London Design Festival 2017: SMART DESIGN with Ruby Steel

Designing For One

Ruby Steel | Smart Design

This event was held on 18/09/17 at the SMART Design Studios, London as part of the LDF17.

Ruby Steel shared her experience of appearing on BBC2’ s The Big Life Fix, delving into an incredible project, and the impact it had on her as a designer and her design process.

Tables were soon turned with SMART presenting a question to the audience for discussion…

The event brought together a bunch of creative & design enthusiasts for an evening of debating and fun!

The entrance to SMART Design’s creative realm.

Meet Graham

Below is a link to the micro-documentary (length 04:14) of a project Ruby worked on as ‘a Fixer’ on The Big Life Fix. It is well worth the watch.

It tells the story of Graham, a stroke victim who is unable to speak and is living with locked-in syndrome.

Ruby & co fixer Ross were tasked with designing a solution to improve Graham’s standard of living. Their journey was one full of discovery, empathy and determination.

read the full story

Ruby sharing her story on designing for just one user and how it compared to consultancy work

The Question: “Can Universal Design work for One Extreme User ? ”

This led to a classical two-party debating session, with people placing themselves in the team that aligned with their views.

In our respective YES & NO teams, we discussed the matter, sharing a wide range of ideas with each other that built upon our current views.

A decision was also made to play devil’s advocate as this would ensure we were ready to answer any curve balls the opposition could throw at us.

Once satisfied that we could argue our cases, a quick break was taken to refuel for the oncoming debate.

Each team took turns to put their arguments forward,with questions also thrown back and forth.


  • Quality vs Quantity: You can learn far more by focusing on a single person in depth than many people in shallow.e.g one person for a month vs a focus group for an hour.
  • Increase in Creativity: An extreme user will have more problems/ issues than the average user. A greater number of issues that could be addressed means more potential solutions, leading to a wider possibility for creativity.
  • By specifically designing for those who would have difficulty, doesn’t it mean you would actually automatically cover everybody above that extreme percentile? You’d have designed in a way to make it easier for both the extreme user and normal users.
  • Product example: Michael Jordan & Nike. Designed for one extreme user, (on the other end of the scale at professional level) the Jordan shoes range is one of the most successful products out there on the market. This shows that designing with one extreme user has worked.


  • Perhaps it works when targeting functionality/ usability aspects of design. But what about something like emotions?
  • Is it suitable to design for one when applying this to the mass markets — perhaps not everybody has these problems/ you’ll have missed one?
  • Is the success of Michael Jordan’s trainers down to the fact it actually improves people’s abilities, it makes them play better and is suitably designed for them or just simply clever marketing where the success is down to the celebrity status of Michael Jordan. In other words, people buy the product irregardless of ergonomics because of the branding and marketing by Nike.
The Verdict is Out

The Final Verdict:

To answer the question: Yes, you can indeed use one extreme user for Universal Design. It is a viable method which has the possibility to produce amazing results- as we have seen with TheBigFix.

However, context should always be taken into account when choosing this (or in fact any other methods) as it may not always be the most suitable for the task.

Perhaps it is the combination of two or more that really result in an excellent design process.

A member of my YES team had an alternative, which we all agreed was brilliantly put…

“ Maybe instead of designing for one, we should design for two.”

— A YES Team Member

What I learned:

With little experience in Universal Design and the idea of Designing for One, (especially as I was conditioned to design for the 5th–95th percentile in school), I was super excited to learn what it involved through Ruby’s presentation of her own experience and the impact it had on her as a designer and her design process.

I think the biggest thing I took away was the importance of empathy. It was evident just how important the ability to empathise was in Graham’s Story; as a locked-in syndrome suffer, 3 hours of communication (something we often take for granted) via a tablet was an immense feat. By really understanding Graham’s emotions and struggles, Ruby & Ross were able to design a solution that was truly meaningful and “restore a bit of humanity to a person who had lost so much”.

There were a few tears in the room after watching the micro-documentary and certainly in mine. The project was most definitely worth all the late nights undertaken by Ruby & Ross as the sheer happiness upon Graham’s face reminded me why we do what we do.

We as Designers, have the ability to use design as a tool to improve other people’s lives; even if it is just one person at a time.

Empathy can be applied well beyond Universal Design; in fact it should be applied to all areas of design where humans are involved. The ability to connect with your user; to really understand their needs, to ensure that what you are creating is what they need vs what you think they need, all contribute to how purposeful and meaningful your solution is. And when you get it right, the reward, the sense that you’ve really helped somebody, is utterly incomparable.

About me, the Author:

I’m Rachel, a Design Student at Loughborough University. With a background of Product/Industrial Design, I am deeply fascinated by the use of design to really drive change, solve problems and improve people’s lives.

I love meeting new people, sharing stories and getting different perspectives on the world around me.

[All views in this article are entirely my own unless otherwise stated.]