After I posted about seemingly obvious information not necessarily being obvious to the people we design for, someone reached out to me on Twitter to challenge my points. We went back and forth for a bit, disagreeing on whether to design for what he called “the lowest common denominator” of user, someone who is not knowledgeable or engaged. His concern (as I interpret it) was that in targeting that type of user, we reduce the utility of anything we build for the people who might be better equipped to use it. And so I found myself wondering, does making it easy mean designing for the lowest common denominator?
I don’t think it does. Here are a few reasons why.
“Mobile first” designs tackle application and web design from the perspective of having it work perfectly on the condensed mobile screen above all. The idea is that if the design is clean enough to work with a tiny amount of real estate, it can also work on the larger screens of the tablet and desktop. While this is not precisely the same thing as designing for the least motivated and knowledgable users, it has some parallels:
- Information must be tightly prioritized
- Content must be precise
- Affordances must be clear
- Successful mobile-first design requires knowing your users’ needs
Sites designed with a mobile-first perspective are often clean, uncluttered, and easy to use. Are they perfect? Of course not. But they often get their primary job done pretty well. I think the analogy holds for designing for lower levels of engagement.
A second perspective that supports the idea of making it easy for people comes from education (and is well-aligned with methods for supporting human needs for competence). Universal design for learning (UDL) is an approach to education (or creating educational experiences) that help people progress from lower levels of knowledge and ability to higher ones. At its core, UDL is about offering people options so that they can approach a task at a level appropriate for their current skills, with the goal of advancing over time. UDL also offers different pathways to accommodate learning styles, levels of interest, and other variables that may affect a person’s learning experience. Although UDL is fairly new as an organized approach, evidence suggests it is helping people learn more effectively. The early verdict? A rising tide in education, as elsewhere, lifts all boats.
Finally, there’s also the fact that design decisions can exclude some categories of people from participating in an experience not just now but in the future. This could be by deliberate choice on the part of the architect, because the product doesn’t accommodate as-yet-unknown needs, or because we assume people have access to resources like the internet and they don’t. If these choices aren’t made carefully, they can limit the effectiveness of the work we do.
I don’t think deliberate exclusion of some audiences is necessarily a bad thing–for example, if people need a safe or private way to discuss stigmatized health conditions or traumatic events, it may make sense to limit the people who can participate in that experience. Or, no one would argue that the right target market for a Tesla is a newly licensed driver. But that decision must be made thoughtfully and in the spirit of maximizing the good in an experience for the key intended users. Making assumptions that people have a higher level of knowledge than they really do saying “to hell with the rest of them” is not a thoughtful design process.
There’s also a separate issue of whether it’s even a bad thing to design experiences for people who are struggling with a particular area of their lives. True, maybe the amotivated and un-engaged aren’t going to work with a health intervention, but their caregivers might. Or they might find themselves checking it out and actually get involved because it’s engaging and easy, as opposed to feeling turned off because it’s designed for people with a baseline level of expertise. My belief is that it’s possible to design something that can at least get the so-called “lowest common denominator” started while still meeting the needs of folks further along their behavior change journey. And I suspect I’m not alone:
My colleague Jen Briselli wrote a wonderful piece about how adapting a teaching mindset can enhance our designs. She articulates how designing for those with lower levels of knowledge or motivation–those who can’t–is not about doing everything for them, but rather empowering them to gradually learn the skills they need to perform. That, I think, is really the point of understanding user knowledge and interest gaps and designing for them: To elevate people from ignorance to ability, and empower them to be their best selves.