Why you, as a designer, should know the domain you are working in, not just base your choices on user insight.
5 min read
By Stine Marie Hjetland
December 20, 2019
In creative problem solving “a new set of eyes” and a “new perspective” are always welcome. In times of a creative drought, bringing in a person from the outside to help generate ideas can be smart. Why? Because this person has no constraints based on what is possible or not. She or he sees possibilities, not limitations, and doesn’t know the domain well enough to have that automatic filter that eliminates ideas. Using “outsiders” as kickstarters and idea generators can be helpful. However, when working on creative problem solving over time (often a designer’s job) you have to know the domain you’re in, and you have to know it well!
Domain knowledge will help you to be aware of ripples you create, prioritize correctly and help the organisation and product to evolve.
User needs are the designer’s responsibility, but user insight alone doesn’t cover the knowledge you require to accommodate these needs. You have to know the purpose of the service or system you work with, the business goals of the supplier, the supplier’s market, as well as other external factors. This knowledge will help you solve problems in a better way. Here’s why:
1 Creating Ripples\ What you do as a designer creates ripples in the system, service, or environment it is implemented in. If you don’t know the domain, you also don’t know the extent of the area you are influencing.
2 Prioritization\ Knowledge helps you prioritize correctly. What is low cost and high value? Both for the customer and the business.
3 Evolution\ Build on what you know to move the service further. It doesn’t mean you have to stay trapped in old tracks.
As a designer you are a problem solver, not a problem maker. To avoid making new problems when implementing a solution, you have to have a holistic approach in finding the solution and really know the world you are navigating in. Whether you’re an Interaction Designer solving problems in an IT-context or you are a Service Designer creating new customer journeys in a public service, your design will have ripple effects. Seeing user needs in isolation can lead you towards the best solution for the end users, but it might not be the best overall solution if the company starts losing money. Then no one is left with anything in the end.
The world is not a perfect system (as I believed as a kid). No one has that ultimate control, looking over everything to assure that the world is running smoothly. So we need people who can look up and see connections and dependencies to help new, old and changed services to run complementary side by side.
Wait what? Isn’t this service design?\ Of course this help blur the lines between design titles. Where should the Interaction Designer draw the line on what to care about in her work? Hence, the discussion on where an Interaction Designer stops and the Service Designer starts. But, as Helen discussed in the first article of this calendar, no matter what title you have, if your work includes creative problem solving you should solve problems as a part of a whole, not part by part. To do so, you have to know your domain.
A problem can often be divided into smaller problems. By seeing the whole picture you are more likely to understand what part should be solved first. As a designer, you should take part in the prioritizing process by fighting for the prioritization of user needs. However, if you don’t have enough knowledge about the domain you can’t prioritize correctly. Without the greater picture, you will only be able to say “this is important because...” instead of “this is more important than that, because…”
Yes, knowing the requirements and restrictions of the industry can limit your ideas to what you already know ...oooor, combined with the right tools it can help you come up with even better ideas that advance your organisation.
""When ideas are only watered with user insights, it doesn’t give them much of a foundation to grow on. Without the fertilizer of industry knowledge, your concepts are only skin-deep and have no real impact on the core business."
- Linda C. Halvorsen, Practice Lead at Bekk
Create impact by combining user insight with domain knowledge.
There are many creative ways to unlock your brain and develop new features even though you already know the technical limitations of a system. Isn’t this exactly what a designer does? Introducing tools to help people think outside of that box? We even have a specific approach for when we don’t know the domain well enough – it’s called co-creation. So, if you don’t know your domain yet (because, of course you will right?) get the people who do to help you in the process. Broader knowledge helps the designer to create more sustainable products with real impact for both the users and the business.
So, being able to facilitate workshops, utilize design methods and share user insight isn’t the only thing a designer should be able to do. You have to engage in the whole domain to be able to solve problems in a holistic and sustainable way. A designer’s job isn’t just to fight for user needs, but to do that in relation to what the organisation she works for needs, and what the world needs.
This advice might seem basic to some but there are people out there who think colorful post-its and fancy workshops are what makes you a designer (Relax, I love both!) But in my experience, these are just the tools we use, and combined with domain knowledge and user insights, we create great products and services which aim to make people's everyday life a bit better.