Holistic Design

Your constantly-updated definition of Holistic Design and collection of videos and articles

What is Holistic Design?

When design teams do holistic design in user experience (UX) design, they take a bird’s-eye view of users’ interactions in their world and the many interconnected factors in their contact with brands. Teams picture how a product/service fits—or might fit—into the wider consumer or user world

“Holistic design takes into account the person, the device, the moment, the ethnographic environment, the physical space as well as human behavior and psychology, i.e. thinking, attitudes, emotions, motivations, abilities, triggers etc., and aims to deliver an optimal experience. At times the entire experience (with a product or brand) is not limited to digital devices but is a mix of digital, real-world brick-and-mortar, and human-to-human interactions.”

— Miklos Philips, Principal UX Designer at Toptal

Holistic Design means You Fly High above the Users’ World

Structural architects developed holistic design as a way to do better than build for just one purpose (e.g., to house people). The idea was to examine views of human occupancy from all angles (e.g., energy consumption, mental health). Therefore, they could design buildings tailored to everything the people who used them needed.

In user experience, designers try to work with a better grasp of all the human dimensions that are involved between users and a particular design. They can explore the various angles more realistically than they would if they focused only on catering to a few aspects of what the users experience (e.g., designers creating an impressive user interface (UI) design but not considering other aspects, such as search engine optimization (SEO)). From there, designers can examine the intricate dynamics in users’ different environments to get a better idea of the balance they need to achieve in their design. Then, they can customize feature sets from the insights they discover. With a holistic mindset, your team doesn’t examine isolated aspects of how users use products/services and experience brands. Instead, you consider how these aspects work together. Therefore, you can predict the series of micro-moments users have across all touchpoints during their experience. Industrial designer Yves Behar captured holistic design in seven points, condensed as follows:

Succeed with Holistic Design

To adopt a holistic design approach, organizations may need to change their cultural mindset. Here are the main holistic considerations:

  1. Because one interaction is typically only part of a series auser takes towards a goal, examine where one task fits in overall and make the best entry and exit points (e.g., checkout).

  2. Investigate cause-and-effect chains and get behind users’ eyes with, for example, design thinking. Issues aren’t typically isolated. They can be wicked problems (i.e., extremely intricate). If decision-makers “solve” one problem but fail to consider associated issues, they can cause repercussions.

  3. Design for the transitions between interactions – users access products/services in various circumstances and ways. Twenty-first-century user experiences consist of many user moments where users pursue goals in many ways. Previously, there was one way (e.g., to buy vacations from a bricks-and-mortar travel agent).

  4. Use customer journey maps, user stories, personas and touchpoints matrices to help illustrate the entire user context and the associated systems and tangent issues.

  5. Produce sufficient resources for all touchpoints. For example, the designers of a municipal bicycle system in a city that requires helmets must examine how to supply helmets. Similarly, UX designers must predict both digital and physical aspects of users’ needs.

Design thinking can be a good method to use for holistic design because it helps make sense of the many complex and intertwined human-world realities in which users will access, use and judge designs/products. It can therefore help you address all angles of the user experience—*holistically*.

With holistic design, your aim is to design for a successful UX ecosystem. You should therefore create a branded experience which covers many dimensions of use. You must make designs that offer seamless interactive experiences to facilitate that. A holistic user experience reflects empathy for users. Moreover, it’s proof that a design team has built in the comfort (or delight) users expect in the flow of actions they take after they discover a brand. To achieve this, your team has to tailor every dimension to match the many independent relationships (i.e., users, their behavior and aims, the other technology they use, etc.) that happen across specific touchpoints.

Learn More about Holistic Design

You can learn more about design thinking with our course here.

This piece shows the challenges involved with holistic design.

Smashing Magazine’s examination of holistic design strategies features a touchpoints matrix.

Literature on Holistic Design

Here’s the entire UX literature on Holistic Design by the Interaction Design Foundation, collated in one place:

Learn more about Holistic Design

Take a deep dive into Holistic Design with our course Design Thinking: The Ultimate Guide .

Some of the world’s leading brands, such as Apple, Google, Samsung, and General Electric, have rapidly adopted the design thinking approach, and design thinking is being taught at leading universities around the world, including Stanford d.school, Harvard, and MIT. What is design thinking, and why is it so popular and effective?

Design Thinking is not exclusive to designers—all great innovators in literature, art, music, science, engineering and business have practiced it. So, why call it Design Thinking? Well, that’s because design work processes help us systematically extract, teach, learn and apply human-centered techniques to solve problems in a creative and innovative way—in our designs, businesses, countries and lives. And that’s what makes it so special.

The overall goal of this design thinking course is to help you design better products, services, processes, strategies, spaces, architecture, and experiences. Design thinking helps you and your team develop practical and innovative solutions for your problems. It is a human-focused, prototype-driven, innovative design process. Through this course, you will develop a solid understanding of the fundamental phases and methods in design thinking, and you will learn how to implement your newfound knowledge in your professional work life. We will give you lots of examples; we will go into case studies, videos, and other useful material, all of which will help you dive further into design thinking. In fact, this course also includes exclusive video content that we've produced in partnership with design leaders like Alan Dix, William Hudson and Frank Spillers!

This course contains a series of practical exercises that build on one another to create a complete design thinking project. The exercises are optional, but you’ll get invaluable hands-on experience with the methods you encounter in this course if you complete them, because they will teach you to take your first steps as a design thinking practitioner. What’s equally important is you can use your work as a case study for your portfolio to showcase your abilities to future employers! A portfolio is essential if you want to step into or move ahead in a career in the world of human-centered design.

Design thinking methods and strategies belong at every level of the design process. However, design thinking is not an exclusive property of designers—all great innovators in literature, art, music, science, engineering, and business have practiced it. What’s special about design thinking is that designers and designers’ work processes can help us systematically extract, teach, learn, and apply these human-centered techniques in solving problems in a creative and innovative way—in our designs, in our businesses, in our countries, and in our lives.

That means that design thinking is not only for designers but also for creative employees, freelancers, and business leaders. It’s for anyone who seeks to infuse an approach to innovation that is powerful, effective and broadly accessible, one that can be integrated into every level of an organization, product, or service so as to drive new alternatives for businesses and society.

You earn a verifiable and industry-trusted Course Certificate once you complete the course. You can highlight them on your resume, CV, LinkedIn profile or your website.

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