UX Design Strategies for Specialized Domains

UX Design Strategies for Specialized Domains

How do UX designers create interfaces for highly specialized knowledge domains such as robotic surgery or material science analytics when they do not have training or  expertise in those subjects? With digital transformation happening across scientific, manufacturing and government organizations – combined with complex emerging technology – a definite need exists for UX designers who can handle the challenge of specialized domains. 

That’s because designing for specialized domains is unlike designing applications where the user is everyman, when designers have no problem speaking the same “language” of the user. User and software requirements around specialized domains are simply hard to fathom for an outsider.

 Of course, a UX designer can acquire adequate understanding after some years of experience designing in a particular domain. But when a need arises, organizations with products that require such specialized knowledge are often hard-pressed to quickly find designers with domain-specific expertise. And they may not be able to wait for their own staff designer to ramp up – it can take years to gain that knowledge from experience – or they may not have in place or want to hire an in-house design team at all.

So how can organizations access design resources with the particular expertise relevant to their situation? 

Here at Integrated Computer Solutions (ICS) and our design studio Boston UX, we encounter a wide variety of highly specialized knowledge domains in our work in IoT and embedded systems. As such, we’ve developed  a strategy to address this rather common challenge. Our solution: an extensive design collaboration process with product stakeholders. 

Our collaborative design process has similarities to the practice of Participatory Design. Both methodologies are ideal when a diversity of expertise or points of view are needed to solve a design problem. Stakeholders have the opportunity to make suggestions, offer opinions and participate in decisions. But while Participatory Design tends to focus on user-stakeholders, our process includes a full suite of product stakeholders, such as product managers, scientists and engineers – along with users.

 If you have ever practiced Participatory Design, you know that it can offer some good results, but can also be inefficient and awkward depending on the user-participants’ commitment, experience and enthusiasm. The in-house product stakeholders tend to possess high levels of those key motivating emotions; they are often the originators of the project idea and have the drive and desire to make it a success. So, this team mix is often dynamic and very effective at finding needed design solutions.

Why Isn’t User-Centered Design an Adequate Design Practice?

You might wonder why User-Centered Design (UCD), the profession’s standard for user experience design, isn’t a good enough solution for our projects. It’s because UCD works as a standalone solution when user needs are the main controlling requirements of an application. That is the case in many applications, such as with shopping or banking apps where the users are everyman. In those cases, a user can imagine what they need from an application that makes virtual shopping or banking more convenient, and a designer can easily understand those needs.

In contrast, imagine automating the welding process for a welding robot. The user, who is the operator of the device and likely a trained welder, may not know the extent of the capability of the device before it is created. Application design requires that a robot engineer and a welding expert put their heads together to see what can be achieved. The UCD process of iterative design and evaluation still underlies our process, but we need more participation from domain and technology experts than UCD alone provides.

ICS' Extensive Collaboration Process

 As mentioned earlier, we practice a collaboration process with clients that is detailed and thorough. In our design process we strive to tap into the stakeholder’s knowledge base by working closely with them in an incremental and iterative way. It’s important to follow a few simple rules to achieve a productive collaboration:

  • Designers should not ask stakeholders to take part in design exercises or ask them to design UIs, but instead simply bring to collaboration sessions their needs, points of view, and their domain expertise to sessions.
  • The working relationship of designers and stakeholders needs to evolve organically and naturally, not weighed down by design jargon or brainstorming workshops.
  • Collaborative design works best as a long-term commitment, not a few sessions.

Here is a summary of our process:

STEP 1 - Assemble a diverse stakeholder team with UX designers as facilitators and creators

The team will change and evolve over time based on the needs of the project. Begin with the primary business stakeholders such as the product manager or project manager. We typically also add the key scientists or engineers – the brains behind the product – to the team. After some initial design concepts are hammered out, product trainers may join the group as they are often the collective voice of the user. Key developers will join as well. Some users may join the group, or they may be invited to attend a user test with some of the stakeholders to ask questions. Whatever the nature of the group is, it is essential to have clear decision-making authority assigned to certain people. The stakeholders and our UX team usually have a standing weekly  meeting for the duration of the project.

STEP 2 - Analyze the design problem from multiple key perspectives

 While those perspectives are determined by the nature of the project, our common perspectives are: Information architecture, task workflows, user journeys, environment of use, and domain vocabulary. We use the artifacts of our analysis (flow diagrams, maps, lists) to work closely with stakeholders to iterate and refine their content to make them accurate and robust. We step incrementally from the analysis to wireframes and visual design, iterating multiple times with stakeholders.

STEP 3 - Address workflows, wireframes, mockups, prototypes and beta software with evaluations and testing interspersed 

We begin each feature by having the client explain the feature and present their idea of the expected workflow. This is typically engineering-based – how the hardware and software would work – since that is their mindset. We then take their workflows and turn them into user workflows. Once those are discussed and corrected, we  create wireframes for the proposed interface. 

At this point, the trainers and testers are brought in to evaluate the design to date. Once modifications are approved, we create visual mockups and user test them in the style of (virtual) paper prototypes. Again, we might make some modifications and then hand off to developers to create a working prototype that our user testers can interact with and provide feedback. Finally, the developers  produce a beta version of the feature, which we release to a handful of customers who had previously agreed to be beta testers.

Extensive Collaborative Design Pairs Effectively with Digital Transformation

 Digital transformation brings computation to organizational systems, be they industrial, government, medical or corporate. The goal of these software systems and products is to transform a physical system or process, or a legacy computer system, into one with greater efficiency by applying new strategies coupled with new technologies. Digital transformation is usually not an isolated product but part of a whole system of manufacturing or service, with many secondary and tertiary effects.

 Typically in a digital transformation project, the need is not primarily based with end users; the need is also based in the industry or in a particular company. Digitization solves a challenge or is an advancement for the company or the industry. Although end users or customers may benefit, this digital “product” does not necessarily solve a problem for them. 

These are highly specialized domains where it is challenging to find effective solutions. Notoriously, many digital transformation projects fail to meet their goals. We have found that extensive collaboration with a spectrum of stakeholders in an organization is an effective methodology for successful digital transformation outcomes. 

Computer-Assisted Work Supports Extensive Collaboration

Having ongoing meetings with stakeholders can be a challenge when teams are not in the same physical location, but computer-assisted work apps eases remote collaboration. No fancy tools are required. A strong internet connection and basic meeting software with screen sharing capabilities is usually enough. Remote and asynchronous participation facilitated by remote work technology supports a model of long-term participation on projects. The UX design practice keeps evolving with the technology. As products become more complex with specialized technologies, highly collaborative design may prove to be a more natural fit on projects.

The convenience of remote collaboration is an aid to an extensive collaboration practice. It can feel more efficient than if all participants were in the same office building meeting in a conference room. Not to belittle the value of in-person collaboration, but working at your desk with all your resources at your fingertips can contribute to show and tell style discussions.

Collaboration is Essential to Design Success in Specialized Domains 

Collaboration among multiple stakeholders in a design process has probably been practiced for centuries. Even after all this time, it can evolve naturally when it is an appropriate solution for a project. Emerging technologies such as medical and industrial digitization, IoT and robotics are examples of specialized domains that would benefit from the collaborative process strategies that Boston UX utilizes. 

We emphasize – and our customers appreciate – that in a highly collaborative design process, the designer serves as both facilitator and creator. The key takeaway is this: following an extensively collaborative design process is invaluable for achieving effective design leading to useful and successful products.