Successful products and services are those with a definite point of view, those that avoid an identity crisis by knowing exactly what they're not.

Government Digital Service (GDS) has garnered much praise for its transparent and reasoned approach to design.

And whilst smaller organisations may not need ten principles (like GDS), those with a distinctive approach to digital experiences are gaining competitive advantage.

Here's a revealing case study, from a tech startup founded in 2011, that I think provides food for thought for any business creating new online services.

GoCardless

At #canvasconf last week, I listened to Tom Petty, Head of UX and Design at GoCardless.

Tom detailed how the team at GoCardless went about creating a new product and defining design principles in the process.

Creating a new product

Initially, the company had two products; a Direct Debit payment dashboard for small companies and an API allowing integration with large corporations such as The Guardian and Trip Advisor.

The challenge was to cater for those companies that were falling down the gap. These were companies that didn't want full integration but needed more control than the small business product provided.

Whilst there was a rationale for developing a new product, the team knew the danger in creating a middle option which might be all things to all people.

gocardless on mobile

People, provocations, principles

In designing this new product, the GoCardless team followed a loose philosophy that Tom termed 'people, provocations, principles'.

'People' is about knowing who the customers (merchants) are who will use this new product. Design necessitates deep knowledge of the prospective user and GoCardless needed to know exactly what sort of companies they would be targeting.

Provocations (or questions - though sadly this doesn't start with a P) refers to how a company can respond to a customer's needs. Tom discussed the creation of a product roadmap constructed out of customer questions, rather than merely product functions or presumed answers.

This roadmap of questions allows for much more focused and relevant product development, as a form of customer problem solving. 

Creating principles that can be disagreed with

Design principles should be framed as decisions. They need to be points of view that can be disagreed with.

Phrases such as 'keep things simple' do not convey an opinion (who would opt to overcomplicate for the sake of it?) and the GoCardless team took a while to come up with principles they could stand by.

Looking at other companies for inspiration, Tom cited Amazon's brand principle of 'investment over profits' as an example of a definite point of view, one that other companies may disagree with or even flip on its head.

So, after much trial and error, GoCardless settled on three design principles. Tom highlighted how they have to be memorable (perhaps make them rhyme), otherwise they will be quickly filed away and forgotten, rather than becoming rules to work by.

  • Small users over all users
    • Start simple and hide the gnarly stuff. Customers should land at a product aimed for the small business, then can gradually take control of more features.
    • One example of this is the ability to sign up to the service by adding the minimum required information. With this principle, small users are not allenated by a complex product.
  • Attention over retention
    • Design to prioritise features that demand attention. Don’t take users down the rabbit hole, give them what they need first and allow these functions to be performed as quickly as possible.
  • Hammer over the handyman
    • Focus on doing one thing really well. Be the best at recurring payments, don't diversify into loans, invoicing, analytics, commerce, or become a bank.

GoCardless website

Organisational culture

This is just a short case study about design principles, but I thought GoCardless' three principles were eloquent enough to provide food for thought for companies in the midst of organisational change

Celebrating the fact that you can’t please all of the people all of the time is a necessity when defining great digital products for a defined audience.

In organisations still failing to compete in digital and wondering how to meet the needs of customers online, creating new design principles may be one vital weapon in the Chief Digital Officer's arsenal.

Ben Davis

Published 29 October, 2015 by Ben Davis @ Econsultancy

Ben Davis is Editor at Econsultancy. He lives in Manchester, England. You can contact him at ben.davis@econsultancy.com, follow at @herrhuld or connect via LinkedIn.

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