Photo by Faris Mohammed on Unsplash

Digital product design is about keeping two things in your head at the same time —successfully doing this is key to making great products

Tim Allan
4 min readDec 18, 2023


Digital design requires practitioner to continually change focus between many contexts. This has been described as working at ‘the top and the bottom’ — but essentially speaks about the need to, sometimes almost simultaneously, focus on details of the experience, but also being aware of the wider context. It’s this contextual switching, to move between both detail and big picture, and the different thinking styles required that makes digital design hard.

In it’s most basic form, it’s easy to just focus on one area — and very often it’s the thing being ‘designed’. This is the ‘zoomed in’ view: the interface, and the users’ interactions to something add something to their shopping cart, to touch the screen to complete their daily Wordle, or enter their address as their destination for their Uber.

On another level, I have seen designers operate on the level of the ‘zoomed out’ view. Producing customer experience maps and user journeys, that show the problem space, and the way a customers moves though this, but then offering no detail on how to address any issues it reveals.

Why is this hard

Switching contexts is hard. The thinking styles and the subsequent outputs are different depending on what level you are working at.

Take for example research — an activity that’s primarily concerned with context creation. These are the methods used to define the problem space, where you work out, through an understanding of users and their contexts, what is the right problem to solve. This is wide exploratory thinking with outputs — maps and artefacts that reflect that thinking style.

Whereas Interaction design, is primarily an activity of making and prototyping the form of the tool (or tools) to solve the user’s needs. These are the detailed interactions, the movement through an digital experience that helps a user achieve their goals.

Neither of these design activities should exist in isolation. A successful design process mediates between these two activities, big picture thinking and detailed execution. If not, you end up with research reports that no one reads, or interactions designs so off the mark they are not only unusable, but worse, are a suite of functionality that solves the wrong problem.

Switching happens all the time

However, this challenge is amplified because of the frequency designers need to switch when doing ‘design’.

Very often, and this may be a result of project management views of the design process, these activities are expected to be done in differing phases of a project. The research comes first, then the detailed design.

However, the reality is that this switching happens at all stages of a project.

During early research phases, although there may be a focus on qualitative data gathering and analysis — Within this space, there is always a making phase, the synthesis of this data. This is the generation of concepts, and practical explorations of what this data could mean.

During later phases in the project, where the problem space may be better known, this doesn’t mean that context is forgotten. When executing design concepts and prototypes, designers must look up from the specifics of the things their designing, and constantly refer to the context of it’s use and how this begins to resolve user’s needs.

This repeated refocusing on both detail and big picture is what makes digital product design hard.

Why it’s important to keep context front and centre

Products live in services. Sometimes, the product is the service. Sometimes multiple products deliver a wider service offering. However, throughout this, keeping in mind, a users wide and often changing context as well as the impact on individual touch points, is paramount.

Operating on just one level is not enough to create an experience that resonates with the user. Users don’t want functionality, and they’ve no use for artefacts describing their problem space. They’re after tools and processes that can solve their needs — but solving their needs means understanding both how to solve it and also why it needs to be solved.

“People don’t want quarter-inch drill bits. They want quarter-inch holes.” — Adage apparently used by Clayton Christiansen

In this sense, thinking about the user and the many levels of context is one of the chief challenges that digital product designers face in doing their job. Think of someone using the Uber app on their phone, whilst standing in the street, wanting to get a ride home…in the rain. Or someone watching or reading a recipe on their tablet, propped up against cooks books as they race to follow along..the touchscreen no longer works as their hands are covered in flour. Or someone completing a digital admission form in the context of in-patient admission desk at a hospital…in pain, with no support and without many of their information to hand.

But there is another side to this. Designers need to do this switching continually, and at all stages for a project. Even in activities that are perceived as information gathering, and especially when they’re prototyping. Keeping the context in mind, whilst crafting the experience is a continual challenge.

There is another aspect to this too. Great Innovation occurs when there is a clear understanding of the entire value chain. This is one of design’s strengths, provide context to the entire value chain and to then (often crossing organisational silos) to operate at the detailed level to create the actual change — to build prototypes and things that will deliver value to users.

There is always a wider context in how a user engages with a product, and the wider service that a user is engaged with. Building experiences that connects with users is born from an understanding of both the thing and the context. Doing this successfully builds great products and great experiences.



Tim Allan Fmr: Design Manager for clinical care @ Babylon. Fmr Lead Design/research in Urgent & Emergency Care at RCA MRES