How much does domain knowledge matter for design teams?

How important is industry domain knowledge for designers? Someone recently mentioned they were looking for designers with niche domain knowledge for a company so here are my thoughts. In general I don’t think it’s particularly important.

It’s an interesting question though and domain knowledge can certainly help to get up to speed at the start of a project or role. However I’m not sure that it counts for a huge amount over the medium term. As a quick example, here are some different domains that I’ve delivered projects in recently:

  • AI trading fintech
  • Managed service IT provider
  • Legal services startup
  • Enterprise drone software services
  • International corporate banking services
  • Road traffic policy

All wildly different domains and with different teams we were able to use design to deliver change and new products in a matter of months.  

I believe – and see in action – that design teams need to be experts in design and then the rest will flow. I think there are three main reasons for this:

  • Good design teams are collaborative – the product team, the users, support teams, leadership are all experts in the domain and the design team needs to work super closely with all of them to create successful designs. There’s no shortage of deep domain knowledge in this environment, the domain knowledge of the design team grows super quickly and is very rarely a real-world blocker.
  • Good design teams are challenging – having diverse experience in the design team can help bring in new ideas and allow the product to be viewed from different perspectives and usefully challenge the status quo as we iterate towards better designed products and services.
  • Good design is user-centred – the details of user behaviour varies across software and domains but in the whole people are people. The more user-centred a design team is the more we find experiences cut across domains and industries. That doesn’t mean the end solutions all end up the same, but rather there’s a quality that great experiences have whether you’re ordering a taxi on Uber, relaxing with Netflix, managing your corporate accounts, or deploying cloud software. As I’ve worked to improve products in complex design spaces, I’ve found the better a design gets the more the design tends towards the best consumer-facing natively digital design. We’ll never turn corporate banking into a simple app – you can’t remove inherent complexity – but the differences get less and less. Good design is centred on the person rather than the domain.

A bonus point is that looking for domain expertise in designers shrinks your prospective talent pool hugely

Where does domain knowledge help? I think the main place it’s helped me is in the politics surrounding design projects – helping to navigate, communicate with, and appear authoritative to, stakeholders.

What’s been your experience? Is domain knowledge more important than I think?