Moses and the 10 commandments of Product Design

Designing a digital product in today’s day and age is a challenging task. With an interesting study indicating a decline in attention spans and a deluge of optional products for users to choose from, product and interaction designers have to increasingly rely on psychological principles to make their product stand out. In this post, I am going to outline 10 principles that you can use as a foundation to build a product based on human-centered-design principles.

The 10 commandments are
  1. People have a life to live outside the realm of your product.
  2. Perceived Performance is more important than actual performance.
  3. Delight your users, you never know what kind of day they might have had.
  4. Design your products to have a personality.
  5. Have empathy for the less fortunate.
  6. Keep user needs at the center of your product design.
  7. Give more, take less.
  8. Decisions, decisions, decisions.
  9. Always account for the power of compounding.
  10. Understand the 'why' of human behaviour instead of only focussing on the 'what'.

In the sections that follow, I describe the significance of each of these principles for building engaging and meaningful products.


1. People have a life to live outside the realm of your product.

As product designers, we are often tasked with making our product more engaging and increase the time spent on our products. We celebrate designs that steal away time from our user's lives and keep them hooked to our product. Although its a fair use case for certain products like games etc, for several others,

it is important to account for how people spend their lives outside of your product to understand why and when they will interact with your product.

What need is your product fulfilling? How does your product get out of the user's way once it has served its purpose. Althogh this may seem counterintutive, its a wildly successful strategy that is in use by one of the biggest internet successes of our generation - Google search. Instead of being a 'know it all', google took the approach of serving its audience by getting out of their way once they find what they need. The fact that they were able to pull it off has a lot more to do with the above principle than luck.

2. Perceived Performance is more important than actual performance.

People can only make sense of what they perceive from their five senses. Its extremely easy to get lost in the details and try to keep improving application performance only to realize that it is never going to be enough. Moreover one can never control the circumstances under which a product will be used(e.g. slower internet connections). There is a well known saying in the computer science world - "Premature optimization is the root of all evil".

Remember that the final platform on which your software runs is your user's mind. If you can optimize for that, you will have achieved your design goals to a much larger degree.

3. Delight your users, you never know what kind of day they might have had.

Delighting your users can take several forms. Start by thinking about the tone of your messages whenever you communicate with the user. Is is human or mechanical? Is it friendly or advisory? Is it witty or banal? Is it humorous or cautinary?

In essence, think about what kind of human emotion will you be evoking as your users interact with your product.

Another way of inducing delight is by encouraging curiousity. Given the shrinking amount of screen real estate with each new innovation(desktop->tablet->wearables), arousing curiosity at different points in the interface is perhaps the only way to provide information in digestible chunks while still remaining relevant to the user's activity.

4. Design your products to have a personality.

Anything that has the capability to communicate exhibits a personality.

Your dog has a personality and so does your cat. Think about the items you purchased - like your car or motorbike, that iron man figure on your desk or that barbie doll in your cupboard. Each of these items has a personality and you feel attached to them because they connect with your emotions in a certain way. Perhaps it was the sound of the engine starting or the inner lighting of the car, the sturdy build of the iron man action figure or the elegant and bright eyes of the barbie doll. Even applications that are not given a personality, have an implicit personality - the one that its users form about it in their mind. Think about what personality you want your product to have and let that be the driving factor for determining all of the interactions in your product.

5. Have empathy for the less fortunate.

Men and women come in all shapes, sizes and colros. However, some of us have not been blessed with the same physical abilities as the rest of us.

As designers, we have a responsibility towards everyone who will use our product.

The emphasis on creating universally usable designs is a bit more on applications that are for a public audience, e.g schools, voting systems, atm machines etc. However, with an increasingly onine world, we should learn to have more empathy for our fellow human beings who are perhaps struggling to use our products.

Never forget the ones who are less able-bodied than you are. Remember that you have the power to have a meaningful impact on their lives.

6. Keep user needs at the center of your product design.

As harsh as it might sound, people care more about themselves than they care about your product. It is one of the reasons why personas play such an important role in human centered design. It helps in thinking about a product in terms of an end user, even if its a hypothetical one. Another reason is that

personas help stakeholders form a shared understanding of the user for whom the product is being designed.

When working with engineers, designers, product managers and CEO's, you are likely to learn that each one of them have a different perspective on how a user might behave, which depends on many factors like their experience, ability, domain etc, culture etc. Designing around a persona helps reduce such conflict in opinion since everyone will have a clear picture of what the end user is going to look like.

7. Give more, take less.

What can your interface do on behalf of the user? Think of ways in which you can reduce the effort of a user when performing any interaction. Given a zipcode, can your interface fill out the city name? Can it insert the hyphens in the text fields when entering a phone number? Can it notify the user when something important happens instead of the user having to ask it? You can also think about this from the perspective of cognition.

  • Are you taxing your users attention?
  • How much visual/physical effort does your user have to perform to complete a task.
  • Can you reduce the short term memory demands are is required time to time to successfully perform certain tasks with your product?

8. Decisions, decisions, decisions.

We are constantly making decisions. Whether it is about what you want to wear today, what you want have for dinner, what next word you want to type in your blog post to what you want to do after you have consumed the information presented to you in a product.

Try to think about what decisions your users are making when using your product? What information can you provide to aid this decision making process? At what point of the interaction does providing additional information add the most value to the user?

9. Always account for the power of compounding.

This is one of the easiest things that get neglected when designing interfaces.

Small actions that are cognitively demanding, when performed repeatedly will compound frustrations over a period of time leading to a bad user experience.

When people say - beauty lies int the details, this is the most important detail that one needs to focus on.

10. Understand the 'why' of human behaviour instead of only focussing on the 'what'.

We are emotional beings.

Behind every human activity, there is an underlying emotion.

Data driven design and usability tests can inform a designer on the 'what' and the 'how' of an interaction, but it doesnt shed any light on 'why' people interact with a product in a certain way. Thats where I have seen most designers do their 'guesswork'. There is only one way in which you can reduce guesswork, and for that I am going to use a quote from the bible

Ask and ye shall receive. Question people on their motivations behind performing certain activities and not only are you likely to learn something new about your product but you may also get a deep insight into problems that your users are facing that you might have never even imagined.


At the heart of these 10 commandments is just one idea - that of designing your products to behave and feel more human like instead of the mechanical and binary bits that it is made up of.

Let me know in the comments how these principles align with your product development strategy.