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Design for Real Life: An Interview with Sara Wachter-Boettcher

A note from the editors: A List Apart’s managing editor Mica McPheeters speaks with Sara Wachter-Boettcher about getting to the heart of users’ deepest needs.

Our users don’t live the tidy little lives we’ve concocted for our personas, with their limited set of problems. Life is messy and unpredictable; some days, terrible. When planning a project, it’s important not to let our excitement lull us into blithely ignoring life’s harsher realities.

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Discomfort with others’ burdens has no place in good design. We sat down with coauthor and content strategist Sara Wachter-Boettcher (a past editor-in-chief of ALA), to discuss why she and Eric Meyer became vocal proponents of taking users’ stress cases seriously. Their new book, Design for Real Life, goes to the root of insensitive design decisions that fail to support the very users we’re meant to understand and respect.

First off, would you tell us a bit about how the book came to be? What was the tipping point that led you to take on this topic?

SWB: In early 2015, I started writing about the way forms demand users to reveal themselves—and all the ways that can be alienating and unempathetic. In that article, I talk about a couple personal experiences I had with forms: being asked to check a box about sexual assault, without knowing why or where that data would go, and being at the German consul’s office, filling out paperwork that required me documenting a sibling who had died as an infant.

It’d be easy to call that the tipping point, but to be honest, I didn’t actually feel that way. In fact, I had started writing that article the day I came home from the German consul’s office. But I wasn’t sure there was anything there—or at least, anything more than an emotional anecdote. I set it down for six months. The idea kept sitting in the back of my mind, though, so finally, during some winter downtime, I finished it off and posted it, unsure whether anyone would really care.

Turns out they did. I got an endless stream of tweets, emails, and comments from people who told me how much the piece resonated with them. And I also started hearing other people’s stories—stories of ways that interfaces had triggered past trauma, or demanded someone to claim an identity that made them uncomfortable, or made assumptions that a user found alienating. Forms that couldn’t handle people who identified as biracial, product settings that assumed heterosexuality, pithy copy that failed if a user’s current emotional state was anything less than ideal. The examples went on and on.

One of the people who reached out to me was Eric, whose work I had of course also been reading. And that’s really when it clicked for me—when I realized that this topic had touched a nerve across all kinds of groups. It wasn’t fringe. All of us deal with difficult pasts or current crises. Each scenario might be an edge case on its own, but taken together, they’re universal—they’re about being human. And now we’re all dealing with them online. The more Eric and I talked and compared stories others had shared with us, the more certain we were that we had something.

We’ve been talking about user-centered design for decades. Shouldn’t this sort of “sensitivity blindness” have been dealt with by now?

SWB: I wish, but historically, teams simply have not been trained to imagine their users as different from themselves—not really, not in any sort of deep and empathetic way.

That’s not just an issue on the web, though—because it’s a lot bigger than “sensitivity.” It’s really about inclusion. For example, look at gender in product design: crash-test dummies are all sized to the “average male,” and as a result, car accidents are far more dangerous for women than men. Medical research subjects are nearly always men—despite the fact that women experience illnesses at different rates than men, and respond to treatment differently. Of course we’ve transferred these same biased practices to the web. In this context, it’s not surprising that, say, Apple’s Health app didn’t include a period tracker—one of the most normal bits of data in the world—for an entire year after launch.

Identity issues—gender, race, sexuality, etc.—are huge here, but they’re just one way this lack of inclusivity plays out. Eric’s experience with Facebook’s Year in Review tells that story quite well: Facebook long imagined itself as a place where happy people share their happy updates. After all, it’s a platform that until just the other day literally only offered you one reaction to a post: to like it. The problem was that Facebook’s design mission stayed narrow, even as the reasons its users interacted with the platform became more and more varied.

While the web didn’t create bias in the world, I do think it has the opportunity to start undoing it—and I am starting to see seeds of that sown around the web. Digital communication has made it so much easier for organizations to get close to their audiences—to see them, talk to them, and most importantly, listen to them. If our organizations can do that—look at their audiences as real, multifaceted, complex people, not just marketing segments—then I think we’ll start to see things truly change.

Why do you think it’s hard for designers to keep real people in mind? Is it that we tend to be excited and optimistic about new projects, so we forget about the ways things can go wrong?

SWB: Yeah, I think that is part of it—and I think the reason for that is largely because that’s what organizations have trained design teams to focus on. That is, when a business decides to spend money on a digital product, they do it with positive outcomes in mind. As a result, the team is trained on the positive: “how can we make this delight our users?” If that’s all you’re asking, though, it’s unlikely you’ll catch the scenarios where a product could be alienating or harmful, rather than delightful, because your brain will be focused on examples of the positive.

For example, if you try to write a tweet that’s too long, Twitter has this little bit of UI copy that says, “Your Tweet was over 140 characters. You’ll have to be more clever.” Now, let’s say I just tweeted about the amazing tacos I just ate for lunch. In that scenario, the copy is light and funny. But what if I was trying to figure out how to tell the world that a friend just died—or even something more everyday, but still negative, like that I’d been rejected from a job? All of a sudden, that interface feels rather insulting. It’s alienating. Sure, it’s a small thing, but it’s hurtful and can even be degrading. And if you only ever test that feature with pithy sample tweets, it’s pretty likely you just wouldn’t notice.

What Eric and I are really advocating for, then, is for design teams to build a deep breath into their process—to say, every time they make a decision, “who might be harmed by this? In which circumstances does this feature break down for a user? How can we strengthen our work to avoid that?” There’s even an activity we talk about in the book, the “premortem”—where, instead of sitting down after a project ends to discuss how it went, you sit down beforehand and imagine all the ways it could go wrong.

At one point, you and Eric mention that “compassion isn’t coddling.” In the example with Twitter’s snarky copy, someone might say, “you’re overreacting—it’s just a joke.” How would you respond to that?

SWB: I’ve definitely gotten plenty feedback from people who say that this is all “too sensitive” and that we’ll all be “walking on eggshells.” Their answer is that people should just have a thicker skin. Frankly, that’s BS—that mentality says, “I don’t want to have to think about another person’s feelings.”

Coddling someone means protecting them from the world—shielding them from difficult subjects. That’s not what we’re proposing at all. We’re saying, understand that your users are dealing with difficult subjects all the time, even when using your site or service. Being kind means being respectful of that fact, and avoiding making it worse. Think about the normal things you’d do in person—like if your friend were going through a divorce, you’d probably wait for them to open up to you, rather than ask prying questions, right? If you knew someone had just been traumatically assaulted at a specific bar, you’d probably not suggest meeting there for drinks. You’d be compassionate, and avoid making them feel even more uncomfortable or vulnerable.

Humans learn to be good at this in person, but because we don’t know when or if a user is going to be in a difficult emotional state, we seem to forget about this online. And that’s why niceness isn’t enough. Being nice is easy to reduce to being friendly and welcoming. But compassion is deeper: it’s recognizing that people have all kinds of needs and emotional reactions, and our job is to help them, rather than expect them to fit our narrow ideals.

If a team understands that, and wants to be compassionate, how much do they need to do to account for “edge cases”? Is there a cutoff point?

SWB: This is something we talk about a lot in the book. “Edge case” is a really easy way to write something off—to say, “this is not important enough to care about.” Calling something or someone an edge case pushes them to the margins, quite literally. Instead of treating people who don’t quite fit whatever you thought of as “average” as fringe, though, we think it’s a lot more helpful to think of these as “stress cases”: the challenges that test the strength of your design. Because if your work can hold up against people at their worst, then you can be more confident it will hold up for everyone else, too.

Just like in traditional products. Think about the brand Oxo, which makes ergonomic housewares. People love Oxo products. But they weren’t initially designed to suit the average user. They were initially designed with the founder’s wife, who had arthritis, in mind. But by making something that was better for people with more limited ranges of motion, Oxo ended up making something that was simply more comfortable to use for most people. We have the same opportunity in our interfaces.

Our message, though, is that it takes a bit of a reframe to get there: it’s not about “how many edge cases do I have to support?” but rather, “how well have I vetted my work against the stress of real life?”

But won’t that affect creativity, to constantly plan for limiting factors—many that we can’t anticipate?

SWB: You know, no one complains that designing a car to be safer during an accident limits the engineers’ creativity. So why should we say that about digital products? Of course thinking about users’ varied identities and emotional states creates limiting factors. But that’s what design is: it is a creative solution to a set of problems. We’re redefining which problems are worth solving.

Of course we can’t anticipate every single human issue that might arise. But I can’t imagine not trying to do better. After all, we’re designing for humans. Why wouldn’t we want to be as humane as possible? I don’t think we need to be perfect; humans never are. But our users deserve to have us try.

Pick up your copy of Design for Real Life from A Book Apart.

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