation to be successful, it must be approachably innovative. Loudcloud’s product was too revolutionary, and it scared or confused people. The Palm Pilot became mundane, which bored or annoyed people. Instagram was approachable — falling right in the middle of the boring-scary scale.