Unlocking complex problems by working with domain experts
6 minutes read
“The 10,000-hours rule says that if you look at any kind of cognitively complex field, from playing chess to being a neurosurgeon, we see this incredibly consistent pattern that you cannot be good at that unless you practice for 10,000 hours, which is roughly ten years, if you think about four hours a day.”Malcom Gladwell
Citing examples as diverse as The Beatles playing endless gigs in Hamburg before hitting the big time and Bill Gates spending countless hours programming as a child, Malcolm Gladwell claimed in his best-selling book Outliers that it takes a total of 10,000 hours of practice to become expert at something. Whilst many disagree with aspects of Gladwell’s claimed 10,000-hours rule (primarily that it’s not the quantity but quality of practice, along with a natural aptitude for a skill that really counts), I think we can all agree that becoming an expert in something takes time. This is a problem for designers because if you’re trying to solve a complex problem, it helps if you have expertise in that problem area. Good luck designing a useful tool for accountants with no accountancy expertise, or as I have learnt in my current role, a tool for database administrators with no database expertise. This puts designers in a pickle. Create flawed designs based on assumptions and limited expertise, or spend years becoming an expert in the field. Fortunately, there is a way to unlock this expertise based conundrum. You can do so by working with domain experts.
I’ve spent a large part of my career as a product designer trying to solve complex problems in the pharmaceutical industry, travel industry and now database software industry. One thing I’ve learnt is that solving complex problems and ultimately creating valuable products and services within specialist fields requires expertise, expertise that I don’t have and therefore need to bring in by working very closely with domain experts. Working with domain experts is an important part of product design, yet it’s rarely covered by design courses where the focus tends to be on working with users, rather than domain experts. I’m going to help you unlock this important aspect of product design by outlining when you should be working with domain experts, how to go about doing this and sharing some hints and tips to ensure that you get the most out of their expertise.
When to work with domain experts?
There is an easy way to determine when you should be working with domain experts – simply ask yourself the following question: Am I tackling a complex problem? If you’re designing a simple website, or mobile app then chances are that you don’t need to work with domain experts. On the other hand, if you’re tackling a complex problem, such as designing a tool for experts, or a tool for a specialist task then you design without the input of domain experts at your peril. Past examples where I’ve found working with domain experts to be invaluable include designing tools to help database administrators (DBAs) to monitor their database systems, designing tools for scientists and statisticians analysing the results of medical trials and designing holiday booking tools for travel agents.
Notice that the question refers to complex problems, rather than complex fields or industries. Most, but not all problems in complex fields are complex problems, and complex problems certainly exist in less complex fields (that’s a bit of a tongue twister). For example, designing the checkout process for an ecommerce site is probably not a complex problem. However, designing a tool to track and manage the subsequent order fulfilment process at the warehouse probably is.
How many domain experts?
Ok, so you’re tackling a complex problem and therefore if makes sense to work with domain experts. But how many? One, two, three, four? A lot of designers wouldn’t dream of only speaking to one user, and yet are happy to base their designs on the input of just one domain expert. Whilst it’s certainly not necessary to speak to 8 or 10 experts as you might do with users, 2-3 is generally a good number. By getting a second or even third opinion you can draw from a much larger pool of expertise and reduce risks by utilising multiple sources of input.
It’s also worth considering the breadth of expertise that you’ll require. For example, when I designed a booking tool for high street travel agents, I ensured that I worked with a small pool of experts that included travel agents, shop managers and regional managers. This ensured that the breadth and depth of expertise required to design the system was available.
When to involve domain experts?
Too many designers make the mistake of only involving domain experts at the end of their design process to validate designs. Some only work with them at the beginning to help better understand the problem. The best model for working with domain experts is as co-designers, co-designers that are involved throughout the entire design (and delivery) process. This means inviting them to workshops, getting them to review design concepts and review work as it is being developed.
Tips for working with domain experts
Set-up regular touch points
If you’re going to be working very closely with domain experts it’s important to have regular touch points. You don’t need to spend every working day together, but it’s certainly a good idea to setup regular time together, such as a weekly catch up. This can be a great opportunity to get answers to questions, to get feedback for work in progress and to generally foster a close working relationship.
In addition to a regular catch up with your experts, it’s also important to have an agreed asynchronous communication channel such as Slack, Microsoft Teams or email. This ensures that you can tap into your experts at any time, not just during catchups.
Always ask why
Experts are rarely shy when it comes to telling you how they think something should be. Whilst you certainly want to get their input, it’s important to understand their rationale by asking: Why? Why would that be useful? Why is that important? Why have you made that suggestion? Without understanding the rationale and context you risk taking on suggestions without fully understanding their implications. Asking why helps to better utilise your experts whilst also helping to build your own expertise.
Ask for real-world examples and scenarios
Asking experts to walk you through real-world examples and scenarios can be a fantastic way to tease out their knowledge. For example, you might ask them to walk you through a recent scenario or take you through a use case they have frequently seen. Asking for specific examples can help to explore how well a design might support real-world scenarios (see The complete guide to scenarios for more about using scenarios in product design) and helps to avoid very generalised feedback. For example, simply learning that feature X is important is not as insightful as understanding some recent real-world scenarios where feature X would have been valuable.
Validate what you learn
I really value the input of domain experts, however sometimes you have to take what they say not just with a pinch of salt, but a ruddy big boulder of it. For example, an expert might tell you that the steps for doing something is A, B and then C. However, when you look at what actually happens that might not be the case. There might be workarounds, or the process might be quite different for most scenarios. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t trust what an expert has to say, but that you should always validate what you learn. For example, by getting a second (or third) opinion from a different domain expert and by complimenting insights with learnings from other user research activities.
Remember you’re the designer
I’ve written before about the importance of design being left to designers (see Sorry, but we are not all designers). Domain experts should certainly be co-designers, but they shouldn’t be the ones calling the design shots. Unless your domain experts also happen to be design experts then you should leave the expertise to the experts, and the design to the designers.
- Working on complex problems, requires working with domain experts.
- Work with 2-3 experts to ensure required expertise is covered.
- Involve domain experts throughout the design and delivery process as co-designers.
- Set-up regular touchpoints and a channel for asynchronous communication.
- Always ask why, along with real-world examples and scenarios.
- Validate what you learn, don’t take an expert’s word as gospel.
- Remember that you, not the domain experts should be calling the design shots.
Working with domain experts can be very rewarding, but it can also be challenging. These hints and tips will help you to unlock the challenge of tackling complex problems by utilising the thousands of hours of expertise that domain experts have accumulated over the years.
- Sorry, but we are not all designers (UX for the Masses)
- The complete guide to scenarios (UX for the Masses)
Photo by National Cancer Institute on Unsplash
Post-It notes from co-design workshop by Emily Tulloh on flickr