First Principles for Product Design –

Complexity is beauty

Product design is an extremely complex domain. Similar to the photo above, there are many, many things to consider and they are in no obvious order. What should we do under such uncertainty? The very same thing that person above should do: Look for a North Star.

Bad news is that there is not a replica of the North Star for product design. We can’t just look up to a celestial wonder to show us the right way. But the good news is that we can come up with our own North Stars thanks to a scientific approach called First Principles. Simply put, First Principles are the most basic truths that we can always trust and build new ideas on top of. It’s a scientific approach re-popularised by Elon Musk. (Since we are on the topic, Charlie Munger has a similar approach.)

First Principles help us find the way to go when we have no clear evidence. To be honest, this is almost always the case with product design. For some this uncertainty is the dark, stressful side of product design and for others, like myself, it is the fun, exciting side. Who knows, maybe the difference between the two camp is as simple as having a set of First Principles or not.

Following are my First Principles for Product Design.

1. Product Basics

“Put users in the center… and business right next to it.”

Why? Because if we only focus on the user and disregard business goals then it’ll be impossible for the company to survive. And no, it is not a good solution to think of users first, business later. Because then we can’t incorporate business requirements naturally enough and disturb user experience to meet business requirements.

“Work in an iterative, flexible and collaborative manner.”

Compared to more established professions like mechanical engineering or architecture, software design and development are very young. There are lots of unknowns and very little precision. Additionally, the ultra fast evolving user needs and competition leave us no choice but working in an iterative and flexible way. We also need collaboration to manage this level of uncertainty. We need developers to provide technical insights so that product people can make trade off decisions (as in “cut feature A to release Y days earlier”) and more importantly help product people — or anyone product people collaborate with, improve user experience in ways we can never imagine since the focus is always on business and user.

Related references

5 Planes of User Experience Design according to JJG

5 Planes of UX Design— Jesse James Garrett

This is an oldie but a goldie. With 5 Planes, JJG shows us how we should make the very low level interface decisions based on high level strategy which is the key to consistency.

Another thing I love about 5 Planes is that it reminds us that UX design isn’t just about the user. Company goals are crucial to UX design, too. Why? Read here.

Agile Manifesto

Agile Manifesto — Several Authors

I HATE Scrum but I LOVE Agile. Especially how it prioritises people and working product over everything else.

Especially the part about responding to change is being exploited but that’s people’s mistake not Agile’s.


Lean Startups— Steve Blank

Blank’s human centered approach on finding the product — market fit and insights on startup management are the main reasons I love his work.

Blank puts customers at the center because the most important problem with startups isn’t that they can’t build great products but they build great products that nobody wants. And he doesn’t stop there. He has the full roadmap showing the path from an idea to building a sustainable business.

2. Psychology & Social Psychology

“Remember, we are not designing things. We are designing behaviors.”

All products attempt to change, create or reinforce certain behaviors. The “things” we design are just means' to those ends. That’s why we, the product people, should have a strong understanding of psychology and social psychology.

Related references

Six Principles of Persuasion— Robert Cialdini

Another oldie but goldie. A product is an attempt to persuade people. All those research, ideation, design, optimisation… is done to persuade people to use our products.

Cialdini lays out six universal principles of persuasion in his book. To expand his research, he worked as a marketer, salesperson etc. and experienced his principles first hand.

Two Systems, Heuristics and Biases— Daniel Kahneman

Kahneman, a Nobel Prize winner, has the full picture of how people think. Really. The full picture. Two systems thinking is not a brand new approach however the heuristics and biases he lists in the book are groundbreaking. They are quite practical, too.

This book helps with understanding where people can go wrong and how to prevent or make use of it. Making use of biases isn’t always a bad thing. If our product help people to stay healthy then making use of biases is a good thing. And vice versa.

BMAT, Tiny Celebrations, MIP and Many More — BJ Fogg

BJ Fogg provides very practical theories on the nature of behaviour and how to motivate people to do things. His theories are quite helpful for designing habit creating products.

My favorites from Fogg are:

  1. BMAT: Behavior = Motivation + Ability + Trigger: Pretty self explanatory. If we want a behavior to happen we need MAT.
  2. Tiny Celebrations: This one explains how tiny celebrations like saying well done to ourselves or giving ourselves a thumbs up or telling ourselves that we did a good job etc. helps with doing more of those behaviors we just celebrated. This is a perfect explanation for why we should provide as much positive feedback as possible to our users.
  3. MIP: Mass Interpersonal Persuasion. This model explains how new technology (think social networks and mobile) makes large scale persuasion extremely fast. I wrote a detailed piece on how MIP and Gamification comes together for growth hacking.

Flow— Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (from his book: Flow)

Flow State is when we lose track of time while doing something and Flow Model explains how we enter into the Flow State. It is an awesome tool to understand how to keep people motivated even for seemingly repetitive tasks.


Csikszentmihalyi starts his research to understand why some people are happy at work and others are not. What he finds is that the ones who are really happy have a common point: They all describe a state of mind where they lose track of time. Those happy people repeatedly use word “flow” to describe this state, hence the name of model.

Flow Model tells us that in order to be engaged in the long term, challenges we meet should match our skills and they should get more and more difficult in parallel to development of our skills. On top of that we need clear goals and immediate feedback along the way.

Hooked — Nir Eyal (from his book: Hooked)

from RJ Metrics Blog

Csikszentmihalyi (what a name!) showed us what flow is and Eyal teaches us how to make people to come back even though they don’t experience flow. Retention is the key for any product’s success. Be it a startup or a large enterprise. Eyal researches the most addictive products like Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter etc. and comes up with Hooked.

His model is based on BJ Fogg’s BMAT. I also see that the model benefits from Fogg’s Tiny Celebrations and Cialdini’s Reciprocity principle. It is the most important tool in my gamification design toolbox.

Hook has four components:

  1. Trigger: Either intrinsic (e.g. getting bored and checking Instagram or seeing a gourmet friend on Facebook and ordering pizza) or extrinsic (e.g. buy now or subscribe etc. call to actions), we need a trigger to start the action.
  2. Action: The simplest behavior corresponding to the trigger. The simpler the behavior the more likely people get addicted.
  3. Reward: Almost any kind of variable feedback we get in return of our actions.
  4. Investment: Now that we are rewarded, we are much more likely to go the extra mile. Followed someone on Instagram, follow another one similar to her. Added someone on Linkedin, add another one similar.

3. Product Management

“You can’t manage, nor improve, what you don’t measure. ”

Measurement is at the core of management and lean. We need it to observe the results of our decisions and course correct. However, we should never forget that measurement itself is not enough to design products. It’s a step, a very important one indeed but not the whole story.

Related references

Objectives and Key Results — Andy Grove, John Doerr

When it comes to building products, there is so much emphasis on business goals and user needs that we forget about people who actually build the product.

OKRs recognise employee goals (like learning new things and working on areas of interest) and provides a model to satisfy employee goals as well as company goals.

OKRs help companies create a shared understanding of their mission and show how each individual contributes. I am really having trouble to cut it here but I have to. Otherwise this article will turn into an OKR article.

Lean And Agile — The Spotify Way

To me, the way Spotify marries Lean and Agile is the epitome of product design and management. Simply put, Agile answers how to build products and Lean answers what to build. (And OKRs ensure we know the Why) If we know what to build and how and why to build it then there is not much to discuss but to get the job done. (I hear you thinking “timing is important too”. Yes, it is. And it is embedded in How part of it.)

AARRR — Dave McClure

McClure’s model (also called Pirate Metrics) is a universal model to track customer life cycle. AARRR reminds us that product design isn’t only about designing new, big products but also optimising and what we currently have and thus growing. From marketing to customer support, there is a lot to optimise before building any thing new to so that we grow. AARRR bases it all on customer life cycle. This is a very human centered approach, I’d say. Additionally, I like how it considers metrics beyond conversion by considering referrals which fuels growth.

Kano Model— Noriaki Kano

from Mind The Product

Kano Model provides a universal feature segmentation and prioritisation model. It brilliantly illustrates how users perceive features. When we couple Kano Model with a Value vs. Cost matrix then it’s (almost) the ultimate prioritisation method. Additionally, Pareto Principle and Occam’s Razor are very helpful when it comes to decision making.

Digital Marketing and Measurement Model — Avinash Kaushik

I like DMMM because unlike popular marketing methods, it doesn’t put tactics at the core. Instead, Kaushik’s model maps marketing efforts directly to business goals and the very reason the business exists. Implicitly, it drives marketers to think more about user needs and context. Thus, it provides a common ground for marketers and product people to think about the business.

High Tempo Testing Framework — Sean Ellis

Most growth professionals understand that growth hacking isn’t about a specific tactic, but rather it’s about a process of discovering which tactics will be effective for growing your business. — Sean Ellis

This process oriented approach is the reason I love High Tempo Testing and when we actually look at the details of the framework we’ll see that it’s quite similar to design thinking or lean ux methods but focused on finding test ideas and implementing those very, very fast.

Ellis also talks about a couple gamified tactics they used to generate ideas which is like the icing on the cake.

4. Design

“Ask ‘why?’ and answer with a test (not with an idea) as fast as possible.”

As we talked in the beginning, there is extreme uncertainty in software design and development. And the best way to mitigate this problem is testing as fast and as cheap as possible. However, we can’t solve even the easiest of the problems if we don’t frame it well. That’s where asking why comes in to play. It helps us find the core of the problem and thus test and answer the right thing.

“Don’t re-invent the wheel… unless you have to.”

The age old question of “what is the difference between art and design?” also answers why we shouldn’t re-invent the wheel when it comes to design. Design is to solve problems in the best (what the best is needs to be defined for each individual problem) way possible. Some level of character is a must for design, true. But the purpose there, again, is solving a problem. This time not for the user but for the company: We need users to be able to recognize our brands. Not the designer behind. Design is not for the designer to produce Dribbble worthy outcomes. It is for problem solving and there are lots of well established solutions to common problems. It’s insane we forget making use of them.

So, unless we have to invent something new, we are much better off using patterns, heuristics and principles without forgetting to adjust them to the problem at hand. This way, we’ll give people (both users and business owners) what they want: Familiar Done Differently.

Related references

MVP — by Y Combinator

from YC

Often times MVP is referred as the smallest product possible. That’s wrong. Very, very wrong. MVP is the smallest effort to validate an assumption. Preferably, the riskiest assumption. It doesn’t even have to be a product. Y Combinator, being usual Y Combinator, describes what it is perfectly. Approaching MVP as a process is genius and that is the very reason I put it under Design Principles.

As said in the beginning, product design is full of uncertainties. That is why we need First Principles. And that’s why we need to identify what we don’t know, make assumptions and start testing around to course correct until we reach a truth. We should keep in mind that it might turn out to be totally different than what we thought it’d be. There is no harm in that. We shouldn’t try to validate our own ideas. We should be open minded and brave enough to accept that we can be wrong in order to find what is right. MVP is the best way to achieve this.

5 Whys — Sakichi Toyoda

The funniest, toughest and the most fruitful of all the questions -except when it is annoying like this. (Watch until the end. It’s brilliant. Louis CK is a philosopher disguised as a comedian)

Asking “why?” may be the only thing we need to carve the essence out of any thing. It seems easy but requires a lot of courage to ask it 5 times in a row. But if we take it seriously and keep asking “why?” then magical things happen. We’ll see how people become more open, how they think harder and get real, how they overcome some of their biases and come to some serious realizations. I personally made a couple CEOs give up some “very important” feature ideas of their own simply by asking “Why?”

10 Principles of Good Design — Dieter Rams

10 Usability Heuristics for User Interface Design — Jakob Nielsen

First Principles of Interaction Design — Bruce Tognazzini

Material Design — Google

These four, ordered from least tactical to most tactical, provides %80 of the fundamentals a designer would need. It’s crazy that so many talented designers defy logic and disregard these basics.

We all know Rams and Nielsen. So, I’ll pass them. However, Tog’s First Principles are gold. The list is very comprehensive. Tog touches everything from user psychology to aesthetics.

I am not a fan of floating buttons and giant full-width, extended height app bars. They aren’t that important, either. What I love about Material Design is that it has familiar physical principles (3d world, movement and shadows etc.) which makes it very intuitive and likeable. It uses motion meaningfully, it isn’t afraid of using big, bold interface elements, it is consistent through platforms… Again, Dribbblification produces some very nice to look at but not so nice to use examples and sells it as Material Design but that doesn’t mean Material Design is bad. It’s just people using it wrong.

Tone of Voice — NNG

Copywriting for UX— Talissa Chang

I care deeply about copywriting. It is the most overlooked part of design and ironically has the highest return on investment because it is much less costly to test and iterate on it. So, the first link is for more of a brand level guide and the second one is for the nitty gritty part of product design. That is the part where people really experiences the product itself and need us to be very clear, concise and consistent.

5. Brand Strategy

“Know what branding promises and go beyond it.”

A product, to a user, is a whole. Branding, design, marketing, usability… all these are distinctions we have in our minds not in users’. We can’t just focus on the concrete, functional part of products and expect to delight our users. To delight people we not only need to live up to our promises but go beyond them. And that starts with branding. Brand is a promise made to the users. And product tries to live up to it. If we don’t control what’s promised then we risk failing even with the best of the products.

Related references

Three Levels of ProductPhilip Kotler

Kotler has a user centered and product driven approach to marketing. To me, this model shows how research, design and marketing come together to create the whole user experience. Model also explains why sometimes seemingly inferior products have higher levels of user satisfaction.

Three Levels of Product (sometimes called as Five Product Levels) unifies mostly contradicting departments (product and marketing) and helps a lot with creating a holistic product strategy.

Brand Key — Unilever

Brand Key encompasses all the aspects of brand positioning. It has nine building blocks which covers things ranging from consumer targets to brand essence. It’s the perfect answer to the question of “How do we construct a brand?”

Brand Strategy for Startups — Several Tools

Three Levels of Product and Brand Key are great models for constructing the “why”. This article of mine shows “how” and “what” of brand strategy.


My mind, work and life are strongly shaped by these above. I find extreme value in following these principles. However, there is no such thing as blindly following principles and achieving success. We need intuition, judgement and courage to make the hard decisions. Principles can’t make decisions. They just provide us help making decisions. Otherwise, this job wouldn’t be fun at all. Would it?

Author: Akar Sumset

Collect by: