Well-established UX design patterns, laws, and rules form the foundation of our profession. Foundational principles steer our design decisions and offer scaffolding for our design processes. These tools and techniques make up our toolkit. In contrast, domain expertise provides the blueprint, which gives us the context, depth, and understanding to use our design tools effectively. For example, the design of a healthcare app requires knowledge of healthcare protocols, while designing a finance tool demands financial expertise.
This article emphasizes the significance of domain expertise in UX design, positioning it as essential for informed decision-making, efficient communication, and enhanced user empathy. Any UX designer who lacks domain knowledge faces significant challenges during the discovery phase, highlighting the need for designers to adapt quickly to new industries. It also outlines a strategic learning plan for acquiring domain expertise, with a focus on identifying knowledge gaps, useful learning approaches, and the efficient creation of documentation.
There was a time in my earlier career when I experienced challenges during the discovery phase. I became overwhelmed by the number of unfamiliar terms and the amount of new information. So the only things I was able to concentrate on were whether I had captured these terms correctly and my questions were being answered. Projects became learning rather than discovery initiatives, which represented a significant blocker standing between teams and the opportunity to dive deep and understand hidden patterns.
For example, drawing from my experience with apparel designers, I realized that merely conducting a few interviews or observations would not suffice. The goal was not just to ask users how they do what they do but to understand the intricacies of their world so deeply that, when they share a challenge or a need with us, we could immediately grasp its implications, context, and underlying causes. Being unfamiliar with the various apparel-printing methods, one might need help understanding the process it takes and the challenges it brings. This foundational knowledge is necessary for user interviews to advance from superficial exchanges of information to deep dives into users’ needs and painpoints.
As UX designers, we never have all the necessary information and knowledge stored in our brain. That is why we need to develop the plasticity to adapt to new industries and quickly and efficiently adopt their domain knowledge. We must always be ready to set aside our expert cap and put on a learner cap, leaving our ego aside. This is where UX professionals have incredible opportunities to learn and grow.
Another nuance of our ability to gather domain expertise is our intrinsic curiosity. The goal is to fall in love with the problem that you’ve discovered, learn more about it, and ultimately, solve it. Diving deep into a new domain means going through a very intensive learning curve. Having a commitment to continuous learning and diving deep into new domains lets us truly connect with and empower users.
With years of experience in gathering domain knowledge in different industries, I have set up systems for navigating through the process of gathering new domain knowledge efficiently and tangibly. The remainder of this article represents a condensed collection of the benefits, learning methods, and challenges of gathering domain knowledge, along with a strategic learning plan that would be applicable to many industry domains.
Benefits of Mastering a Domain to a UX Designer
Domain knowledge enables us to speak the language of the users, as well as of our stakeholders. It helps us to anticipate users’ needs and challenges more effectively and design usable solutions that resonate deeply with the target audience.
Additional areas in which we can make use of domain expertise include the following:
informed decision-making and risk reduction—UX designers who have domain knowledge or expertise can more efficiently make relevant, user-friendly design decisions and prevent costly mistakes and unnecessary redesigns.
efficient communication and collaboration—Clear communication among team members and stakeholders reduces misunderstandings and fosters better collaboration among the members of multidisciplinary teams.
enhanced user empathy and ethical design—Understanding people’s needs and painpoints enables us to make design decisions that truly impact the lives of our users for good and promotes ethical decision-making.
credibility and trust—Speaking the language of the domain and understanding its nuances creates a sense of reliability, which fosters a safer environment for users and smoother collaboration among stakeholders.
faster design iterations—Teams with domain expertise can iterate on designs or solutions more quickly, better anticipate user feedback, and understand the implications of various design decisions.
A Strategic Learning Plan
In our modern world, UX designers must operate under the tight timelines of the business, so waiting to achieve domain mastery is rarely feasible. This situation puts us in a challenging position, forcing us to balance the need to provide quick results and to develop domain expertise. We can bridge this knowledge gap more effectively by being strategic about how we learn.
Organizing your learning journey begins with acknowledging this gap. The first step in your learning journey is pinpointing what you don’t know—whether the nuances of an industry domain, its users’ behaviors, or cultural differences. It’s okay to have questions. Being honest with yourself about gaps in your knowledge is essential. Whether you need to learn just an unfamiliar industry term or a broad collection of industry jargon, embracing and understanding the concepts and terminology that are characteristic of a domain is crucial to creating impactful designs.
As Josh Kaufman says: “The more excited you are about the skill you want to acquire, the more quickly you’ll acquire it.” In his book The First 20 Hours: How to Learn Anything … Fast! Josh outlines a systematic approach to rapid skill acquisition. Every skill has a frustration barrier, a period during which you are unskilled. Rapid skill acquisition happens naturally when you become so curious about something that other concerns fall away, at least temporarily.
Inspired by Kaufman and other thought leaders, I’ve developed a structured, iterative approach to learning and mastering a new domain, as follows:
Identify the core concepts of the domain and your knowledge gaps. The first step is understanding the industry and identifying its fundamental concepts, principles, and terminology. Ask for any documentation that can help speed up your learning process. This documentation could include must-read books, Confluence docs, video recordings, and regulations. Setting up one-on-one interviews with subject-matter experts and company veterans is another great way to quickly solidify your understanding of the new domain.
Break the unknowns down into smaller parts and choose a learning approach. Doing this helps you to identify the new areas of domain knowledge you need to learn. Creating a Learning Backlog can be an effective way to keep track of everything. Having a system for categorizing the unknowns is also essential. You could categorize what you need to learn based on its urgency, complexity, or priorities. You should generally start by learning things that block your daily tasks. A common approach is Just-in-Time Learning, where instead of trying to learn everything at once, you focus on acquiring specific knowledge as necessary. For example, if you’re designing a feature that is related to shipping, deep dive into that particular area rather than the entire ecommerce domain.
Map the unknowns and replace them with your new learnings as soon as possible. Start mapping your learnings to understand how different parts of the domain iterate. Choose a mapping method such as experience mapping, service blueprinting, or any other method that can help you understand the whole domain and identify and fill the gaps in your knowledge. Remember that your goal is to better understand what is happening, who is involved, and the main touchpoints. Once you’ve diagrammed a domain, the information that you’re missing becomes more visible.
Create your learning plan. Come up with a learning plan, including what you need to learn, when to learn it, and where you can learn it. Create a document in which you can keep this information organized. Further enhance your plan by setting deadlines, attaching learning sources, and committing times in your calendar.
Document your learnings and insights. Maintain a working document in which you can note key learnings, observations, and insights as you conduct your research. This can be a valuable reference as you progress in your project. You can always quickly look back through your notes if you forget something. As you encounter new terms and acronyms, build a glossary if one doesn’t already exist. Share the glossary with your team.
Validate and iterate your domain map. Validate what you’ve learned with users and stakeholders. As you learn, iteratively refine and expand your domain map. It’s okay if your initial map is less than perfect. It should evolve as you gain greater understanding and deeper knowledge.
Discovering Sources of Learning
It is crucial that you know your users, see the domain through their eyes, and walk in their shoes. Therefore, nothing can replace talking to users and observing them in their own environment. But it is not always a good idea to talk with the users first. Often, especially when we know very little about a domain, we need to gather some background knowledge first to ensure that we can capture as much information as possible from our interactions with users.
On one of my recent projects, I explored the challenges that freelancers from Asian countries face when working for European companies, particularly in understanding tax services and international payments. As a UX designer, I first needed to grasp the complexities of taxation before talking to these freelancers, especially since discussing finances and taxes can be pretty sensitive subjects.
To prepare for my interviews with these freelancers, I embarked on a rapid learning journey. Sometimes, the best learning paths and sources are not evident, so you need to be creative. For example, I found a Reddit thread on which people were discussing the painpoints they were facing. As a result of learning from these discussions, I identified some critical issues and familiarized myself with the specific terminology they used. This research was instrumental to my conducting effective interviews and discovering the real issues these freelancers faced. But Reddit is not the only possible channel. Many other valuable resources are available such as Slack communities, Facebook groups, Quora, and communications with our personal connections. All of these channels can serve as valuable sources of information.
Effective Methods of Learning
While everyone’s learning methods might be unique, I’ve applied effective methods of learning from a variety of sources on my learning path, as Figure 1 shows.
Some key ways of taking advantage of diverse learning sources include the following:
Embrace exploring knowledge in unexpected places. Fish where the fish are. There are multiple places your users might be where you least expect them. For example, try to find relevant YouTube videos and read their comments section. The results might be surprisingly useful.
Explore and understand the tools that people in the domain use. These could be anything from Google Docs, Canva, Salesforce, or HubSpot to some internal software tool. Familiarize yourself with them.
Explore online courses and workshops. Specifically, taking courses that focus on the new domain can help you speed up your learning. Try finding such courses on YouTube, Medium, or specialized sources such as Udemy or Coursera. There might be a dedicated platform for each specific domain. If you’re working with more prominent clients who use tools such as Salesforce, HubSpot, and AWS, take advantage of their dedicated educational platforms to start your learning journey.
Join communities. This is my personal favorite! Communities are often the best source of learning, and they’ll help you keep up to date, too. I can count more than 30 Slack and Discord Channels that I’ve joined—all for different domains. Communities are the perfect place to make new connections within a particular domain.
Engage with domain-specific mentors or designers. Find a mentor or advisor who is an expert in the domain. Their guidance could be invaluable in navigating complex or technical aspects of the domain. Reach out to UX designers with experience in specific domains. Their expertise and advice could be particularly valuable since they’ve already taken the journey on which you’re embarking when getting experience in a new domain. They can guide you through your learning path, share their resources, and tell you about the domain’s challenges and how they overcame them. Ensure that you prepare a questionnaire before interacting with your mentors to ensure efficient, effective knowledge sharing.
Stay up to date and create a learning routine. Dedicate some time to skimming through the industry’s news. Subscribe to podcasts or YouTube channels, follow UX designers working in the domain, and track domain-specific forums and groups on platforms such as Reddit, X, Quora, and Slack.
Accept that you cannot know everything. It takes time and multiple project iterations to achieve great results. One thing you can do is to set up some routine for discovery and learning. Remember, the goal is not to know everything; it is to know enough to make informed decisions and be aware of where to look for information when you encounter something unfamiliar.
Recognizing and Overcoming Biases
While domain knowledge can significantly enhance our understanding of users’ needs, it can inadvertently lead to biases. When UX designers rely too heavily on their domain expertise, this can lead to their making assumptions rather than discovering insights that are based on actual user research. To avoid your unconsciously adopting such biases, embrace the following strategies:
Maintain a beginner’s mindset.
Validate your assumptions through constant user research.
Incorporate diverse perspectives by gathering feedback collaboratively.
Practice active listening.
Remember to utilize your domain knowledge acting as the expert. But adopt a learner mindset during user interactions. This dual approach helps you balance your expertise with the openness to learn from users’ feedback.
The Dilemma That Domain Expertise Presents in UX Design Hiring Decisions
I’ve been reflecting on Toptal’s hiring approach: preferring candidates with experience in specific domains over me. I recall a situation where a company urgently needed to hire a UX designer for an NFT (nonfungible token) project. They had stringent deadlines, which led them to favor a candidate with direct experience in the field. Their preference was understandable in this scenario, highlighting the immediate value of domain-specific expertise in meeting tight project timelines.
However, if I had faced this approach consistently throughout my career, it would have been challenging to switch to another industry domain. I’d never have had opportunities to try myself in completely new industries. There are some clear benefits to hiring UX designers who have experience in specific domains—such as the ability to start working immediately with little need for adaptation. However, this does not necessarily mean that a UX designer without this background would be less capable or productive. All of our previous experience, even in entirely different domains, brings much knowledge that we can apply innovatively in another domain.
Domain knowledge is indeed an essential asset in understanding and addressing the needs and concerns of our customers and users. It serves as an additional source of information that enhances our ability to comprehend customer requirements, concerns, and perspectives. However, while it enhances our understanding, it is essential that we ensure our domain knowledge doesn’t overshadow the invaluable voice of the customer. The customers’ perspectives provide unique insights about their preferences. Balancing domain knowledge with their perspectives ensures a more comprehensive, customer-centric approach, and ultimately, fostering the design of better products and services that are tailored to meet customers’ requirements and improve the user experience.
In UX design, our journey from the surface to the core underscores the indispensable role of domain expertise. As UX designers, our ability to navigate diverse industries and understand the intricate nuances of various user contexts is paramount in crafting meaningful experiences. In this article, my goal was to illuminate the pathway to mastering domain knowledge, emphasizing the need for a strategic and iterative learning approach.
By acknowledging our knowledge gaps, embracing curiosity, and taking advantage of diverse learning sources, we can equip ourselves to make informed design decisions that resonate deeply with users. However, we must tread carefully if we’re to avoid biases and ensure that our domain expertise complements rather than overshadows the voice of the customer.
In the dynamic landscape of UX design, the fusion of expertise and empathy lets us cultivate products and services that genuinely address users’ needs. As we navigate the complexities of our ever-evolving digital ecosystem, we must embrace the dual role of expert and learner, forging ahead with humility, curiosity, and a relentless commitment to enhancing the user experience. Ultimately, it is the harmonious blend of domain expertise and user-centricity that can propel us toward the forefront of innovation, driving positive change and shaping the future of UX design.
Anna is a UX design generalist, mentor, and educator with more than 15 years of experience. Her approach to UX design combines empathy with strategic thinking, which is informed by her background in social work and business administration. Anna is passionate about startups and design education. She has spent the last eight years helping startups develop and implement innovative design strategies that drive growth. Anna is actively contributing to UX education programs and the UX design community by mentoring UX designers globally, organizing workshops, and writing. Read More