Identify “Stress Cases” and Design with Compassion: Eric Meyer

12 LESSONS from An Event Apart San Francisco — № 2: Eric Meyer was the 11th speaker at An Event Apart San Francisco, which ended Wednesday. His session, Compassionate Design, discussed the pain that can occur when our carefully crafted websites and applications, designed to create an ideal experience for idealized users, instead collide with messy human reality.

You can’t always predict who will use your products, or what emotional state they’ll be in when they do. A case in point: when Facebook’s “Your Year in Review” feature, designed by well-meaning people to help Facebook users celebrate their most important memories from the preceding twelve months, shoved a portrait of Eric’s recently deceased daughter Rebecca in his face, surrounded by dancing and partying clip-art characters who appeared to be celebrating her death.

WITH GREAT POWER…

Certainly, no one at Facebook intended to throw a hundred pound bag of salt into the open wound of a grieving parent. What happened, surely, was that no one sitting around the table when the feature was planned asked the question, what if one of our users just had the worst year of their lives?

If even one of the talented Facebook folks charged with creating the new feature had asked themselves “what’s the worst that can happen?” — if just one of them had realized that not everyone using Facebook felt like celebrating their year — they might have put in safeguards to prevent their algorithm from assuming that a Facebook user’s most visited (most “popular”) post of the year was also their happiest.

They might also have made the “year in review” feature an opt-in, with questions designed to protect those who had experienced recent tragedy. Facebook didn’t build in those protections, not because they don’t care, but because our approach to design is fundamentally flawed, in that we build our assumptions around idealized and average users and use cases, and neglect to ask ourselves and our teammates, “what if we’re wrong? How could our product hurt someone?”

IT’S NOT JUST FACEBOOK. WE ALL IGNORE THE USER IN CRISIS.

Eric shared many examples from leading sites and services of unintended and sometimes horrifying instances of designs that hurt someone — from ads that accidentally commented sadistically on tragic news stories (because keyword exclusion is underrated and underused in online advertising); to magic keywords Flickr and Google added to their customers’ photos without asking, resulting in a man’s portrait being labeled “gorilla” and a concentration camp photo being tagged a jungle gym.

The problem, Eric explained, is that our systems have not been designed with people in mind. They’ve been designed with consumers in mind. Consumers are manageable fictions. But human life is inherently messy. To create sites and applications that work for everyone, including people who may be having the worst day of their lives at the time they encounter or product or service, we must always think about how our product could be used to hurt someone, and plan for the worst-case scenario whenever we design.

When we label a usage an “edge case,” we marginalize that user and choose not to care. Think “stress case,” instead, and design for that human.

WE CAN DO BETTER.

Eric’s presentation included many techniques for bringing these new principles into our design workflows, and his book with Sara Wachter-Boettcher, Design for Real Life, goes into even greater detail on the matter. (It’s one of those rare and important books that defines how we should be looking at our design jobs today, and I would say that even if I weren’t the publisher.)

Tomorrow I’ll be back with another top takeaway from another AEA San Francisco 2016 speaker. The next AEA event, An Event Apart St. Louis, takes place January 30-February 1, 2017.

Originally posted at zeldman.com.

Designing and blogging since 1995, Jeffrey Zeldman is the publisher of A List Apart Magazine and A Book Apart, co-founder of An Event Apart design conference, and founder and creative director of studio.zeldman. Follow him @zeldman.