Goals, Principles and Patterns, Oh My

A couple years ago I had the good fortune to hear Jeremy Keith give a talk at An Event Apart. During his talk he spoke about three important factors that make up our work – Goals, Principles and Patterns. Unfortunately it seems that all too often many of us only tend to the Goals and Patterns of our work. The WHAT we do and the HOW we do it.

What about Principles? The WHY to our HOW and WHAT. Why do principles seem to get overlooked, neglected or all together forgotten in the day to day of our work? Are they really just not important? Or, is it because they, can at times, make our work more difficult?

Principles – The Secret Sauce of Success

It’s easy to get caught up in the latest technologies, design trends or development methods to reach our goals. But how do you know if you’re choices are the right ones? That’s where principles come in and keep you on track.

Everybody wants to do a responsive website today. Why? Unfortunately for some it’s simply a matter of “everyone else is doing it, so I want it.” How do you know if responsive is actually right for your project? Principles. Principles can tell you if responsive is the right choice and whether or not you’ve implemented it in the best possible way?

The key benefit to responsive is that it allows your content to reshape itself to fit virtually any screen size. That’s pretty much it. So if your only principle is “I need my new site to fit any size screen.” then job done. But how often are business requirements ever that simple?

What if you had a set of principles that read something like this for your web project? “The site should reach the broadest possible audience on the broadest range of devices. The site must load quickly and send only the appropriate content and optimized images. The content must be accessible from any type of device including those for people with physical impairments. The sites message should feel like a conversation, not lecture.”

Is responsive alone going to be enough to satisfy those principles? Not so much. How might principles like those affect your pattern choices or your entire decision making process for that matter? How much better would the site be if you fulfilled all those principles?

What Gets Measured, Gets Done

When principles are clearly defined then things become easy to measure. A simple principle like “The site needs to load quickly.” suddenly makes performance a design and business requirement. A requirement that can be measured to determine success. With principles defined the patterns we choose can be looked at through a filter to determine their fitness for our site.

Another common design pattern these days is a hero slider on home pages. With a set of principles like those above suddenly many slider solutions become less than ideal choices for our site. They may not scale to fit smaller screens or they download larger images than necessary for mobile devices. If we have our principles spelled out it makes it easy to assess the appropriateness of a possible solution.

Put it in Writing

Putting your principles down in written form only serves to solidify them. Not just for you but for everyone involved with a project. Once everyone knows the rules there’s both accountability and freedom for all decisions made.

Just because your principles are in writing doesn’t mean that they can’t or shouldn’t change as needed. It means change happens on conscious level and is done, hopefully, with the knowledge, consent, and agreement of all stakeholders. Write those changes down and make clear the reason for the changes.

Remember, principles are not meant to be dogmas. They serve to offer guidance and clarity. They are best when they are written collaboratively and shared with everyone. Don’t assume that because you’ve mentioned your principles to others that they will remember them and understand them as you do.

Getting Everyone on the Same Page

Maybe the greatest benefit of principles, especially if they are created with the input of all involved, is that they put everyone on the same page. They remove ambiguity and promote clarity of purpose amongst the team. When a team is aligned on the principles of a projects, individuals are empowered to work autonomously without loosing site of the big picture. The shared vision and understanding that principles provide makes teamwork more efficient and effective.

Good principles are clear in their purpose. They act as a Commander’s Intent of sorts. When done well, everyone will not only know what needs to be done but how to do it in the best possible way. And, they will need little or no oversight to get it done.

Before you jump to HOW you will reach your GOAL, take time to write WHY you’re doing it. Define the principles that will define success.

As always, I’d love to here your thoughts on the matter. I really like to here what principles you use in your daily work.

NOTE: the video linked at the top is to a similar talk to the one he gave at the An Event Apart conference I attended. Sorry I couldn’t find the one from that conference.

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Mike Donahue

Just a guy that's passionate about creating useful, usable and desirable experiences for all humans. I love nature and wildlife photography, it's my source of artistic expression and inner peace. I live and play in South Florida with my wife Nikki and our girls (dogs) Layla and Cassidy.

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