Examining Bias from the Edges

I first picked up Eric Meyer and Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s book, Design for Real Life, for a graduate-level Design Anthropology course at Texas State University. At only 132 pages, the book seemed like just another read to mark off the never-ending list of assignments. Imagine my surprise when I found myself referencing the book's concepts, again and again, as I fumbled through my first-ever website design as the MATC program assistant. The authors use their pages wisely by presenting real-life case scenarios that assist the designer in conceptualizing what they term the edge cases or “the boundaries of who [and] what you care about” (Meyer and Wachter-Boettcher 2016, 2). Additionally, they clarify that “[edge cases] demarcate the border between the people you’re willing to help and the ones you’re comfortable marginalizing” (Meyer and Wachter-Boettcher 2016, 2). As technical communicators, it's our job to design with the users in mind, but how can we strategically ensure we are not letting our biases get the best of us? What methods should we employ? In Design for Real Life, Meyer and Wachter-Boettcher outline their principles and methods for “bring[ing] the edge cases into the center of design” instead of leaving them on the fringe (Meyer and Wachter-Boettcher 2016, 3-11).

Their methods press designers to design for the antithesis of the ideal user as a practice in challenging personal biases. As technical communicators, we should consider how our own designs include or exclude users. Conveniently divided into two main concepts, the book deals with design principles (Chapters 1-5) and design methods (Chapters 6-8). Design for Real Life can easily operate as a handbook for examining one’s biases through case scenarios, inclusive design principles, and incorporating various research methods.

The Principles 

Challenge your vision. The first principle involves planning for the worst-case scenario during design. Ask—are people utilizing your designs during times of high emotion? Are there language barriers or accessibility issues? Meyer and Wachter-Boettcher recommend exploring your assumptions by cataloging what you assume about your ‘ideal user' and then cataloging the opposite of your assumptions. With new assumptions identified, the designer can adjust for the unexpected scenario to strengthen their designs.   

Make space for real people. The second principle asks the designer to dismantle the categorical ideal user. Meyer and Wachter-Boettcher indicate we should evoke what Daniel Kahneman terms Systems 2 thinking to develop reasoning, versus Systems 1 thinking which grabs examples from our life experiences. Systems 1 thinking is automatic and effortless due to its easy associations made about the world and this can be a conduit for stereotyping. Systems 2 thinking, however, trains individuals to slow down, question their easy associations, and recognize implicit biases. Meyer and Wachter-Boettcher argue that taking the ideal user persona and considering their complete opposite can help dispel some of our categorical blind spots, including our vision of the categorically simple and necessary in design. Do we need to request users' gender or race? If we do, what categorical biases do we hold, and how can we do what Meyer and Wachter-Boettcher highlight as being “conservative in what you do, [or ask for, and] be liberal in what you accept from others” (Meyer and Wachter-Boettcher 2016, 24). Solutions presented by the authors include going beyond the binary, accepting a range of answers, documenting the implications of discounting or excluding information, and discovering what matters most to users, not to ourselves.

Incorporate stress cases. The third principle argues for the value of stress cases. After challenging our vision and making space for real people, designers should consider designing for failure situations. How can we best support our users when things go wrong and aren't working as they're supposed to? This principle includes stress-user-personas and understanding crises in context. Meyer and Wachter-Boettcher use the stress-case scenario of a sexual assault victim visiting the RAINN website for the first time. Simply putting information on a sexual assault assistance website without considering it in a moment of crisis fails the user (see Lauren, 2020). The designer may need to redirect users, reduce their cognitive load, and cut through panic with their designs.

Communicate context and intent. The fourth principle asks the designer to build trust with users by considering themselves as being in a fiduciary relationship with users. As designers, we can demonstrate this partnership in expressing the ‘what' and why of our intentions when requesting information. Additionally, it's in the designer's best interest to reexamine what we are signaling when making specific fields mandatory, such as salutations, gender, and race. Are we doing this simply because “it's always been done that way,” or is there an express purpose? The more transparent and precise designers are in what they ask of their users, the more trust develops between user and product. It’s impossible to know every trigger for every user, but formulating information with intention can help reduce unpleasant outcomes.

Cultivate compassion. The final principle asks designers to go beyond the empathetic and consider designing from a place of compassion. Besides placing ourselves in our users' shoes, we should strive to “have genuine emotional feeling for the struggles that someone is going through” (Meyer and Wachter-Boettcher 2016, 72), and part of that process is anticipating those struggles as Meyer and Wachter-Boettcher outline.   

The Methods

Learn from users. Besides questioning users on the products produced, Meyer and Wachter-Boettcher advocate for listening to the users and meeting them where they are, physically and emotionally. They recommend accepting more information in interviews and giving users time to open up; suggesting letting the interview move past the question-and-answer phase and into the user sharing their story. This method reduces self-edits and repressed emotions. The authors provide various open-ended questions to assist designers in developing this method. Meyer and Wachter-Boettcher ask designers to broaden their vision by engaging in collage work and seeking interviewees on the fringes to go deeper. The aim, they say, is not to find the right answer but to question the questions and determine if they're hitting the mark.

Humanize your process. Meyer and Wachter-Boettcher advocate moving from a pure artifact approach to a human artifact approach. Their recommendations involve utilizing traditional research methods but humanizing them. For example, instead of creating ideal user personas, create imperfect personas. Incorporate journey mapping, but map for stress case scenarios as well as ideal scenarios. Incorporate collaboration across departments to include more humans' points of view in your processes. During the process, ask—what would a human do? They also recommend assigning a designated dissenter whose task it is to go against the group and present a counter. In the style of 12 Angry Men, “It is their duty to disagree” (Meyer and Wachter-Boettcher 2016, 100-01).

Make the case. Meyer and Wachter-Boettcher use the final chapter of their book to encourage designers to make the case for compassionate design when dealing with clients. The book highlights a wide range of scenarios that encompass the issues and pains, both reputational and financial, that clients undergo when designers fail to consider edge cases. 

Personal Takeaways 

I hope you will read the book and discover the many cases for yourself, but perhaps my own brief case scenario can speak to the book's value. I found myself utilizing Meyer and Wachter-Boettcher’s book as a sort of Quick Reference Guide to Design during my first web design experience at Texas State, hoping it would help guide me in designing for real life. In the process, I discovered my own edge cases, namely that of non-traditional students and disabled students. While creating the university website, I realized there were no sanctioned images of disabled students or students of advanced age in the university’s catalog. In designing for the perceived ideal student, the university discounted representing a substantial student base. Design for Real Life provided me with the insight to visualize these edge cases so, as a technical communicator and designer, I can make the case for them.


Design for Real Life, by Eric Meyer & Sarah Wachter-Boettcher

Viewpoint Written by Laura A. Soran, Texas State University

Edited by Liz Fraley, Single-Sourcing Solutions Inc

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