Image credit: Graham Hicks
8 minute read

At Slack, every one of our processes and features has been designed with the primary goal of making Slack a workplace tool that feels human. We see ourselves as our users’ hosts, and we want them to feel comfortable and happy every time they’re in Slack. Our product isn’t just built for work—it’s built for people doing work, and everything we create is meant to forward our mission of making work life simpler, more pleasant and more productive.

Our job is to understand what people want, and then translate that value through thoughtfully designed, well-functioning products and features.

Against the backdrop of an unprecedented shift to remote work, we’ve seen an influx of people turning to Slack to make the transition to a digital-first workplace. Building thoughtful, intuitive products that add value, delight and human-centric experiences into peoples’ working lives has never been more important.

Product principles are essential guidelines that help teams evaluate work across functions

To ensure we’re meeting our customers where they’re at, we created a set of guiding “product principles” that inform everything we build, and which serve as the foundation for our entire product decision-making process.

There’s business value in improving an organization’s processes, and we’ve been able to provide better experiences for our customers by enacting ever-evolving product principles and using them to evaluate our products and features. Any company can benefit from having product principles — it’s all about how you develop and deploy them across your organization.

Don’t reinvent the wheel

First, what are product principles?

Product principles are essential guidelines that help teams evaluate work across functions, as well as up and down the decision-making chain, by ensuring all work ladders up to the organization’s ultimate goals. Better alignment, in turn, leads to better and faster product decisions.

Product principles should always evolve to keep up with the changing ways you work and what your customers need. At Slack, we currently have five principles that guide us:

  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

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.

The idea of having principles themselves isn’t a new concept, but the creation process behind building and promoting these principles is often overlooked or underdeveloped.

Don’t make me think

Start with your product philosophy

Before building the principles themselves, it’s important to first establish your product philosophy, which will inform how your organization will ultimately view and abide by its principles.

At Slack, we embrace an approach we call “getting to the next hill.” While there is a long-term product strategy, we don’t spend a lot of time debating exactly where we’ll be in one or two years from now. Instead, we focus on more immediate, incremental moves to improve our customers’ working lives.

We’ve found that because Slack is used in so many different ways by so many different companies, it’s better to learn from how our customers use our features than from endlessly debating aspirational future ideas.

Think of building your product as walking through an open land dotted with small hills and towering mountains. When you climb each small hill, you gain a new perspective, which lets you make new and better decisions because you’re able to survey the land. If you attempt to summit Everest, you risk spending a great deal of time scaling it only to realize it’s not the right perspective and that you’d have been better off climbing many smaller hills.

When establishing your product philosophy, think about your company’s ethos: What core value will you provide to your customers? It’s not about specific features, but rather the reason they sought out your product in the first place. Talking with users candidly can help you best understand their essential needs and in turn refine your philosophy. Encourage a mix of people—product managers, designers and engineers—to contribute to this conversation for a more holistic perspective.

Once you’ve established a north star for your organization, from there you can draw the core tenets that lead your product execution.

Be a great host

How to define your principles

Your principles should reflect the approach your organization takes in considering its users’ most fundamental needs. They should map back to not just the product you want to build, but the experience you want to deliver, and ultimately the company you want to be.

Take our principle “Don’t make me think.” It means that all our efforts should serve to ensure that using Slack feels effortless, giving users more time to focus on the work that matters. When we develop products and features, which we do collaboratively with customers using Slack Connect , we think about how they will reduce the amount of cognitive load users encounter every step of the way.

If I’m a person using this feature, is it making my work life simpler? Is that ultimately changing how I work for the better? This is what our users love about Slack, and it’s how we’ve differentiated ourselves. It’s seen not just in our product, but in all aspects of our brand.

Product principles exist to inform execution rather than roadmapping, strategic thinking or planning. They’re best thought of as a checklist to help anticipate feedback to features you’re presenting in review.

Your product principles should be driven by your own perspective as well as the wants and needs of your customers. Here are some questions to ask yourself in creating product principles:

  • Do they map back to my organization’s mission and ethos?
  • Are they succinct? (They should be less than one sentence long.)
  • Do we have an appropriate number of principles? (I would suggest no more than seven.)
  • Are they doable and broadly applicable?
  • Can you visualize each team meaningfully implementing them into their work?
  • Do they help provide guardrails for common issues where we tend to get off-track?

Take bigger bolder bets

Establish and integrate principles into your organization

Your principles are only as good as the practices you use to implement them. Product managers and designers at Slack reference them in weekly workshops where projects are shared at every stage. We’ve even created custom illustrations (which are shown in this article) and associated emojis respective to each principle, which we use regularly as a quick-fire stamp of approval or visual reminder, ensuring their inclusion is never far from our thoughts.

For startups, defining your principles early will ensure they become part of the folklore of your products and ingrained into all facets of the business. If your organization is more established, you can still build a set of guiding principles, but you’ll need to create an internal promotion strategy to ensure everyone in your organization buys into them. No matter the size of your business, it’s critical to designate clear checkpoints for assessing your work against the principles.

Product principles should be company-wide, not siloed into the product or design team. At Slack, for example, we launched a company-wide rollout campaign with emoji, leaflets, stickers, boards and more. By making everyone aware of the principles, businesses can ensure cohesive thinking is in place throughout every stage of product development.

That’s a taste of how we deploy our principles at Slack, but organizations of all types and sizes should establish and roll out the principles in a way that reflects their unique business goals.

Prototype the path

Always be evolving

It’s vital to remember that product principles remain a work-in-progress and are never static. Technology uses and needs change, as do users’ expectations—and we are constantly learning new things about ourselves and our customers.

If principles work within an organization, and people embrace them, then they’re worth keeping. If a principle doesn’t take hold, it’s important to observe how it’s being used in the business and tune it based on your findings.

Much like a business itself, your product principles should be treated as a living thing that can forever be improved. The more you use them, debate them and understand them, the more aligned you’ll be and the more effective they’ll become.

This blog post was first published on Tech Crunch
Illustrations by Graham Hicks