UX Lesson: Understanding the Domain

When designing something, it is critical that you understand the domain.  This means that you understand the context the design will be used and the underlying subject matter the design is used for.  It includes many factors:

The People

  • Who are the people who will use your designed product?
  • What are their personalities?
  • What motivates them?
  • What ARE their perceived goals?
  • What SHOULD their goals be?
  • How technical/smart are they?
  • Are they troubleshooters?
  • Any physical limitations?

Of course, people aren’t 100% anything.  You will need to form an amalgam; a blending of personalities that form a persona help you focus your energies in the right direction.  if you don’t understand the people, you will design something off-target.

The Environment

  • Where will people be using this thing?
  • Is it a computer? mobile? tablet? new PC, old? browser?
  • How often will they be using it?
  • What distractions are around the people when they are using it?
  • What other factors/pressures will your users feel when using it?

Our physical surroundings have a profound impact on the usage of products and services.  Designing something out of context of the environment will yield a strong mismatch between expected usage and real-world usage.

The Domain
This is the most important of the three.  It’s less of a series of questions and more of a knowledge of the craft the user partakes in.  For example, when I started designing Marketo, I had to learn all about Marketing.  I had to learn to be a marketer.  Understanding this domain made the process of design a million times easier.  It takes away much of the burden of testing assumptions.

If you want to design a great guitar, you should understand the people, the environment and the domain.  This means you should understand the psychology and motivation of guitarists, the way amps work and how they interact with a home, studio or stage environment.  And most importantly, you need to understand music, the domain.  If you don’t understand music, your guitar will always be flawed.

If you want to design a great system for lawyers, you should understand the law.  If you want to design a great system for doctors, you should understand medicine.  Of course, you can’t get a medical degree or law degree every time you need to design something.  However, you need to take a crash course and understand as much as you can.

Of course, just understanding the domain won’t turn you into a great designer.  However, it will give you a good place to start.  If you have design chops AND know the domain, you are in a great place to make a world-class product.


3 replies on “UX Lesson: Understanding the Domain”

Great post! 🙂

I’d add that, along with understanding the domain, you must also be able to educate and inspire others about the domain. If you’re not able to do that, then especially in larger companies, it’s hard to make people see why something needed.

Whatya think?