Holistic approaches view design as a whole in which decisions about the way an interface should look are made in relation to how this will be physically communicated to the user. Unlike a structured approach, no clear distinctions are made between different levels of the system. Design is much less structured and constrained activity, in which there is no rigorous ordering of stages of representation. This approach examines views of humans from all angles and allows designers to create tailored experiences.
Holistic design is a school of thought that disagrees with the traditional approach. It still focuses on solving problems but takes an approach to the design which sees the system as an interconnected whole that is part of a larger world. This method of design takes into account the environment and how its design will affect it. 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.
“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
Trying to define what exactly holistic design means is difficult, I believe that holistic design bridges the gap between UX and traditional industrial design, it encourages us to focus on each and every possible touchpoint of a product that a user will encounter — from shelf to the very end. This can be thought of in a more tangible sense by considering that not only should the user have a great experience with your product in use but they should be able to enjoy the whole experience from inspiration, planning, and purchasing to a continued brand relationship. i.e — the first moment the user hears or sees your product, the moment they unbox the product, the moment the product achieves its main task, and the moment the product is put down.
How to incorporate a holistic approach to your work
A holistic design approach isn’t as confusing as may seem. As design continues to evolve we are becoming ever familiar with design thinking, sprints, and UX design so really we’re already halfway there.
I pulled these 7 key principles that will help you incorporate a holistic approach to your work from the Interaction Design Foundation, each may seem familiar to most of the aspects from the approaches we already use but with a wider scope of opportunity.
Begin with questions rather than answers
Deliver more, not less
Create your own theories
Use 360-degree design
Consider alternative business models
Find what you want that everyone else wants
Barriers to Holistic Design Solutions
Most UX design work consists of incremental improvements over the previous version of a product, and we rarely get to design holistic solutions that elegantly meet the needs of our target audience across systems, services, and devices—or wherever such needs crop up. Further, time-to-market pressures and narrow, predefined solution spaces usually constrain the occasional opportunities we may get to design the first-release product.
Holistic design sounds like it’s for the idealists, a vision of the "perfect" product, I don’t see much wrong with that though. Our generation will be the first where data will become one of the most powerful things available and if used in the right way, it could empower the quest for our perfect holistic design visions and pay dividends far into our futures.