How to Design Software for an Industry You Have No Clue About

Most projects seem to be related to the high-tech startup scene in recent years. What if I told you some opportunities are not associated with our own industry bubble? What if there are challenges that need a complete shift of perspective to actually hit the pain point of those particular end-users? Some of them far away from the digital life we are used to. This brings a whole new and exciting set of challenges to our job as product designers.

Let's use a project I was working on a couple of years ago as an example: A mining company based in Australia. The goal was to build an iPad application that operates equipment and controls lighting conditions. As an added bonus, it should also act as a simple communication and reporting tool.

As you might have guessed, I never worked in a mine myself. To even get started, the first step was to find out more about the industry and the environment the app will be used in.

Mining Company
Not your typical tech-startup. (Photo by Dominik Vanyi -

Ask stupid questions.

I personally like to kick things off with a meeting or a (video-)call, getting as many insights about the industry in general, and the business specifically. In this case, the team walked me through the status quo and what outcomes they would expect. Additionally, we took a close look at tasks that are currently running inefficiently and should be improved.
You should be taking notes vigorously at this point and come out of the meeting with a rough overview of what needs to be done.

Ask as many questions as possible.

Don’t be shy or afraid of looking like an idiot. Trust me, you are not. It’s impossible to get it right without asking seemingly stupid questions. You are not an industry expert. They are. It’s the responsibility of the client to get you all the knowledge you need to do the job they hired you for. The more information you can get out of the initial meeting, the easier your own research and the actual design work gets in the end.

Talk about the competition.

In my experience, a handy “hack” is to ask about their competitors. What are they doing better or different in their opinion? Is there an industry leader or best practices you can look up for inspiration? You might even get insights into what the client sees as an ideal solution or the visual style they are looking for. I had countless projects where the initial briefing painted a vastly different picture of the expected outcome. In my experience, by looking at different companies and solutions, people tend to spot things they like to see in their own products more easily.

Do your own research.

After covering all the basics, you should continue with your own research. Often people are so used to certain things inside an industry that they are unable to think outside the box. The information is often tainted with “it’s always been this way around here” answers. In many cases, you can also connect their requirements to requirements you’ve already experienced in other projects - even though the framing might be different. Some features (like reports or in-app communication) often have the same core functionality across almost all industries.

Talk to the audience.

Depending on the client, this can be a bit tricky. Talking to potential end-users is always a good idea. Yet, be careful if you’re talking to people who have been a) working in the sector for a long time and, b) are not tech-savvy at all. This can lead to proposed “solutions” that only reflect the status quo and don’t offer a significant improvement to the actual product you are working on. The right approach is to ask for the desired end result and work your own way back to the right solution to a specific problem.

Alan Kay put it way more elegantly in his book "The Messy Middle":

“If you’re immersed in a context, you can’t even see it.” The cost of expertise is familiarity and becoming biased against new ways of doing it. Ignorance is bliss, and it’s the ideal operating state at the very start of a bold project that would otherwise be too daunting with all the facts. Your lack of experience actually gives you the confidence to question assumptions that industry experts wouldn’t dare defy. That inexperience can make you more open and confident with subjects you’re naive about.

User feedback is essential, but trust your instincts when it comes to workflows. People tend to get stuck in old or inefficient patterns once they use them long enough.

Ask for the desired end result and work your own way back to the right workflow to a specific problem.

Keep communicating your progress.

Now it’s time to get to work. No matter what stage you are in, it’s vital to keep a short and regular feedback loop with your client. Personally, I prefer to have a single point of contact inside the company, with whom I talk to at least every other day. This way, you don’t have to keep an entire team updated, and critical questions will always be handled by the same person. Additionally, this really engages the client and makes them feel like they are a part of the solution. Too many people start working and disappear for days or even weeks. Only end up showing what they think is the end result. This often leaves clients in limbo and feeling out of control over their own projects.

There is one more important benefit of keeping a tight feedback loop: You can easily course-correct if you are heading down the wrong path. Sometimes a solution you think is great doesn’t work for your client at all. Avoid wasting time by keeping your client in the loop.

Chances are, you won’t get it right the first time.

This is where the responsibility of the client comes in. They need to point out industry-specific pitfalls or restrictions that simply won’t work in their context. It is hard not to get frustrated by this from time to time, but it is a necessary evil to deliver the best possible outcome for your client.

By the time you have finished your project, you are one step closer to becoming an expert in whatever industry you have been working in the past few weeks or months. You have also increased your chances of standing out as the go-to person to talk to.

So don’t be afraid to take on projects that are out of your comfort zone and embrace the challenge of not working on the next weather, todo, or project management app.

Read more articles