Daniel Hooper on Principle and Prototyping

The past several years have seen an explosion in the number and quality of prototyping tools available for interface design. Framer, Origami, Pixate, Invision, Marvel, and more — all have helped propel our industry out of the stagnant world of static mock-ups.

The latest entrant to the prototyping space is Principle, created by former Apple engineer Daniel Hooper. In the few weeks since it was launched, Principle has been lauded for its speed, ease-of-use, and resemblance to familiar design tools like Sketch. We spoke to Daniel about the state of the industry, the process and business behind creating tools for designers, and the challenges of finishing a project of Principle’s scale.

The past few years have seen the release of a lot of new prototyping tools — Pixate, Framer, etc. Where do you see Principle fitting into that landscape?

These tools all allow designers to make interactive designs without a huge amount of investment, but each tool has different tradeoffs. Principle’s goal was to make a tool that used techniques familiar to designers to create powerful interactions. Principle looks and acts just like vector programs that designers are used to – this approach lets designers focus on what they’re designing, rather than the machinery used to create the design.

How did your experience as a software engineer inform the development of Principle?

I approached Principle like I was designing a new programming language: I wanted it to have few features that could be combined in powerful ways. I try to resist the urge to add single purpose features – from the outside this may look like I’m arbitrarily withholding “simple” features, but it’s really because I want to find an underlying general approach. The benefits to designing this way is that Principle is easier to develop, and is easier to learn.

Tell us about the research process. Did you talk to designers, engineers, other potential users?

Initially I did a lot of in-person interviews with designers, just trying to understand how they worked and why. I had a fairly good understanding of their process from working with designers at Apple, but these interviews let me ask the “5 whys” to get to the heart of the issues facing designers. All throughout the development process I would watch designers use Principle, which dramatically influenced the final design.

How did you get your first users?

Fortunately, really great designers found out about Principle’s teaser website and signed up for the early access, even without any advertising. This was a good testing ground for Principle in a larger and more diverse user base. I didn’t even consider shipping Principle before I got traction here.

What’s been the most valuable user feedback so far?

It’s been really helpful to see what types of things the broader design community is trying to make — it’s reinforced some of Principle’s future plans, and reprioritized others.  

How do you avoid the temptation to keep polishing the product endlessly?

This is something I’m still learning to do. I have a friend at Apple that felt Principle was ready for release several months ago, and for a while all he would say was “ship it” whenever I tried to talk to him. haha. 

How do you prevent feature-creep and ensure you’re maintaining Principle’s focus?

There is a clear plan for where I’d like Principle to go, so I’m focused on getting there – I think that’s the best thing you can do for a product is have a clear goal to work towards. For anything outside of this plan, I need to have personally “felt the pain” in order to prioritize it – I can’t design well unless I have a personal understanding of the pain point I’m trying to solve.

There’s that graph floating around showing the phases of having an idea, including the low point — the “dark night of the soul.” What was that for Principle, and how did you push through it?

The Life of a Project

Taken from the book “Steal Like an Artist,” by Austin Kleon

There was a very distinct time in January where nothing was working with the design. User studies were going terribly: despite a lot of effort, Principle wasn’t “clicking” with designers. It wasn’t clear if the design would ever work. In hindsight, it’s clear that Principle had this problem because I was forcing what I believed was a superior design even when the user studies said otherwise. It took this low point to encourage me to try a couple dramatically different approaches, one of which eventually became what you see today.

What do you think is the biggest challenge facing the digital design industry today?

Education. There are a lot of UI designers that come from graphic design backgrounds and value looks over usability. You take a single glance at a product and subconsciously make judgment calls about it’s visual design whereas the interaction takes time to understand. As prototyping tools evolve, designers will need to be equipped with the theory behind interaction and have a good understanding of animation and psychology as well.

You can check out Principle, and take its fully-featured free trial for a spin, at the Principle website.

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