By considering the extreme users first from the outset of the design process we improve the user experience for everyone. This design approach puts into question the average user in the user-centered design.

The story of this article began in 2013 with a post in my blog, entitled “Designing for the Extremes“. Although it had very positive feedback, I didn’t continue researching the subject. However, I occasionally met situations that reminded me I should delve deeper.

That’s how in January 2016 I decided to enroll in the IDEO U course “Insights for Innovation. With the help of IDEO’s approach to gathering human-centered insights that fuel innovation and the advice of Michael Chapman, design lead at IDEO, I tackled my challenge: showing why, how and when designing for the extremes improves design for all. And from all this, my final project “Extremes First Design” emerged:

The matter of design for the extremes arises from the realization that many products and services initially designed for extremes users wind up improving the experience for everyone.

Who are the extremes?

But who are the extremes? That depends mainly on the context, our assumptions and the lens we use to imagine and identify specific people who we call “our average user”. Extremes can be considered based on demographics (age, gender, ethnicity, capabilities…), behaviors (experts vs newbies…) and motivations. This is how, for example, mobile users are extreme users when we take into account that desktop web access represents the 75%.

In an inspiring TED Talk, Chieko Asakawa, explains how technology created to make the Internet accessible to the blind now helps drivers listen to their emails. But we don’t need to look that far. During the observation lesson in my IDEO U course, I could see how the toilet paper holder of a toilet adapted for people in wheelchairs was much easier to use (and hygienic) than the “normal” holders. Also, I could see spectacular examples of how people preferred waiting long queues to take the escalator instead of the stairs.

Invisible barriers

Perhaps one of the biggest Aha! moments in my research was during the visit to the Hotel Ilunion of Barcelona, 100% accessible. The hotel manager showed me sockets adapted for people in wheelchairs that, in fact, were better designed than the usual sockets, which often force us to do stunts to recharge our computer or mobile.

This made me realize that products and services designed for the average user (me, for example) not only exclude the extremes, but create invisible barriers for most users. Since most of us have the ability to bend, make the effort of stretching our arm and even (I had to) turn on a flashlight to see where is the socket, designers don’t feel concerned with adapting their products to the user.

The key question is who is the average user? Actually, it’s a concept used to model the needs, motivations and abilities of users. The average user often exists only on a theoretical level. People are very diverse and changing. We all are extremes depending on the context and moment. Perhaps, are the products and services themselves which, by excluding us, make us being extremes.

Who are we really excluding?

Designing for the average user, therefore, excludes not only the extremes. It also creates barriers for many other users, who are forced to make additional efforts to use products and services. Thus, the argument that the average user includes most of users is wrong.

who are we really excluding

Along my visit to the hotel, the manager told me that the menu was also accessible. They had food for diabetics, celiacs … Suddenly, I realized that I myself (I’m lactose intolerant) was an extreme. He also told me that the adaptations in the showers were very well received by the elderly, or even by some people with fear of slipping. And atention: if you suffer from claustrophobia or fear of heights, you’re an actually an extreme.

Multimodal experiences

This average user also adversely affects design in a second way. In my research, I visited the exhibition “Distinction” of the Barcelona Design Museum, which featured a selection of 160 photographs representative of different ways of understanding fashion photography over the years. This exhibition was accessible for people with functional visual impairment through tactile reproductions of images and audio descriptions.

During the visit, I accompanied a user without visual disability to see how her experience was. While chatting, I realized that one of the most common mistakes of designers is to perceive users as if they had only one sense. In addition to the eyes, people can also interact with their environment by touch, smell, taste and hearing. Including people with disabilities helps us break that mental limitation, thus offering a multimodal experience, much richer.

when the inclusion excludes

However, when we take into account the extremes in design, we often make the mistake of including them as a secondary goal, as an extra. This creates new barriers and stigmatizes users, resulting in poor and unfinished products and services.

The designer of Touch Graphics Europe, who creates multi-sensory display techniques for visually impaired people, told me that, initially, tactile reproductions of images or text were designed completely blank. Although blind people were able to perceive their content, they couldn’t share it with their friends or family, who could see. Thus, a product created to include was a source of exclusion.

We all have experienced similar situations. For example, escalators or elevators built because of legal obligation, poorly signalized and located in remote and inaccessible areas. People with luggages, bikes or strollers are forced to use the stairs because the accessible elements are inaccessible. Surely, all this is very familiar to designers who are faced with the challenge of redesigning websites for mobile users.

The extremes are not a niche

The designer of Touch Graphics Europe told me that he once proposed to the director of a ski resort to design a relief map for blind people. The director rejected the proposal because “how many blind go skiing?”. The question is not how many blind people could benefit from a relief map, but how many skiers could use it. 2D maps are generally complex for anyone. This can be checked when a tourist shows us a map and ask us how to go to a certain place.

The extremes are not a niche. As we have seen, we all are extremes. From this point of view, then, my proposal is Extremes First Design. This perspective proposes to consider the universal accessibility from the outset of the design process, starting with the extremes to ensure their best experience and gradually improve it for users with less constrictions.

Obviously the Extremes First Design has limits. Sometimes, to provide a good experience, the best option is designing differentiated products for each group of users. However, this doesn’t invalidate the principle of Extremes First Design, but it helps us to know under what conditions is the best approach.

next steps

My goal is to continue with my research and learn about new projects in order to make the Extremes First Design a serious design approach, giving tools for designers to create better products and services. It’s time to rethink the user in the user-centered design.

If you have any ideas for how to design with a Extremes First approach and would like to share it then please email your suggestion to