The 2017 IA Summit has come to a close in Vancouver, where the maritime weather never seemed to put a damper on the enthusiasm of the people I’ve interacted with during the event. One of the things I love most about the IA Summit is the friendliness of everyone at the conference. No matter where you are in your journey of making sense of the world, everyone is a colleague and has a valuable perspective on the world. So here are the top 3 things I am taking away from this year’s conference with the theme of Designing for Humans.
1. Universal Usability Creates Delight
Whitney Quesenbery of the Center for Civic Design probably knows more about usability than 99.9% of the people in the world. She’s coined the phrase of the 5 E’s of usability and has been thinking about usability long before I even started my digital design career. Her talk framed the differences between accommodation, accessibility, and universal design.
Accommodation can be thought of as a workaround for those who have specific needs that most people (including myself) take for granted, like being able to open a door. The accommodation might be a buzzer at a door where someone who is unable to open the door on their own has to wait for another human to come to the door for them. Accessibility is a special and/or separate affordance for people with special needs, but still presents challenges. An example would be a wheelchair ramp that takes five times as long for someone in a wheelchair to ascend than someone to walk via a set of stairs. Universal design is beautifully and obsessively designed to the most minute of details. These are the height of usability for all and blend so well into the environment that you may not even see them, like the curb ramps that we so often take for granted when walking in urban environments. By designing for universal usability we make the lives of everyone better.
Is this ramp at the Vancouver International Airport an accommodation, accessible, or a universal design?
Most terrible accessibility experiences are also bad usability experiences. Accessibility just magnifies the issues. So how do you start thinking more about accessibility? Go out and meet people who don’t look like you and spend some time with them. Understand what it’s like for them and be empathetic to their lives.
2. Trust is Paramount in Design
John Kolko of Austin Center for Design spoke about designers and the necessary critique process. He talked about how designers create, and in turn those creations spark a critique. It is common for designers to internalize critiques of their work as a critique of the designer as a person, as designers tend to be more self critical than non-designer types. His thought is that there should be trust amongst designers to make a critique and the environment a safe space to allow designers to flourish in their craft.
John also spoke about how rules, requirements, and precedent stifle creativity. The more you have of these constraints, the most it restricts the creative process. He segued into talking about how to find ways to let designers run amok. Design leaders should be prepared to own the consequences of designers “breaking the glass,” but in doing so it helps drive creativity. By carefully and intentionally breaking certain rules, designers can see how to break rules effectively.
The last point John made was about driving a vision. Setting a strong vision helps motivate designers and gives them something to look forward to working on. A vision also helps frame a solution by visualizing the problem at hand. John quoted Mark Ralston of Frog Design in saying, “You have to speak in a way that’s sufficiently visualized that the designer can tell what you are asking for, but not so determinant that you are simply turning them into a set of hands.” Lastly, he spoke about constantly telling a retrospective story. This helps get people to align to an idea or value that is being pushed forward.
3. Designing for the 100% is Hard
FJ van Wingerde of Experian talked about the impossible nature of trying to design for all the people. Traditional and trusted tools like competitive analyses, lean UX, experiments, qualitative testing, and personas become quickly ineffective when you cannot nail down the most important types of users above all others. (side note: That’s analogous to “When everything is important, nothing is important.”)
FJ comes up with a few salient tips on how to reset expectations and get traditional design tools back. He mentions finding your target user and then finding the floor. By seeking out the lowest common denominator, you get the use of personas back. The group of people with the most basic needs helps you understand the basic needs, goals, and problems that you must address. He mentions that design should always be mobile first, which of course makes desktop designing much easier. The next important tip from FJ? Don’t be clever. Design for the height of bleeding edge design…3 years ago. By using design patterns that have proven themselves, designs will have inevitably have validation of their effectiveness. FJ closes out his discussion mentioning that if you have or create something people want, you don’t have to be perfect. If the creation is a design for everyone (e.g., an essential service), then you don’t need to convert your users. They will come to you. He states that designers whom find themselves having to design for everybody should take heart, and live the challenge.
In the End
There were many other lessons I took from this year’s IA Summit and simply enjoying the city of Vancouver, but this year’s theme struck a chord with me. In designing for humans, we aren’t designing for just users. We are designing for people like you and me as much as we are designing for people who are very unlike you and me. Designing for humans is a tough job and it takes a talented, cohesive team to bring great solutions out into the world. Designing for humans is an important yet difficult job, and I am thrilled to be part of the global effort.