Why Good UI Designers Can Work in Any Domain

Many of our prospective clients don’t understand how an interaction design consultancy can possibly come up to speed on their complex domain. And understanding their domain is central to creating or improving their product’s user interface.

What these clients don’t often realize is that neither an interaction design consultancy, nor their users, need to know everything they know.

Interaction designers fill a knowledge gap between clients and their customers.

The reason complex product user interfaces are often hard to use is because they expose too much. The people creating these products assume their users will be as singularly focused on the product as they are. They expect their customers will equally value every last feature and function, and will devote significant time to mastering the product. That is akin to assuming every motorist wants to be a mechanic. In truth, most people just want to get somewhere.

It’s nearly impossible for the creator of a functionality-packed product to understand that a first-time user may not find the entry point, or know how to take the next step in a process. Creators know their products too well; they can’t forget how to use it. They no longer have a beginner’s mind.

Interaction designers don’t come with that baggage. They bring (much needed) fresh eyes. At Swim, we have years of experience dropping into this-or-that gnarly domain and teasing out the essentials. We’ve developed processes that help us understand the core aspects of any field and uncover the most important features of the product. We know how to work with subject matter experts to extract critical information. We ask a lot of questions, we listen well, and we never lose sight of our empathy with the user.

Clients are always surprised that it doesn’t take us very long before we are sounding like experts. While working on a commercial aviation application, some Southwest pilots thought I too was a pilot, but I’ve never been behind the yoke. When we were devising a useful representation for electrocorticographic data, we were able to hold our own with neuroscientists. Of course, we don’t know everything pilots or neuroscientists know, but we are savvy, perceptive, and detail-oriented. That’s what being good at our design discipline demands.

Seasoned interaction designers also know how to find out what customers really need a product for, and what tasks they need to accomplish with it. There are patterns to look for, astute questions to ask. We know how to observe potential customers and notice what they do (even more than what they say).

Interaction designers fill a knowledge gap between clients and their customers. They know what the product is capable of providing, and what a real person wants to do with it. From that vantage point, functionality can be prioritized, task flows constructed, and edge cases de-emphasized (without losing sight of them). The final step is translating that knowledge into the user interface itself, using the language of on-screen interaction — a language we interaction designers are fluent in. No matter the complexity of the domain, we possess the tools and processes to deliver a user interface that simply makes sense.