3 things to consider when designing for human differences

6 min read David Renwick

There’s no such thing as “the average user” or “the norm”. In fact, there never was. Everybody has diverse needs, expectations and responses.

Interestingly, the US Air Force found out just how flawed designing for the average user can be. In the 1950s, researchers measured over 4,000 pilots on 140 dimensions of size, in the hopes that average measurements would lead to better aircraft cockpits and help to prevent crashes. One researcher, however, had doubts. Lt. Gilbert S. Daniels found that not a single Air Force pilot fit into the average range on all dimensions.

As the architects of digital experiences used by millions of people, we as researchers and designers need to ensure that we take these unique viewpoints into account. We have a responsibility to our users, and while there’s no code for us to follow, it’s important that we’re all following a north star of “doing good and putting people first”. With World Information Architecture Day (WIAD) just around the corner, we thought we’d take the theme of this year’s event – design for difference – and take a look at what it really means to take differences into account through design.

After all, as Elise Roy noted in her keynote at the 2018 IA Summit in Chicago, “Different is the new normal we should be designing for.”

Understanding accessibility – and usability

There’s an interesting distinction to be made between accessibility and usability, 2 terms which are all-too-commonly mixed up or misconstrued. Accessibility is essentially the practice of ensuring your product is as usable by as wide a group as possible, whereas usability is more focused on goal or task effectiveness. The thing is, one can’t exist without the other. Researchers are focussed so much on usability, but if what they’ve actually designed isn’t even accessible, then there’s no point in even considering usability.

Let’s look at a practical example in the user interface of an internet banking service:

  • Accessibility – The interface should be navigable by any user, regardless of technology familiarity or disability, for example, someone with color blindness or physical impairment.
  • Usability – The interface should be easily understandable so that a new user will have no trouble completing common tasks (like making a payment).

It’s important to remember that there’s no such thing as perfect accessibility or usability, especially given that these terms can be interpreted in many ways. Instead, they should be practices that are firmly embedded in the design process of any project.

1. Designing for cultural differences

An image of three hands with different skin colors raised in the air, on a grey background.

The internet has made a world a smaller place. Now, with access to digital services, it’s possible for businesses to reach customers in nearly any country – instantly. Large companies understand the opportunity here perhaps more than most, with the result being that the likes of Amazon, Apple, Google and Microsoft are becoming adept at localizing their services and products for different cultures.

In a study titled Interface Design for Cultural Differences, 50 university students comprising the 3 main races in Malaysia took part in a survey to identify whether cultural differences have any bearing on a person’s interaction with a user interface. The researchers found that this was indeed the case, noting that “users from different religions have different cultural dimensions and react differently to computer interface elements” and “interface design should be developed to cater [to] users from different religions”.

It’s just one study in one part of the world, but has intriguing results nonetheless. Culture seemingly has as much of a bearing on how we interact with a website as the device we use to browse that website.

2. Designing for age, gender and identity

An arrangement of people in a line, designed to represent different genders, ethnicities and sexual orientations. One person is in a wheel chair and one is walking a dog.

Age, gender and identity sit alongside cultural considerations. They require you (the designer) to understand the many ways a person is likely to interpret even the smallest details. On a website or other digital product, this could be something like a sign-up form that excludes people through some of the options (or lack thereof).

Age is a particularly interesting topic currently facing designers and researchers, if only because of just how quickly the demographics of users are changing. There’s no shortage of evidence to show that the number of older internet users continues to climb, in both emerging and developed economies.

In Designing User Interfaces for an Aging Population: Towards Universal Design, authors Jeff Johnson and Kate Finn explain that with the percentage of older adults in developed countries continuing to increase, it’s becoming increasingly important to take these older users into account.

The authors explain: “Since digital technology is becoming more necessary to function in today’s world, we need to design applications, websites and appliances that are usable by people of all ages and abilities”. Interestingly, they suggest going a step beyond just designing for accessibility, but instead specifically addressing some of the challenges faced by older users.

3. Designing for technology access

A GIF (moving image) of a progress bar from an old version of windows.

What does it mean to design for differences in technology access? It’s more than just ensuring   your mobile website is well-optimized (although this is important), it’s also about catering for differences in internet accessibility. After all, as just one example, you may have a subset of users who have limited internet access and so are unable to load your image- or video-intensive website.

Some of the challenges here certainly overlap with those in the section above relating to experience. A clear example would be an older user inexperienced with digital services in general or someone with limited or infrequent access to technology.

OK, great, but where to from here?

Recognizing the flaws in our current practices is only the first step – but it’s a good one. Gaining perspective on the people who actually use our products can help us to avoid our own bias, and thus facilitate us becoming more inclusive researchers and designers.

To take the next step, we’ve pulled together some of the best guides and resources from the community to help you take action:

  • Inclusive Design – A really useful set of downloadable resources and videos focusing on promoting inclusiveness through design.
  • Perspective Cards – An interactive tool that serves up perspective prompts like “Imagine your customer is agender” or “Imagine your user is Gen Z”.

Know who you’re designing for

Remember,  there’s really no such thing as “the user”. What actually exists is a diverse group of people, each with a different background, viewpoint, technological ability, cultural identity and access to technology.

We think everyone should put users first, and so we’ve built a suite of tools to enable you to do just that. By learning how your users group content with card sorting and seeing how people move through your website using tree testing, you can design with your users in mind. You can read more about those tools here.

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