Design for Us, Design for Diversity

We are complex and unique individuals; we have different approaches for learning, remembering, and doing. Our maturing technologies should now reflect that reality. Here are some thoughts about how curiosity and empathy can help us be better product designers for tomorrow.

Curiosity will lead to the right questions

I was at my doctor's for a checkup when our conversation drifted to my job. I spoke about working in the tech industry designing websites, apps, and interfaces she might come across. Her eyes shot up — she had found an empathetic ear. She had her laptop upgraded, a benign upkeep, but to her chagrin she was overwhelmed in the new UI and could no longer find anything. 

At age 55, her story isn’t new and we all have had our own parents struggle to keep up with the latest devices. As designers, we’ve framed it in our personas along a spectrum of “tech familiarity” or “tech savvy,” yet I wonder if we’ve been drawing the wrong line. Perhaps it isn't so much about their inability, as it is ours to embrace the growing diversity and range in a digitally-literate populace.

image credit: Flickr / João Lavinha

A frame of reference: we like what we know

New technologies will often be disguised either as its predecessor — skeuomorphic — or within a familiar mental model. Among the many causes for this trend, we can point to a simple but poignant psychological behavior: we are naturally averse to any change because of the stress a shift can cause, even if we know the outcome will be positive. So it’s no wonder we’ve started and have for the most part, continued our most ubiquitous model: our own computer’s UI analogy of the desk: a “desktop,” a “trash bin,” “folders,” and so on.

Left to right: Mac 1984, Windows 97, Windows XP (2011)

Insights such as these have driven our design processes: for one, adopting market-saturated design patterns. It can be efficient, safe, and reliable; familiarity can make anything approachable and the known can make anything faster to make. It’s a dependable model, as many industry leaders would advise, but how do we build on it for what’s to come?

Expectations are growing, preferences are unique

As our technologies mature, so do our interactions with them. We already expect sophisticated and beautiful systems to anticipate our needs, despite the incredible discrepancy in our values and past experiences. So how will we meet the increasing expectations of a nuanced audience? This is especially challenging for products that truly have a broad and diverse audience set, such as airfare booking and streaming services. 

Personalize how we perceive, receive, and process

One perspective is to extrapolate personalization. We’re already acclimating to content strategies tailored to our preferences; anticipating what we may buy, what we might like to watch, and who we might enjoy dating. Those systems have become smarter and the algorithms more precise, yet how we access those experiences — those affordances — haven't evolved much. Our soft ergonomics (more on this below) are often elementary, singular, and need handling options and settings. Beyond compensating for basic accessibility — which isn't diligently practiced to begin with — we haven't quite kept up with personalizing how we want to perceive, receive, and process all that content.

Left to right: Kindle brightness settings, map and list view options, text size and scale control
 Soft Ergonomics is the study of designing virtual interfaces that cater towards the wellness of the human body, its emotional and cognitive abilities … [it] only deals with virtual interfaces. It tries to find a compromise between user expectations, system workflow and aesthetics. Users from various cultural and technological background are exposed to a common interface.” Wikipedia

Current soft ergonomic principles will fulfill the needs of different audiences by designing for the base, common threshold; the “casual user.” This approach is driven by its premise that there is a singular, common interface used by all their audiences. Yet now, with more sophisticated technologies, it’s possible to think of multiplicity of “screens;” experiences catered to individuals or more nuanced archetypes.

The tightrope: 

Adopt patterns which are familiar, but not outdated
Tailor experiences for ‘one,’ but not prohibitive to others

We naturally start to look at emerging technologies and experiments, such as Imogen Heap’s kinetic wearables, to push those ergonomic boundaries. For now, they remain on the outskirts of the market, so how can we further soft ergonomics to work for us now?

From the standard two-button mouse to a plethora of options on the market - imagine being limited to just a few options regardless of your needs and preferences. What would diversity in soft ergonomics look and feel like?

Furniture designers need to understand how our bodies move, sit, and lay. Similarly, we in the product design field should continue to map out how we learn, act, feel, and think. To outline a few broad strokes:

  1. The four types of learners
    • Visual
    • Auditory
    • Writing and reading
    • Kinetic
  2. Different ergonomic needs in age and gender
  3. For children (here’s one specifically on desktop use)
  4. For the aging
  5. Cognitive processes
  6. Social science
  7. Capturing intent along with your demographic studies

Branded user experiences can no longer be singular

In our recent past, products have created unique interaction paradigms as a brand defining product differentiator, think Flipbook, Clear, and the first Instagram release. Yet as patterns are adopted by competitors and widely expected by audiences, brands lose this differentiator; Mailbox’s story is a valuable example. How does a product design team work with brand to create a coherent family of interaction models instead of one?

When I had first seen Yugo Nakamura's customizable iida UI for the Japanese smartphone Infobar A02, I was immediately endeared. Here was a unique, coherent, and systematic approach. You can start to imagine how its framework could extend to multiple models, or “screens”, personalized for each us while remaining true to its brand story.  

Infobar A02, released in 2013

Embrace designing for anticipated behaviors and personalization

It is incredibly satisfying and joyful when you put on a suit or shirt tailored to your body. It is also very expensive. How do you economically balance between the out-of-the-box affordances with the bespoke?

Fortunately we don't necessarily hand-cut every item — developers rely on frameworks and technologies already built by others. Perhaps it's asking ourselves how can we build smarter systems that can learn, anticipate, and adjust to your preferred ergonomics, just as we do with our content.

If the assessment of a power user is that he’s more technically literate and is comfortable with the latest trends in UI and UX, we can remember that PC power users can sometimes have the hardest time with a Macbook and Apple power users can fumble around an Android phone. Power users become powerful through habitual use of a particular technology, but those habits don’t always extend across devices or UI; it is no longer about a linear path of aptitude as it is about context and real personalization.

When my doctor was feeling overwhelmed and frustrated, we could frame it as a lack of ability, or we could start celebrating the diversity in our experiences and expectations.


Originally posted in the Friction Collection.

Filed under: Perspective