When technocrats become limiting users…


Writer Tom Clancy famously acclaimed that the difference between reality and fiction is that fiction needs to make sense. If this sci-fi phrase is applied into the context of designing the user experience, it sometimes makes sense.

Of course, there are wireframes and prototypes, which aim to represent drafts of interfaces for designated services that will result from system’s interactivity with the end user. However, it may happen that these representation tools start serving as visual communicators of systems’ functionalities, especially, if they are not tested by ‘real’ users and fail to incorporate the unanticipated real-life and real-time occurrences. They may convey a misleading reality that systems’ capabilities can be interpreted as interactive design’s proficiency and a good user experience.

This may occur in companies with a strong system-oriented technological and engineering culture, which may not recognize the necessity to involve end users in the design process, as the user experience depends on a flawless functioning of the system. In the worst case scenario, user requirements are equalized with systems’ or designs’ functional requirements. This is common in situations in which requirements are formulated between significant corporate departments, i.e. technological, business and legal departments etc., and in exclusion of users and usability experts.

If a system-driven environment shares a coherent internal structure and is ran by technocrats, there is a great necessity but small room for insertion of usability experts as this might imply that the entire design cycle would need to be redesigned, before beginning designing usable interfaces. Usability expert profiles would need to take part in the entire design process and shape design solutions in all key design process phases. Else, in a strongly technocratic environment, profiles such as information architects could be utilized as rapid prototypers and wireframists with a slight added value of proof readers and graphic designers. Limited to designing in-depth interactivity of disassociated frames without a possibility to navigate and shape the entire journey, they face a syndrome of a death by radio buttons. What about users?

There is an anecdote describing a tailor who was new in town and thought of an unorthodox strategy of making a name for himself, so he would gain lots of customers. When he got his first customer, he took gentleman’s measures, but intentionally started tailoring a disproportional suit. When the customer returned for the suit, he was astonished to see the asymmetric design, but the tailor persuaded him to try it on and make an effort in adjusting his posture by twisting and twirling his limbs, so that the suit would fit him perfectly. When they stepped outside the shop to see if the customer felt comfortably wearing it, the people on the street stopped and gazed in astonishment upon a suit that was tailored so masterfully that it fit with such precision to a gentleman with a deformed body.

This anecdote amusingly illustrates a cunning strategy undertaken by the tailor, but it could also be figuratively translated into possible outcomes of interactions in which users are modified to be accommodated and fit to the design, rather than the other way around. If the bedazzled customer would be indeed disabled, he would present a limiting user – a hypothetical member of the population who, by virtue of physical (or mental) characteristics, imposes the most severe constraint on the design, i.e. in clearance problems that would be a bulky person and in reach problems the small person would be the limiting user. They represent the 5th and 95th percentile on the curve of the normal distribution of anthropometric measures, therefore, if they are accommodated, the design should be acceptable for the 90% of the population.
Even though limiting users are generally associated with physical or physiological and perceptive features, characteristics and abilities, they may also be utilized from a cognitive perspective and in a conceptual context. In our story, tailor’s capability to design a deformed suit he envisioned has put to trial his design knowledge and skills. The tailor transformed a bedazzled customer into a fabricated limiting user, while the ability to accommodate a designed suit to customer’s fabricated needs became a reference point of his design skills. Could this strategy work in reverse?

In the aforementioned system-oriented environment the technological profiles due to their specific knowledge and skills, approaches and strategies become limiting users of the design process in reference to the performance of usability experts and accommodation of the end users. These cognitive, functional or design process related limiting users can be accommodated with an appropriate utilization and allocation of their knowledge and skills in the design process. In contrast to generic categorization of limiting users, which is associated with bodily measures, these limiting users can be transformed into regular participants in the design process.

About the author

Luana Maliqi

Luana Maliqi

User Experience Designer and Information Architect

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