What’s Your Superpower?

Uncovering strengths by starting with limitations

The beautiful mountains of Montana, photo by Nitish

I grew up in Montana. You can imagine it, right? Snowcapped mountain peaks, winding rivers, wildlife as far as the eye can see…except no, not that part. The middle part. The windy plains of Montana, where like most kids we relied heavily on our imaginations. Dreaming of all the places we’d go and explore, the amazing things we’d do, who we’d become. Me? I just wanted to be She-Ra. It was the 80’s, what can I say. Maybe it was her Sword of Protection, maybe it was her winged unicorn Swift Wind, maybe it was the way she slayed in that outfit, but mostly it was her fearless pursuit of justice alongside her super squad, The Great Rebellion. Each with their own killer outfits, and even more amazing superpowers.

Sarah dressed as She-Ra, Christmas, 1980-something

I’ve always been enamored by the idea of superpowers — the thought that we all have something truly unique and powerful hiding just under the surface, waiting to be discovered. But, as we’ve seen many times watching our heroes face super villains, superpowers have limitations. As a young girl, I forgot my own limitations. Didn’t we all? We think we can do anything, we dream big. These days, working in tech, I’m still intrigued by the concept of super powers. Just in a different way.

I realize now that superpowers aren’t born from invincibility, but from fallibility. From adaptation and human nature. Can we start with limitations as a way to discover our superpowers?

Human beings are incredibly resilient. When something doesn’t fit, doesn’t work, excludes us — we adapt. When we lose one of our senses, another becomes more powerful. A person who is blind might have super-power hearing. In my work as a strategist for the Inclusive Design team at Microsoft, I’ve been fortunate to meet many people who’ve inspired me, each with their own superpowers. We met a young man who told us about losing his sight in his late teens. He described his super sense of smell and how he could feel it growing stronger every day, so much so that he could smell when food wasn’t fresh! I’ve met many people who are deaf or hard of hearing who not only “hear” through their eyes, but also have an extremely strong sense of touch — finding clues and information in the vibration of life, feeling the world around them to glean meaning that many of us cannot sense.

Superpowers go beyond physical abilities and senses. Cognitive ability is a space rich with superpowers. Someone who may have difficulty conforming to social norms or decoding emotion through facial expressions will develop a unique way of thinking and solving hard technical problems. People who learn in different ways may find new software or games harder to learn initially, but if we look closer we may find superpowers in the way they process information. Every limitation uncovers an important, reactionary strength.

As product makers and designers, we have the power to ignore limitations, and by doing so, exclude people from using our products and services. Conversely, we have the power to focus on limitations as a way to empower the greatest number of people. Building inclusive experiences that allow people to leverage their strongest attributes and achieve their goals — this is powerful. This is our responsibility. And if all else fails, do it for the honour of Grayskull!

To learn more about Sarah’s work on Inclusive Design check out her talk from SxSW Eco 2016 and the Inclusive design toolkit.

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