When designing a new product—be it anything from a leather handbag to a riding lawnmower—one of the first things you’re going to think about is your user. After all, it’s only rational to zoom in on the person for whom you’re designing, paying special attention to their wants and needs. But as we saw previously in our blog series on Women, non-binary people and human-centered design, a common trap of traditional design is automatically defaulting to the most stereotypical user. When we do this, we risk creating products and services that are polarizing and exclusionary, only appealing to one segment of our customer-base and alienating other potential users.
Let’s take a look at how human-centered design (HCD) is uniquely poised to create inclusive products with diverse appeal.
A mainstay of human-centered design is its focus on extreme users. An extreme user is a person who will experience your product or service in a powerful way. Think of an arthritic senior citizen trying to use a conventional floor mop or a tech novice attempting to set up his new smart phone. Consider the recently transitioned trans woman clutching her new evening bag or the self-professed coffee hater walking into her local Starbucks. While the needs and wants of these users aren’t necessarily “average,” the barriers they face, and the support they need, provide design insights that can improve the product for everyone. At the same time, these insights can make the product more attractive and usable to those who don’t fit a stereotypical profile.
The practice of considering extreme users falls under the first step of human-centered design: Empathize. When we start to truly consider everyone who may use our product and—as the cliché goes—begin to put ourselves in their shoes, we become aware of a broad range of customer needs and sensitivities. As designers, empathy sets us up to get past social, economic, cultural and gender barriers, and create products and experiences that everyone can enjoy.
The medium is the message
Labels matter. When you assume that only women will be interested in buying your anti-aging face cream, and create marketing campaigns that reflect as much, you could be sending the wrong message to many would-be users. Women might resent the gendered stereotype, particularly the implicit suggestion that they, alone, should be worried about looking old. Men who want age-related skincare products will look to other brands. Non-binary people will feel alienated and dissastified by the exclusionary message.
In fact, research shows that over 50% of American men are interested in facial cosmetics. And that 56% of Americans know someone who uses gender-neutral pronouns. And that, globally, 25% of Gen Zers think they will change their gender identity at least once during their lifetime. So inclusive labelling is more than a matter of good ethics; it’s good business.
New norms, new attitudes
At the heart of the inclusive design movement is the belief that a product should be usable and accessible to everyone, regardless of who they are, where they are, or their status in the world. It’s about breaking down age-old barriers of culture, gender and socio-economics to design for as many different types of people as possible. It’s a business movement that reflects the pulse of the times, and one that companies can’t ignore if they hope to succeed.