The Challenges of UX Design in the Age of Diversity

Deep down, UX is one of the more complex tasks of any development cycle.
February 15, 2021
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User experience (UX) is the subjective experience users have towards a product, service, or system. While there isn’t a consensus of what such an experience implies, for simplicity’s sake, most people will point to attitudes, emotions, and thoughts towards something. 

In layman’s terms, it’s what users feel and think about your offering or brand. And while that may sound simple enough on the surface, deep down it’s one of the more complex tasks of any development cycle. 


The inherent problems with UX

Ask anyone how they feel about something and you’ll probably get a short and sweet answer: “I like it”, “it’s fine”, “not my cup of tea”, “I hate it” or somesuch. Try to delve deeper and you will find that the more you try to pin down the reasons why people feel a certain way towards something, the harder it is to get a straight answer. It’s like the uncertainty principle of product development.

Psychologists and philosophers have tried to nail a way to understand subjective experience for centuries, and they aren’t any closer to finding answers than we are. In fact, any approach that yields a satisfactory approach has to account for three problems.

First, people are diverse in all manners and ways. It’s not just that we come from different cultural backgrounds, it’s that even people who share the same culture (even the same social network) are fundamentally different. 

This, in turn, means that even if two people could hypothetically share the same experience, the way how they relate and describe that experience could vastly differ. It’s like a couple saying “I love you” to each other. On the surface level, they are sharing the same feeling but, underneath, each probably has a very distinct experience of what it is to feel love.

Second, as Phillip Goff puts it in his book Galileo’s Error, the realm of the subjective experience is inherently qualitative. In other words, we can’t measure the redness of an apple for someone or how sweet it is for them. Feelings and thoughts are expressed via language, and NLP (natural language processing) still has a long way to go before it can provide a full account of someone’s inner world.

“Wait a minute!” you might say, “aside from NLP don’t we also have surveys?” Sure, they are a way to measure a subjective experience, so you are right. But here enters the third problem: they are imperfect, and by their very nature, constrained by what the creator of the survey thinks is an adequate account of personal experience. 

Let’s say you make a survey about your product, but don’t take into account the color palette. Users who disliked the product based on the colors wouldn’t have a way to voice their opinion. Let’s go one step further. One of those users may have disliked it because they didn’t like the colors while a second user liked the colors but the contrast made it difficult to use. 

And yes, one could account for every possible opinion, but remember that most users will click away from a survey if it takes more than five minutes. There is a fine line between a detailed survey and a boring long-winded one.

I may have painted a pessimistic view so far, but let me assure you, it’s quite the opposite. What I’m trying to say here is that understanding people’s experiences is a task that has to be taken seriously, it can’t be an afterthought. In that sense, UX is a complex process that requires testing, media analysis, surveys, and a bit of intuition from the developer.


UX in a world of diversity

For posthumanist philosophers, humanity is culturally rich and diverse. We come from all walks of life and have profoundly different ways of living and experiencing the world, all of them equally important and valid. This stands in opposition to more traditional views of humanity which tend to privilege specific viewpoints (i.e. eurocentric values).

How we live and experience the world isn’t just informed by our upbringing or culture, but also by our biology. Thus, the user experience of a touchscreen will vary wildly between a regular user and one with impaired motor skills. 

So, if that is indeed the case, how do we approach UX? Traditionally, we build an experience for a “regular user”. Such an idea is sometimes informed by our market research, and other times it’s the byproduct of intuition, previous experience, and theoretical knowledge. We’ll call that idea Mr. Average.

To face the challenges of a diverse world, we need development teams that are trained to think beyond Mr. Average, and that’s not just knowing there are different people out there, but really understanding their particular needs and how to apply problem-solving skills to satisfy them.

This requires a change in mindset from “this is the feeling I want to create in others” to “this is how others need to feel this”. Take the Sony exclusive game The Last Of Us 2 as an example. The video game has been lauded as the new gold standard for accessibility. 

The game was created with dozens of accessibility options in mind that take into account visual, hearing, and motor impairments. The game can be custom-tailored to fit a very broad set of needs for different users. We could call it an accessibility buffet.

One could argue that options such as a high-contrast display may ruin the mood of a game that’s supposed to be suspenseful, and that may very well be the case for a person who wants to feel suspense, but thanks to that option, people who otherwise would be barred from the game now feel “welcome”. By letting go of what the game is supposed to make you feel, Naughty Dog created an experience that more people can enjoy.

Customization is key here, and that requires flexibility and awareness. Sometimes it will come naturally, and other times it will require diversity consultants who can help the development team break the mold of Mr. Average.


Why design for diversity

If 80% of our user base is Mr. Average, then why spend resources and time on functionalities that only 20% will use? I have three answers for you:

First, from the business perspective, most of your competitors will be fighting for Mr. Average, but how many of them are aiming for the other 20%? If someone was tending to this market we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now. 

Then, as we already discussed here in The Daily Bundle, there are benefits that extend beyond granting accessibility to people with disabilities. Designing software focusing on a broader human experience can make the final products easier to use, more comfortable, and even expand their integration with the world at large. 

Finally, we have the ethical answer. We are moving towards a world of social consciousness and digital acceleration, and if we are aiming for a better tomorrow, one can’t exist without the other. Designing for diversity is opening our awareness and design goals so that no one, no matter their circumstances, gets left behind.

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