Six Steps to Building Domain Expertise in a Complex Industry

About four years ago, I decided to take the plunge and join the Facebook Ads & Pages group to help build a design team for this crucial area of the business. I knew it was one of the biggest design opportunities in the industry, and I was excited to learn something new. I’d never worked on ads before, but I was pretty smart, and I had a good track record. How hard could it be?

Not long after I joined the team, I remember sitting in a staff meeting, listening to one of my colleagues discuss the specifics of a particular project. I sat in that meeting, and countless others during my first few weeks and months, feeling, well, a lot like this dog ...

Artist’s rendering of me

… happy and enthusiastic, but somewhat clueless. At the time, I found myself thinking, “I must be the only person in this meeting who doesn’t know what that means.”

Spoiler alert: you are almost NEVER the only person who doesn’t understand something complex.

You just may be the only person brave enough to admit it and ask for help or clarification. While I was excited about the opportunity in this new, mysterious world, I was feeling a bit overwhelmed. Because even though I’m a smart, experienced, and accomplished designer, it turns out that digital advertising is hard. It’s hard for the people trying to use the tools, and it’s hard for the people trying to build better tools.

The industry is so complex, with so many actors with often misaligned incentives, that figuring out what to do is hard, and figuring out how to get it done can be even harder. But if there’s one thing I’ve learned over the past 20+ years in the tech industry, it’s that there’s no free lunch. You can’t have massive impact in a sustainable way without wading through some really complicated problems. And making advertising work better for businesses and for billions of people everywhere is something that is definitely worth my time and energy.

When I talk with prospective product designers and researchers, they are often excited by the challenges digital advertising presents, but sometimes they’re worried that they won’t do well because of their lack of domain expertise. And I totally get that. My team has grown a lot over the past four years. And I’d estimate that about 90% of them had no experience in digital advertising before taking the same leap of faith I did. No one likes to feel clueless for long periods of time. We all want to feel we are working toward a state of creative confidence, where we can have well-founded opinions that help move our design work in the right direction.

So how did I get past the feeling that I didn’t know what I was doing?

And how do we help new designers and researchers who join our team get past that phase as quickly as possible? We became very intentional about how we onboard new team members.

I want to share with you some of the methods that I’ve found to be most effective. Some of these seem pretty obvious, but some may be less intuitive. Anything that will help encourage more designers to engage in these under-served, complex domains is a good thing. And I’m not just talking about digital advertising — though I’m thoroughly enjoying it, and we are hiring! — but also areas like education, healthcare, financial services, and government.

You don’t need to be an expert in these industries to add a ton of value or to do great work. In fact, your beginner’s mind can be a huge asset to a team that really wants to change the way things work. What is required is an aptitude and passion for tackling complex problems, humility to know what you don’t know, and collaboration skills to partner deeply with knowledgeable colleagues. You can do this! And you should, because these industries are crying out for more design leadership.

So whether you’ve already been thrust into a new, complex domain or you are considering diving into one, I hope you find these 6 techniques helpful in getting your sea legs …

1. Do your industry homework

Every industry has its thought leaders. Ask the brightest minds — both people you know and industry leaders you can reach through social media — whom they first read to learn about the domain, and what they would recommend to someone new to the space. Some sources may be new, fresh voices forging new ways of working and doing. Some may be older but still have invaluable wisdom to impart. Often thought leaders from the past have shaped the way the many people working in a given industry think and operate. For instance, Ogilvy on Advertising was published in 1985 but is still considered required reading for anyone working in the ad industry.

And you can go beyond books to film, TV, blogs, newsletters.

Gather recommendations from a diverse set of sources and build a reading and watching list for yourself.

Then pay it forward by providing the list to any colleagues who are climbing the learning curve alongside you. After all, we should try to continuously flatten that learning curve for the people who choose to join us in our efforts.

2. Clarify the jargon

Every domain has its own terminology. Between the jargon and the acronyms, it can feel like you’re learning a whole new language! Each time I’ve tackled a complex new domain, whether it was search at Google, video at YouTube, or now digital advertising at Facebook, I’ve created a running terminology and acronym glossary.

At every meeting, and in all of my industry homework, I’d track every term I didn’t know or understand, and write down all the acronyms that people bandied about so effortlessly. Some of it was industry-specific, and some of it was our own internal terminology, coded names, and other opaque language that made conversations harder to understand than they needed to be. I’d then take my list of jargon and sit down with someone I trusted over lunch or coffee and ask them what each and every term meant.

Each time, I found there were terms that even the serious experts couldn’t crisply define or that two different experts did not define in the same way.

That always made me feel a bit better, knowing this was hard for the experts, too.

I’d document everything and then share it through an internal wiki and with new team members. I’ve found that even people who’ve been in the space for a while find it useful as a resource. The fact is, in these complex domains, everyone is continuously learning.

3. Find a domain mentor/teacher

Find someone who has not only strong domain expertise but also the energy and interest to help educate you more quickly than you might be able to educate yourself. This might be your manager, but it could also be a peer in your group, or maybe someone on another team — engineering or product marketing or sales — who is willing to meet with you and help answer your questions and help guide you up the initial, steepest part of the learning curve.

If you don’t know whom to ask for this kind of mentoring, ask your manager to align you with someone who may be able and willing to help. And if you are a manager or leader, consider making this a more formal program to encourage the flow of domain expertise around the team.

When we partner in this way, all boats rise with the tide.

4. Walk in the shoes of the users

It goes without saying that conducting user research is the most valuable thing you can do to gain an understanding of what problems/opportunities need to be addressed and how best to address them. Conducting upfront, generative research to understand who the users are and what they really need is critical. But in a complex new domain, there are many other ways to internalize the customer’s experience.

For instance, at Facebook we send teams to our call centers to spend the day with customer service reps and to listen in on customer support calls. It’s a great way to build empathy with the people for whom you are designing, and to pick up on themes in the problems people are experiencing.

If your organization or client has a sales team, make it a priority to build relationships with that team.

They have a direct line to the people interacting with the product. You could interview them and gather valuable insights into what they are hearing in the field about pain points and gaps in product offerings. You could propose shadowing them on a sales call to hear how the product is being pitched and what the response is. As a side benefit, you may be able to visit the customer’s work environment and directly observe how they work.

5. Use the product however you can

As you gain perspective on the industry and the people for whom you are designing, you need to move into understanding the actual products. This can be tricky when those products are used in contexts that are very different from your own life and work experiences.

One of the most important ways to ensure we are focused on the right things is to find a way to use our own products.

This is affectionately referred to in the tech industry as “dogfooding,” and it’s a critical way that we stay in touch with how well our products are working. For Facebook ads, we encourage employees to “adopt a business” and to create ad campaigns to help that business grow, whether it’s a small local store, an online retailer, or a nonprofit looking to drive donations. Choosing something you care about will increase your motivation to get to know the products much better.

When I first joined Facebook, I used my ad credits to drive traffic to my blog. I was pretty happy when the campaigns did well, but honestly, if the campaign didn’t go well, it was really no skin off my back. I don’t rely on my blog for my livelihood, so the urgency was just not there. It wasn’t until I started using my ad credits to help my sister’s nonprofit that I felt the full value of the dogfooding experience.

Make sure that when you test your products, you find a way to make it feel as real as possible.

You will not only find all kinds of things you want to improve about the product, but you will gain priceless empathy with your customers.

Of course, this notion of dogfooding may not be possible in all companies and industries. When I worked at Wachovia Bank many years ago, it was extremely difficult for us to really understand the wholesale banking experience because access to those products required major financial assets to open and maintain an account. In cases where personal use is not an option, you’ll have to rely on shadowing and observing people using the products, leveraging the sales team if one exists, and doing whatever else you can to gain visibility into the experience of using those products.

Sometimes we have to be creative in finding ways to gain empathy and product knowledge in complex domains.

6. Map out the system

One you’ve gotten a sense of the people for whom you are designing and some familiarity with the products and features they’re using, it’s important to take a step back and invest time in mapping out the whole system. I’m not just talking about your company’s product suite. I’m talking about the whole ecosystem of the industry in which you are working and how your products and services fit in. Understanding what drives or hinders success requires us to think at a systems level, not just a feature or flow level.

For example, in advertising, we can think about our design challenge as being primarily focused on helping people build and measure ad campaigns. It’s about designing the most effective, easiest-to-use tools. Then we might assume that if advertisers have a great experience with the tools, they will logically spend more of their ad budget on our platform. But unless we pull back to a very wide angle lens, we may miss critical ecosystem forces that could keep that from happening. For instance, the various roles within an organization that may have misaligned incentives; business models that may rely on the continuation of the status quo; or the general inertia that exists in all complex systems.

Inertia is defined as “a property of matter by which it continues in its existing state of rest or uniform motion in a straight line, unless that state is changed by an external force.”

In so many cases, the “external force” that can change the way things work is … design.

Whether it’s in advertising, healthcare, education, or government — pick your favorite dysfunctional but critical societal system — what we do as designers can change things for the better.

Pulling ourselves out of the weeds to look at the big picture will ensure that we are focused not just on getting the details right but also on solving the right problems and in ways that will actually create positive change over time.

So now you know some of ways to ramp up in a new space and build your creative confidence. But perhaps the most important thing we can all do in order to engage in these complex domains is to make the story of what we are doing so compelling and actionable that we — and those we work alongside— are energized and motivated to make our way up the sometimes-steep learning curve. We must remind ourselves why the work matters, the impact we are having on the lives of people, and how much we are learning along the way.

Moving into a space where we are novices can be exciting, but it can also be daunting. If we approach these complex industries with patience, curiosity, and a bit of humility, we can tackle some of society’s biggest design challenges. And as managers and leaders, by investing in proper onboarding, we can attract and retain top talent in the industries that need it most.

At Facebook, we don’t always get it right. Digital advertising is still hard. And sometimes I still have moments when I feel like this dog:

But then I remind myself that the real joy of learning a new domain isn’t in mastery but in the continuous unfolding of it. Seeing how vast and strange it is, and how different that world is from what I first imagined. As with most things in life, it’s not the destination, but the journey. Want to come along for the ride?

P.S. While these 6 steps have worked for me, it’s surely not an exhaustive list of strategies. Please share your own tips and tricks as a response to this article so we can learn from each other!

I want to thank the many people who contributed to this article, including those in the awesome Elegant Tools Facebook Group community: Geoff Teehan, Pierre Marly, Beth Dean, Yanling Wang, Josh Damon Williams, Trevor Phillippi, Frank Marquardt, Todd Hulin, Lan Guo, Zac Frank, Claudia Love, Andrew Harder, Andrew Reback, David Hayward, David Cronin, Razvan Gradinaru, and especially to Leonardo De La Rocha for the beautiful illustrations — not the dog meme ones :).