Methods of crisis

In order to create truly inclusive designs, we need to be at least as good at designing things for people with disabilities as we are at designing things for ourselves. There is an incredible amount of knowledge about designing things for common technologies like laptops, mouses, touch devices, etc. Libraries of Borgesian proportions can be filled with expert books about user interface design for average people. Specialist books about user interface design for alternative technologies — like keyboard navigation and screen readers — are much less common. There is no comparable body of knowledge, which means we can not create truly inclusive interfaces.

One of the ideas I’m working on is trying to create expert knowledge in the field of user experience design for assistive technologies by letting designers focus exclusively on real people with disabilities. On most websites people with severe disabilities are in a minority. There are good arguments to focus on such a minority. The idea of stress cases is one of these arguments.

Stress cases

The idea for focusing on the extremes, on the exceptions, comes in part from the book Design for Real Life by Sara Wachter-Boettcher and Eric Meyer[1]. In their book they argue that designers should design for the edges of the target audience, instead of focusing on the center.

A lot of user centered design is done for made-up, average people. Persona’s are created around these averages: fictional clients who are placed well within the chosen target audience. The design team is then supposed to design for these persona’s. All extremes are removed from these imaginary people: They are happy, have a fine income, 2.4 kids and they live in a medium-sized town. The assumption is that by focusing on the average, the final product will work for 90% of the visitors. Which can be considered to be quite a lot.

Wachter-Boettcher and Meyer think this is not enough. They care about the other 10%. What happens to them? And what do they need?

Design by personas labels the 10% as edge cases: exceptional situations that are impossible to take into account.

We’re designing for the 90%, not the 10%. That’s classic edge-case thinking: a shorter way of saying, That’s a difficult use case that I don’t want to think about.

Design for Real Life, chapter 3, Incorporate Stress Cases

In their book Wachter-Boettcher and Meyer demonstrate that focusing on these 10% will result in a much better product for many more people. They don’t use the term edge cases for this group but they call them stress cases instead: people who have to use your product or service under pressure, in stressful situations, or even in emergencies. They write about examples like the pressure you feel when the battery of your phone is almost drained but you do need to fill in this one form. Or the case of people who need to find the emergency room in a hospital at night and right now don’t really care about the successes of the surgeons team on the homepage. People with double jobs (which is quite common in certain countries like the US) whose car broke down and need to fix things, etc. They come up with many powerful examples that show that these are cases that we should be designing for. If it works for these people in these extreme situations, chances are high that it works for these imaginary average persons as well.

If someone comes to a site or app in a moment of crisis, we bet they have a genuine need to be there—and that is the exact moment we don’t want to let them down

Design for Real Life, chapter 3, Everyday Stress Cases

A method of crisis

I think there’s an analogy to be made. On the one hand we have the stress cases that Wachter-Boettcher and Meyer describe. The people who have to use a service in a moment of crisis. On the other hand I think we can talk about the method of crisis as a similar stress case.

Right now the assistive technologies that some people depend on can be considered to be stress cases as well. It’s not necessarily a moment of crisis when, for instance, a blind person uses your site with their screen reader. But we could consider a screen reader to be a method of crisis: since we’re not good at designing for these kinds of assistive technologies, someone who depends on this tech can not assume in advance that the websites they’re about to visit will work. Imagine the amount of stress you’d have if with every link you’d follow you’d have to ask yourself: Will I be able to use this site? Of course, for the average user this would be totally unacceptable.

The Babylonian library of user experience design has taught us how to make the average user happy. I think that Wachter-Boettcher’s and Meyer’s book is a good addition to the tiny subsection in this library: the section about user experience design for the not-so-average user. Let’s focus on them for a while.


  1. Sara Wachter-Boettcher and Eric Meyer, Design for Real Life, A Book Apart Publishers, New York, ePub Edition, 2016  ↩

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