Design principles at Nubank

How German genius Dieter Rams’ axioms of good design helped to build the image of a Latin American fintech.

Nubank has grown from living-room sized startup to a much larger and sophisticated organization over the last three years. This growth has impacted many teams, and design is no exception.

To help us navigate this fast-paced transformation, our team started exploring ways to define better and monitor more effectively what we believe design should be at Nubank, regardless of scale, direction, external opinions, or trends. One of the measures we took was to get together and write down our own set of design principles.

Inspiration

Dieter Rams (Photo: Abisag Tüllmann).

Design principles are not new. Dieter Rams’ famous 10 principles of good design, formulated during the seventies, were useful not only to his team at Braun but also as a teaching tool and a personal message to the outside world about what he believed led to better-designed products. Needless to say, this list has become such timeless advice that it now hangs on walls of designers who build all types of products around the world, both in physical and digital media.

More recently, Facebook’s design team has also published its set of seven principles. The similarities and contrasts between Rams’ and Facebook’s principles show the value behind the exercise. The clarity of a simple list allows both employees and outsiders to empathize with the challenges designers face in each case.

For Dieter, the challenge was to ensure his client’s consumer goods followed a particular order, harmony and economy of production. For Facebook, the list serves as a practical baseline of what a global app with billions of users needs: accessibility, speed, consistency and adaptability to any cultural background or technology. 

The list goes on: Google, Asana, Microsoft, and even the UK Government have invested in defining guidelines for maintaining high standards in their designs. By looking at these and other lists, we’ve realized that the process of discussing and writing principles could have a lot of value in itself, regardless of the result. This is one of the reasons why we decided to give it a try. 

The goals behind writing our design principles

Here are some other reasons why we believed in writing a list of principles:

Align our practice with the company’s values

Corporate values are a vital tool to keep the company’s direction consistent. However, they don’t always translate directly to design, and it’s not always clear how to make design decisions based on them. Having a separate but aligned list of design principles allows us to keep in touch with the core values while making consistent technical decisions.

Establish the team’s shared vision

The list helps the design team keep a common ground of what we believe good design is for Nubank as a product, regardless of individual opinions, skills, interests, and backgrounds. Also, writing something down collectively was, in itself, an invaluable exercise of team bonding and exchanging of ideas.

Communication

Similarly to Rams, we felt the need to communicate to other non-design teams what design is, how it can best serve the company’s goals, and how to assess if a project decision will lead to good or poor design. A list of principles shares a lot of the same benefits as personas. There’s a lot of value in having something you can present, point to, and bring to meetings whenever needed.

Empowerment

We try to treat our principles as “lines on the sand” we’ll not cross, as professionals. By having them, we keep a reminder that we have the right to question demands, especially when they come in a way we think could be prejudicial or unethical for our profession or team. We do, for example, challenge requests that misunderstand the design team for an internal agency or “polish factory.”

Critique

As a team, principles help us reflect on more solid, logical arguments when giving feedback to a colleague’s work in a way that is not only based on personal opinions. They also serve as a checklist that we can use to assess a project’s health and direction, both during the process and after the results are out. 

Enough context for now. Let’s get to the list.

Our principles

1. Start early

Start designing as soon as possible, and deeply understand the reason why. Being involved in early strategic decisions allows for rapid experimentation and innovation.

Start early: qualitative research at the very beginning of a project.

2. Co-create

Find ways to collaborate more and often. Understand customers’ and coworkers’ perspectives about the problem and iterate frequently.

Co-create. Activity with people with different specializations: product management, communications, analysis, design and engineering.

3. Go beyond

Discover the unexpected and challenge yourself and our product. Look beyond the problem we are trying to solve. The immediate answer might not be ideal. Learn as much as you can from each iteration and push for frequent validation and improvement.

Go beyond. Nubank users can temporarily block their card if it goes missing. Not the kind of feature that comes immediately into mind.

4. Context

We need to think hard and connect to the context in which people are using our services. People adapt to — and are affected by — their technologies and environment.

Context. Field research day at the University of São Paulo’s campus.

5. Humanize

We build for millions of different, diverse individual humans. Empathize with users’ pains, demographics, and culture; understand their needs and emotions to create experiences that feel as natural as possible, encouraging trust and responsibility.

Humanize. One-to-one conversations about financial life pain points.

Next

How do we keep ourselves attentive and responsive to our design principles? After all, they’re something that should continuously be in our minds, and not hidden away in some text document.

One of the small initiatives we took was to create a bot on Slack that reminds us of one principle every afternoon. Soon, we plan on having physical posters hanging around the office, and also to have them printed in other swags like t-shirts, notebooks, etc. 

slackbot reminders

This post couldn’t end, though, without saying that these principles will be in constant evolution, just like our team and Nubank as a company. Dieter Rams himself took at least a decade, while lecturing across Europe, to formulate the ten principles as we know them today, a process he also considers to be inherently a continuous effort:

Design principles are a helpful means of orientation and understanding. They are not binding. Good design is in a constant state of redevelopment –just like technology and culture are. — Dieter Rams

Thanks for reading! In future posts, we’ll be referring back to these principles as we share practical examples of how we apply them in our daily practice.

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