Barriers to Holistic Design Solutions

January 17, 2011

Face it, most UX design work consists of incremental improvements over the previous version of a product, and we rarely get to design holistic solutions that elegantly meet the needs of our target audience across systems, services, and devices—or wherever such needs crop up. Further, time-to-market pressures and narrow, predefined solution spaces usually constrain the occasional opportunities we may get to design a first-release product. This leaves so many UX professionals dissatisfied, because they know they could have done a better job or, worse, they may even have envisioned exactly how their design could have been better, only to find insurmountable barriers to their vision’s ever seeing the light of day.

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So what keeps us, as UX professionals, from really solving problems holistically and designing total-system solutions that deeply meet our target users’ needs? At least three barriers to this holy grail of UX design endeavors seem pervasive in corporate environments:

  1. We are rarely asked to provide holistic solutions.
  2. We don’t understand the big picture.
  3. Companies just are not set up to deliver holistic solutions.

1. We are rarely asked to provide holistic solutions.

Most often, UX professionals become mired in a series of short-term, narrowly scoped projects. Executing well against such limited expectations immediately demonstrates the value of UX professionals, and their output is on par with the bite-sized chunks their counterparts in engineering, product management, and business are typically able to digest. So there’s little reason to change the scope of your design solutions to keep your job: your organization already sees you as an important cog in the machine and can’t run without you.

But continuing to deliver at this level leaves us little time to come up for air to solve the deeper problems that would entail our coming up with a holistic solution. Few of the company executives above a UX team really care if the balance between tactical execution and strategic design is out of whack. They rarely see strategy as a UX professional’s responsibility anyway.

Does anyone think holistically? Sort of. Most companies have personnel who they expect to work at a more strategic level, and you’ll find these people under many titles and in many departments: corporate strategy, market research, business development, the C-level. They look for insights, stay abreast of industry trends, create partnerships and deals, or provide a vision of the future that inspires. Executives and others see—and pounce on—their favorite aspects of these visions for the future in whatever form strategists might present them. But while such visions can be strategic, they are rarely holistic. UX design professionals have great potential to think holistically, because by trade and training, they often work across company boundaries and see through the eyes of users. Ironically, despite their natural ability for holistic thinking, they are not often involved in strategic thinking.

2. We don’t understand the big picture.

So much of our training and experience, as UX professionals, centers on fairly granular units of analysis such as user goals, task analyses, and page-level interactions. Most of us don’t really know how to get our heads around the larger problems we should be trying to solve. Others have suggested that this problem stems from a lack of suitable frameworks that would better guide “total experience design” solutions, and that it’s time for an “end to decades-old frameworks that HCI, information architecture, and interaction design have been using for understanding users.”

I would say that it is not a lack of suitable frameworks, but rather that the frameworks experts have advanced thus far are simply too academic for most UX professionals to understand and use. Consider two prominent examples of underutilized HCI frameworks that potentially address total system design:

  • In her 1987 book, Plans and Situated Actions: The Problem of Human-Machine Communication, anthropologist Lucy Suchman systematically showed the cognitive science and HCI communities that the tasks, goals, and states an expert system used to drive a copy machine’s user interface were entirely insufficient to enable effective human-machine interaction. While Situated Action—the explanatory framework she proposed—got a lot of press, I don’t commonly see it in use in modern-day design or research, even by professionals I know have read the book.
  • Another very interesting framework that could potentially offer us help in understanding total system design is Activity Theory. Bonnie Nardi most prominently applied Activity Theory to HCI in her 1996 book, Context and Consciousness: Activity Theory and Human-Computer Interaction. Activity Theory also got a lot of attention for a few years, but ultimately, UX professionals have not really made use of this approach.

Why, then, haven’t these frameworks—and ostensibly, total system design—taken off? I think one answer has its roots in the following idea: we, as human beings, live in a world where context and culture have a tremendous influence on our behavior, yet we are hardly aware of it. In contrast, when we reflect back on our experience, we think of it, not as it was—that is, situated and in the moment—but rather in a retrospectively rationalistic way. This perpetuates the view of human action as goal-oriented and logical. Thus, you can see how it is difficult for many UX professionals to utilize frameworks that attempt to understand human activity as it happens rather than as people recollect it, because upon self-reflection, it is hard to see the frameworks’ validity.

I’ve tried to teach Activity Theory to UX professionals, but it seems to take repeated doses to sink in—although being Scandinavian or Russian seems to help. Despite the Marxists undertones, I have personally found some of the concepts from Yrjö Engeström’s version of Activity Theory very helpful when structuring ethnographic field study data and envisioning holistic UX design solutions. Unfortunately, it’s just too opaque for most UX professionals to grasp and use.

We’re at a crossroads: We need better frameworks that allow more UX professionals to understand the deeper problems and design holistic solutions, but who will develop them? Neither academics nor practitioners seem well suited or incentivized to do so.

3. Companies just are not set up to deliver holistic solutions.

If, by chance, UX designers do pursue holistic design solutions, and the UX team is capable of creating them, the remaining obstacle is often the company and other organizations outside the UX team: If there isn’t a corresponding infrastructure to take action on a holistic design solution, the work may be in vain—or, at least, significantly delayed. Product Management and Engineering, at a minimum, must have the same charter to solve users’ needs in a holistic way. Without this shared responsibility for the user experience, as described in the excellent UXmatters article by Pabini Gabriel-Petit, “Sharing Ownership of UX,” it will simply be an interesting exercise the UX team has pursued, but without much practical applicability.

Even when someone has crafted a compelling vision or a holistic design solution—whether executives, the UX team, or whomever—if the rest of the company is not set up to handle such a project, they cannot implement it as specified. For example, it could be that the holistic solution just won’t get through the product development process, as it is defined. All too often, when it comes time to translate a vision into the next quarter’s products, the devil in the details comes out to raise heck with project managers who are hell-bent on delivering on time. Too often, a product team can realize nothing but a superficial set of solutions when the delivery of on-time features trumps quality of implementation.

At, my UX team spent more than six months coming up with a next-generation, consumer-centric version of an ideal real estate Web site and related services. They were even able to design a consumer-centric, REALTOR-friendly, search-engine-optimized solution. So why isn’t that design out there today? It simply called for too many rapid changes to the underlying platform for the team to develop it in the typical product-development time frame. (It was also too radical a change for the current business model to absorb so rapidly.) The good news: The company now has designs to drive a roadmap of future releases for several iterations to come.

So, How Do Companies Like Apple Do It?

Well, there are no companies like Apple, really, as they are somewhat unique in their approach to product development. Apple has made a business out of:

  1. Deeply understanding the core problems they are trying to solve—and doing so without traditional research
  2. Articulating an ideal solution without constraints—then
  3. Determining how they could build such a solution and do so profitably.

In other words, the designed solution defines the engineering problems they will solve, rather than the design being constrained by what engineering can do at any given point in time constraining the design.

At Apple, the ideal solution may span across many different organizations and teams. How Apple dealt with this in developing the iPod has been well documented. It required three entirely different systems to work seamlessly together to meet users’ needs: the iPod device, the iTunes software, and the online iTunes Music Store. Since the iPod, Apple has done the same in the mobile phone and tablet industries.

What seems to be unique about Apple is how well product teams are able to work independently, in parallel, yet still coordinate across organizations and teams. Aside from the numerous meetings and design reviews they hold, I believe they are able to do this through a strong emphasis on quality design throughout the company, as well as because of the method by which they evaluate product solutions. Steve Jobs and other Apple executives look very closely at the details of product experiences, and teams get a lot of negative attention if they don’t produce a wow reaction. The only way to achieve that is to coordinate and collaborate with your counterparts.


While the realities of working in corporate UX design can be far from ideal for big-picture-thinking UX professionals, I believe there are many possible ways forward. Any company with the desire to create products that solve customers’ problems more holistically and thoroughly could benefit from the following actions:

  • Seek a better balance between short-term tactical projects and longer-term, holistic solutions. This will not only provide you with a nice vision for the future, but will breathe life into your UX team. Alternating work on high-profile, exciting visions of the future with the just-get-it-done, deadline-driven projects injects the latter with meaningful energy from the former. When something actually launches, your employees have the satisfaction of knowing they delivered something that mattered, laying the groundwork for a brighter future.
  • Figure out how to leverage theoretical frameworks in a way that leads to practical applications and useful output. It’s a rare UX professional who grasps both ends of the theory-practice spectrum, so you may have to mix personnel who have strengths in each area and balance their output to optimize the results.
  • Don’t end the research phase with findings. Involving a skilled social scientist or anthropologist can be a huge help in understanding the big picture, but be sure to translate their key takeaways into insights that UX and product professionals can actually use. I always tell researchers their job isn’t done until their findings have begun to turn into solutions—not just recommendations—which keeps them involved and working closely with UX design and product management. It also keeps them on the hook to make sure what they produce leads to creative thinking shortly thereafter.
  • Get a cross-functional team together to take on a meaty project. It can’t be just the UX team, working on blue-sky projects. Involve Engineering, so at least something gets built, even if it’s just a proof of concept. Get the support and involvement of Product Management to make it happen. And most important, ensure there is a strong business need—or at least an involved and influential executive advocate for a project. When there isn’t, it is difficult for even the best ideas to ever find their way into a legitimate product release. 

Vice President of Design, Research, and Enterprise Services at Capital One

Pacific Grove, California, USA

Christian RohrerAt Capital One, Christian leads all user research efforts and is head of design for identity, security, and API development. He was previously Chief Design Officer at Intel Security—formerly McAfee, Inc.—where he drove user-centered design for consumer and mobile products, from ideation through delivery. A veteran of user experience design and research, Christian has served in leadership roles at Yahoo!, eBay, and Move/ Christian has a PhD in Symbolic Systems in Education—a branch of cognitive science—from Stanford University and a BA in Computer and Information Sciences with honors, from the University of California, Santa Cruz.  Read More

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