Designing for and with the Extremes

Using Extreme Personas as a co-design and validation tool to design better products & services, and to expand business opportunities towards an ever more inclusive and society-centered perspective.

Oct 20 · 9 min read

Written by Greta Bartesaghi

When August de los Reyes got paralyzed after a domestic accident in 2013, he didn’t give up designing the new Xbox, the challenge he was working on in that period. Instead, he pursued the project with greater determination to create a gaming experience for everyone: for the able-bodied as well as for the differently-abled, the group he was now part of. He involved disabled players to co-design and test his solution, and he also tested himself with his new and different skills. Thus he became a pioneer of inclusive design, one of the first to use extreme personas as a heuristic and design tool and a striking example of how context and our biases limit us in our work as designers.

“If you solve for one, it will benefit many.”

- August de los Reyes

Nobody is normal up close

This slogan guided Franco Basaglia in his long battle to destigmatize mental illness in Italy. Besides the context in which it was formulated, it describes accurately a concept that is often misunderstood. None of us is normal: in different situations, every single person can be atypical, abnormal. For this reason, it should be clear that, firstly, normal is not a moral or ethical category — therefore normal is not a synonym for good or right — and, secondly, each of us can be an extreme user.

Normal and extreme only deal with the statistical distribution of a phenomenon: we use these terms to refer to a bell or Gaussian curve, the so-called normal curve. The curve presents a large belly near the y-axis and gradually flattens along the x-axis. The most frequent occurrences gather in the belly: for example, cats with one tail — if we use this tool to describe the cat population; at the extremes there would be the cats with no tail, on one side, or cats with more than one tail, on the other side.

Extremes are the people at both ends of the spectrum of a product or service users. The extremes differ because they have particular, unique, specific needs or behaviors compared to the average users, who instead present the most frequent and common needs.

When thinking about digital services, examples of extreme personas could be a digital illiterate on one side — i.e. someone who doesn’t know or use the laptop and its functionalities — and on the other one a geek who always keeps up with new technologies and is the first to experiment with them. Between these two types that can be defined as extreme, all the other people who are moderately digitized and interested in technology are included, although with varied behaviors and needs.

The definition of “extreme” can be extended to any area: people’s diverse characteristics and habits determine the categories of averages or extremes. Not only disabilities, physical or cognitive limitations — as perhaps we often tend to think at first glance — determine being extreme, but any characteristic that deals with the most various contexts such as the social, economic, life, health, or technological one. The World Health Organization itself defines disability as a mismatch — permanent, temporary, or situational — between these categories.

”Extreme users differ because they are characterized by particular, unique and specific needs or behaviors compared to average users, who instead present the most widespread needs.”

Identifying which user can be defined as extreme first depends on the preliminary identification of the context, but also on the design challenge and on the general target for which a product or service is intended. In other words, we start from the averages to identify the extremes.

Determining these elements contributes to identifying the most relevant extreme users to be involved in the design process. This can also happen through accurate and effective social mapping.

Designing for the Extremes to satisfy also the averages, but not everyone

Designing for extreme users, as well as including a particular target that might otherwise not have access to the product or service, is effective also for the average users. Designing a specific feature or aspect of the experience for extreme personas (whatever are the peculiarities in that given design context) certainly means satisfying their specific needs, but also satisfying the average users’ needs. When we create solutions that work for people with the most extreme needs, we make life better even for the average users.

It should be noted, however, that designing considering extreme users does not mean designing for all. Referring again to the bell curve, its central part includes a plurality of users, that is not certainly exhaustive of all the people and their various characteristics and needs. It depends on our ability as designers to read the context, but above all, it depends on the extreme human variety and on the adaptation strategies that people devise when faced with the complexity of the world and relationships.

Extreme personas: a how-to guide

When we approach the design of a new service or product, as designers we first focus on understanding the users, and collect and interpret their expectations and needs, in order to design an artifact that truly meets them. Even when extreme users are included in the process of defining a solution, the initial phase of the project should be dedicated to understanding the behaviors and the main needs of average users. Thanks to the research activities involving average users and the understanding of their needs, it is possible to collect and define the primary features that should characterize the new product or service. In other words, what to offer to users.

Involving Extreme personas in co-design: unprecedented points of view, more accurate project constraints

With the personas emerging from the starting research, we can move on to the design part of a physical or digital experience, a service, and so on, depending on the project. It’s at this stage that extreme users become critical in understanding how to design it. Involving them to co-design, or considering extreme personas in the design of the solution helps us collect and include particular aspects that we would probably not consider otherwise. Extreme users could reveal significant needs, ways of using or hacking a product, or alternative behaviors that may not emerge from average users. Therefore, it is important to involve them to adapt the product or service to their special needs to make it effectively accessible and usable. In this way, the representation of the experience or the design of the product would be holistic, inclusive, qualitatively superior.

Furthermore, the peculiarities that characterize this kind of users could be a source of inspiration to open up new perspectives. Their particular vision of the context, their ability to adapt, could be the starting point of new design opportunities that otherwise would not emerge, while also providing specific constraints to be considered and respected in the design phase. Co-designing with extreme users allows collecting and capturing much more vivid and clear project constraints on which the design has to be based.

“In design, again and again, we see that looking to the average does not produce cutting-edge innovations, instead we should be looking to extremes. […] They are a gold mine for helping us to think differently.”

- August de los Reyes

Involving Extreme personas in testing the solution: validating the hypothesis and collecting specific insights

Extreme users are also fundamental in the validation phase — for example in user tests of a digital product prototype — as they help us to concretely understand how to adapt the product even better and to collect observations and suggestions for improvement that make it even more aligned with their peculiarities.

For example, if we design a service model, the extreme archetypal profiles of the digital illiterate, as well as the geek would be useful for the definition of the channels, the methods of use and go-to-market, in order not to tend to preconceived and comfortable design solutions. As we saw before, the service itself is instead designed with the average personas. Assuming that a web portal is the most suitable solution for all targets identified as potential users could be true, but it easily excludes a large slice of the population that is unable to use it profitably or finds it disappointing.

Extreme personas in the hybrid continuum: designing the right channels to avoid barriers

The above consideration becomes even more compelling within hybrid continuity.

If it’s true that people can do what they prefer along a continuum between physical and digital, then companies have to make available a variety of channels — physical, digital, or hybrid — to allow this kind of dynamic. This does not mean considering all possible channels, but only those closest to the habits and expectations of their customer base. It should be noted that when we talk about access or accessibility we use the terms in a broad sense, unrelated to the dimension of disability: full access to products and services concerns every user, whatever their specificity.

Access to services and products is also a cultural and sociological dimension: demographics and patterns of use have to be taken into consideration to design effective solutions and not to create excessive complexity.

Understanding the needs of extreme users and their habits in using products becomes crucial for designing truly useful products and services, for extremes as well as for averages, without making our design preconceptions become a viaticum for exclusion.

Benefits for the business in a society-centered perspective

An approach inspired by inclusive design that involves extreme users in the design process also produces benefits and advantages for the business: in fact, it expands the market that a company would aim at, allowing it to reach new targets and clusters of users.

An easy but surprising example: nowadays Amazon can count 22 million users in Italy out of almost 60 million people. Which is the barrier that prevents the other almost 30 million people from using it? In Italy, it’s a matter of credit cards, which are not widespread yet among the population, together with the difficulties in understanding the logic of filling in the cart for those who are still digitally non-expert. And there are thousands of services in the same situation as Amazon, with very different numbers of course.

When you then move on to the Public Administration, the matter becomes even more complex: how many citizens are excluded from digital services for the most varied reasons? How much could working with the elderly, the disabled, the foreigners, and the illiterate or poorly educated people help each of us to have a more profitable relationship with the administrative, welfare, or even legal environment?

In conclusion, extreme personas represent one of the design tools that are gradually evolving in an increasingly inclusive perspective and which consequently shift the focus towards a society-centered and no longer “just” human-centered approach. We believe that it’s time to firmly include the impacts and interconnections of a service or product in the design process and activities, even beyond its scope and context.

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