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Fundamental Principles

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author's note:

The purpose of this chapter is to provide a cluster of high-order principles that can be applied when interpreting and using the design patterns and best practices identified throughout the rest of the collection.

It begs the question whether there are any fundamental patterns or principles and if so, are we identifying the most salient ones.

What are we missing?

In A Timeless Way of Building, Christopher Alexander explains the purpose of pattern languages in part by saying that they are about imbuing built spaces with "the quality without a name." There is something, often something ineffable, about some architectural spaces that make them inviting, warm, humane, comfortable, healthy, and alive. Analyzing these spaces may tell us that the seating area is built on a good scale or that the lighting helps foster small groups conversations, but underlying these granular design decisions are some higher order principles that can be applied across the board.

Metaphorically, online social spaces operate similarly. A well designed sign-up flow will have a real direct impact on whether people feel invited and encouraged to join and capable of doing so. That may be one specific interface you will need to define for your site. But internalizing some higher level principles first can help you make better design decisions as you get down to the details.

So before delving deeply into all of the specific design decisions you're going to make when creating a new site or application, it can be helpful to take a step back and think about what underlying principles will help make your project successful. How can you create a space that invites healthy participation from users, grows organically, and creates value that is greater than the sum of its parts?

The home page YouTube creates for me after I've used it for a while and signed up for an account employs a number of different strategies to engage my attention, invite my participation, and to try to encourage me to explore some of the more social aspects of the site. Can you identify any social design principles at work here?

We've identified a few principles that are as close to universal as possible. Most or all successful social websites and apps exhibit these factors. They can help you decide how and when to apply the more tactical design patterns we'll be explaining throughout the rest of the book, too.

One common characteristic of social sites is that they must strive to work for everyone (that is to say, everyone in the target audience). They can't necessarily be tailored to a specific, narrow niche. But how do you cut across the variations in your user group? You can’t please everybody. In fact, user experience design inherently involves tradeoffs. So how do you cast as wide a net as possible and include as many people as possible?