Coming in with very limited domain knowledge, it was a huge challenge for me to dive in and design product features for highly specialized use cases in the data security space. Chances are, there are a lot of you in UX and Product Designer roles who go through similar experiences when designing enterprise software in niche industries. 

Over the past several years I've discovered a few strategies that have helped ground me in my work. In this article I go over 4 of these strategies that can also help you take any complex problem and turn it into a great design, even if you lack domain experience.

Use metaphors to develop a solid, high-level mental model

Before jumping into design, talk to subject matter experts (SMEs) in your team and try to build a solid understanding of the product and its various use cases. Often these conversations would introduce you to technical concepts and jargon you have never encountered before. Now one can either spend hours and get into the weeds of these concepts to understand the product better, or just use metaphors to build a high level mental model. I prefer the latter. Ask the SME whether the concept they are talking about is similar to another concept you're already familiar with. For example, "Is the Oracle DB folder hierarchy similar to the MacOS folder hierarchy?”

The mental model you develop doesn’t necessarily have to make complete technical sense, but it’s just a tool to build a clearer picture of the product in your head and move forward with confidence. 

Start a design project by creating a raw user flow

Create a raw user flow based on your initial conversations with the stakeholders. The flow doesn’t have to include fancy flow charts like you see in design portfolios but could very well be a simple list in your Notes app. Writing thoughts down can help you find an initial direction to pursue, improve how you convey your thoughts to the team, and help discover missing links that the team may not have recognized earlier.


Don’t expect to get answers to all your questions: just start designing

When starting a new project, product designers tend to have a bunch of questions. A lot of the time designers get bogged down by a few unclear requirements and don’t start designing unless they have answers to all their questions. Although the intention is good, sometimes even the major stakeholders including product managers (PMs), SMEs, and design managers might not have a clear answer. 

Instead of waiting for total clarity, I believe taking a proactive approach is more productive. Try making some assumptions and creating an initial high-level exploration and share it with stakeholders (this could be sketches or low or high-fidelity mocks). Creating these initial explorations hasn’t only helped me become more decisive but has also helped the stakeholders get clarity – by assessing my assumptions and evaluating technical feasibility of the designs – to answer previously unanswered questions.

Product managers and SMEs are not the designers, you are

PMs and SMEs are there to guide you and help you better understand the problem: but they are not the designers. Oftentimes, designers with limited domain knowledge, unsure about how to move forward, rely heavily on their technical partners for design input. This is mainly because of the designers’ limited understanding of the feature/product and the need to move fast from one project to the next. 

Based on personal experience, this often leads to interaction and user experience (UX) issues down the road. It is important to take the PM’s and SMEs recommendations into account but it’s equally important to question and critique their suggestions, get to the root of the problem, and use your design expertise to come up with an intuitive solution. 

Rubrik has been a great place for me to gain this experience and find what works for me. If you’re interested in finding a role where you can do something similar, see what opportunities are open on our careers site.