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Forget Averages. Design for Extremes

Posted in Accessibility, and Design

As designers, we use a number of different techniques to learn about our customers. Sometimes we host focus groups to dig into a specific idea. Sometimes we interview customers to learn more about what they’re looking for in a digital product. When we have products that we’re close to ready to ship, we will run usability studies or beta programs to get feedback and assess how easy our products are to use. And sometimes, we will conduct in-depth ethnographic research studies to uncover behavioral patterns and better understand the daily lives of customers we want to learn more about. The goal of all of these is to gather data about our customers. Typically, designers then take all of this information and distill it down into what we call archetypes or personas.

Personas or archetypes are commonly used tools that help designers bring customers into the room and keep them at the front of our design efforts. They often generalize some of the information gleaned from research and they are supposed to help us focus our design work on some common characteristics, behaviors, and needs. In a typical design process, we use these archetypes and personas to identify user stories, requirements, and customer needs. We can then take those requirements and plot them on a bell curve based on the “most requested” or ”most likely to help all personas”. In doing so, we can theoretically identify the capabilities should become our top priorities for development. The ones that might benefit our “average customers”. They rise to the top of our bell curve. But is this really the best method of prioritizing our efforts?

Bell curve illustrating how to plot customer needs with focus on average users

While personas and archetypes can help us uncover some of the key capabilities needed in the systems we design, they come with their own set of risks. In her blog “Designing for Extremes” Susana Gonzalez Ruiz talks about the risk of relying on representative “average users”. This mythical average user that we often talk about is an artificial individual we create based on a combination of elements from a number of actual people. But as none of our customers are actually like this average user, relying on them to design our products and services means we’re really designing for no one. The risk with this approach is that we end up with a solution that doesn’t actually meet anyone’s needs. Instead of relying on archetypes and personas, I believe we should rely more on the behavioral insights we glean from our research and some well defined design constraints that force us to really understand the needs of people who will use our products.

Before we go further, let’s talk a little bit about design constraints. One of my favorite explanations of the value of constraints comes from Charles Eames.

1972 Headshot of Charles EamesCharles Eames, was an architect and furniture designer and arguably one of the most influential designers in the 20th century. Many of his design philosophies are still referenced and relied on by user experience and digital design professionals today.

In an interview in 1972, he shared his thoughts around design constraints. I believe his perspective still resonates today. His main point was that to deliver an effective solution to any design problem the designer needs to be able to recognize as many of the constraints that exist as possible and be enthusiastic about working within them.

Constraints can be anything, they can be limitations of the technology, business, or environment we’re working in. They can come in the form of functional and non-functional requirements and customer preferences. They can be driven by style guides or company branding requirements. But the power of constraints lies in their ability to create boundaries around potential solutions to a problem. They force designers to think creatively about solutions.

But, even when we step away from our mythical average customer and start thinking about design constraints most of us have been trained to design for 80% of our customers. To focus on the needs of the people who have the most in common in terms of behavior, technical acumen, and functional needs. We think about the rest as “edge cases”. But who are these people that live on the edges of our customer plot line?

Bell curve with center third filled in to illustrate where most customers exist. Plot points showing disabled customers and global customers on the left side of the curve and power users on the right.

As we start diving deeper into our pool of customers, I’d wager that many of us living and working in North America have an unconscious bias when we define our 80%. Our culture and society has inadvertently trained us to think first about our sighted, mouse-using, English-speaking, 20-something North American customers. We are conditioned to think about our customers with disabilities, our non-English speaking customers, and the customers we would characterize as power users as edge cases. And while I show them here as living outside our majority, are they really?

Pie Chart showing World Internet Usage from Internet World Stats: Asia 48.7%; Europe 17%; Africa 10.9%; Latin America 10.5%; North America 8.3%; Middle East 3.9%; Australia 0.7%

North America accounts for less than 10% of internet usage world wide. The biggest segment is actually seen in Asia at almost 50% of the world’s internet usage. Now let’s also consider that customers with disabilities make up at least 15% of the global population.  When we really think about it, our typical our “80%” is not really 80% at all. Without intentional focus we forget to understand the needs of these “extreme” customer segments. The result is that we frequently isolate them or create barriers to their ability to use our products.

Bell curve with one quarter of the curve filled in to illustrate the correct segment of customers usually considered the majority. Plot points showing disabled customers and global customers on the left side of the curve and power users on the right.

We are currently conditioned to think of our disabled customers, global customers, and power users as the “extremes” in our customer groups. In reality, most of these customers actually share the same requirements, goals and motivations as our typical “majority customers”. They simply also have a few other, more specialized needs. If we can shift our thinking away from designing for the stereotypical 80% and instead focus on designing for these more extreme groups, I’d wager we would actually design solutions to any problem that will work for everyone.

Fully filled in bell curve illustrating if you focus on the edges, you solve for everyone.

Think about it, if you can design an experience that is robust and powerful enough to satisfy the customer who wants to turn every dial and flip every switch and yet simple enough to be used efficiently by someone who cannot see the screen – doesn’t it stand to reason that you will design an experience that the majority of your customers will love to use? And, as designers, isn’t that our ultimate goal?

I would like to challenge all of you to try thinking a bit more deeply about the customers you’re designing for. Do you know what groups exist on the edges of your majority? Do you know what they need from your products? Have you thought about how will you solve for them? Have you considered how solving for them may positively impact your majority? Let’s collectively forget about the average and start designing for the extremes.


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