Designing for those beyond the Wall

Last month I attended a course by an amazing person which enlightened me and gave me a new perspective to user experience. This post talks about one of the things I learned.

It was the first day of the course and there was a talk about the challenges in Human Computer Interaction(HCI). One of the issues was for designing for people not like us. Prof. Anirudha summed it up beautifully in one statement-

Design as if you are designing for the Others. Those who live beyond the wall.

Imagine Jake(someone who does not know anything about the Others) is the best sword maker in Westeros and boasts to have made swords for all the great houses, from the Starks in the north, the knights of the Vale and also for the warriors of Dorne.

A mysterious person with blue eyes comes to his shop and asks him to forge 5 similar swords for his group. In return they will pay him all the swords weight in gold. The blue eyed person also says that he will have to make all of the swords at their camp up north where all resources will be provided but it will need to be done inside 5 months.

Jake does the math, it took him 5 days to forge the best Valyrian steel sword he ever made and even that fetched mere 3 gold coins. 5 months is more than enough for the job. Taking this offer seems to be a no-brainer. Before leaving the stranger asks-

Do you have any questions? You can still refuse.

Jake’s mind is on the gold and forging any kind of sword has never been an issue. So you just have one question- “Will I get all the gold at once?”.


He goes to their camp beyond the wall, sets up all his tools and goes to meet their king.He requests the king to show the type of swords they currently use. Their king, an old, bearded man goes inside his hut.

The king of the Others in this story. What’s more surprising the king, or the sword?

The king comes out and says

We want 5 swords in 5 months which are exactly the same as this one, if you fail to deliver on quality or quantity, we kill you. Since you are the best sword maker in the land, it should not be a problem.

Jake shits his pants, this is a goddamn ice sword. He has never even seen one before, let alone making one.

What sorcery is this? Exactly the same swords, you must be kidding!? How the hell am I supposed to make this? 5 swords? 5 months!? I can’t make one in 5 years! Wait. Did he just say ‘kill’ you?

Were the thoughts in his head

He tries his best, but at the end of 5 months, he couldn’t produce even a single sword. He also found out that Ned Stark’s execution was a luxury compared to what these guys had planned for him.

These are some challenges in HCI and building software. It’s very common to find such ill-fated processes followed by organizations today. Projects where the developers and designers have substantial domain knowledge can be assigned a ballpark budget and time estimate(Even that can be perilous, like in the case of the ice-sword above). On the other hand, when developing for unknown territory, it’s very common to find requests for extended deadlines and later frustrated users. During implementation only do they realize that certain features will require more resources than planned.

Most of this can be attributed to information which not explicitly stated while estimating time and budget and revealed later when you perform user studies. Other factors like distance between the teams involved in development and the difficulty of keeping everyone on the same page, communication gaps due to time-zone and/or cultural differences also play a major role in missing information which would have been crucial to making any decision when the project was at an embryonic stage.

One way to face this challenge is to consider your users as mysterious beings having esoteric practices(like the Others in Game of Thrones). Do not try to make any assumptions about them and how they work. Study what their main issues and concerns are and interpret the subtle clues you find. Figure how and where can a solution affect their lives and make it easier.

Observe the users before creating an experience for them.

Get to know who they are and what they like and what ticks them off. Once you know how you will implement your design idea to solve their problems, then make an estimate about the time and money which would be required for the solution.

Projects are assigned a budget and time estimation after a brief analysis of what is needed. The complexities of any project only surface when there is a contextual study of their users. The estimations which are not based on the user research work is nothing but a facade. When estimations are based on what the user study findings were, only then we can conclusively say that the features incorporated have considered the user properly. Otherwise it is just a patchwork of features from all over the place. It can be done, but will require a collective effort from all fronts of the organization.

Valar Morghulis.