Get real: How to design for the life of others?

Las Vegas - March 2007

In Getting Real, Jason Fried writes: “design for yourself.” The first time I read it, I cringed. People who design using themselves as the only audience—this is how a lot of bad software is created. But then I thought more about it, and realized that Jason was just stating a truth. You may well disagree with him, but this is exactly what happens. We can only design for ourselves. And to be fair, great products have been created by people who uncompromisingly designed for themselves.

This is one of the genial intuitions of Alan Cooper. We do design for ourselves, so why don’t we create alternative personalities—the personas—that can expand our “ourselveness” to encompass new dimensions and reveal new perspectives?

Usability folks point at usability testing as a way, among other things, to become aware of other perspectives on a design or a product. Ethnographers and contextual designers swear by their site visits. Others propose behavioral interviews, listening labs, and other methods that can shed light on other people’s experiences.

I’m always amazed at how good people can be at role playing. You tell this 25-yearl old guy that he is an older woman trying to do X, and they will be able to make some good predictions of how they would behave in that situation.

The limit of role-playing, though, is that we can only identify with what we know. If my mom resembles the woman in the scenario, I may be able to identify with her and predict how she would behave in that situation. But if I don’t know anybody like that woman, it’s going to be hard for me to understand what means to be her.

Some time ago I talked to Casey Malcolm (now at Refinery) about teaching usability to designers. She pointed out how important is to make designers experience what it’s like to be their users. To teach them how to design usable products for an older population, for example, don’t tell designers to take in account seniors’ lower visual acuity and decreased motor control. Let young designers wear glasses that impair their visual acuity. Tie two of their fingers together, to mimic what it means to have arthritis or lower motor control. Then put them in front of a computer and a mouse. Only after going through this experience they could start understanding what it means to be 70 and use the web application they have designed.

So, perhaps Jason Fried is completely on target. We can only design for ourselves. Being aware of it, making it explicit can make us find creative ways of designing for people who are different from us. Perhaps we need to hire people like the ones we are designing for, so we can continue to design for ourselves and still create a great products. Perhaps we need to create experience labs, so that for a while we can live the life of the people we are designing for.

As an added bonus, being in the skin of others for some time will probably make us better people. Definitely a win-win…

[About Getting Real: Jason Fried preaches what he practices. The book is never boring and sports an essential, fast writing style modeled on the “Elements of style.” It’s opinionated and at times dogmatic, but always interesting and thought-provoking. As all 37Signals products, Getting Real leave us wishing for something more: more examples, more stories from the trenches, more how to, more insights. I’m sure that Jason is fine with it: better let your users/readers craving for more than getting bored or overwhelmed.

On the Getting Real website you can read a free HTML version, download a PDF version ($19), or buy a paperback self-published version ($29). ]

Update 4/20/07

  • After reading “The art of the start” I think that Jason Fried should have called his book “Everything I know I learned from Guy Kawasaki, then I tried it out and it worked.”
  • In his latest post, Andrew Hinton suggests to think of personas as a mindset, not as a methodology.
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4 thoughts on “Get real: How to design for the life of others?

  1. Fantastic! I love it. There is one facet that we should be aware of … we can get into other roles and we do have methods for doing that, but we also need to be aware that we often want to design what would be interesting or challenging to build. We want to design things that we will have fun designing and building, and that does not always mean we design it so that others accept and adopt it.

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