Build products for real life

Caro Sotillo Silva

If you are new to the field of User Experience Design, either as a designer or as a founder, you might be tempted to think that users of your product are called John Doe and that they all gladly travel the happy path. They might even smile like your user persona “Susan, the Savvy Tech User”.

We all have done that at some point, because none of us are perfect. And guess what? Neither are the people using your products or the contexts in which they use them.

A big part of designing products people actually use is understanding these people, their needs and circumstances.

And the truth is, real life and real people are messy. And building successful products starts by facing that truth.

Start with yourself

Do you ever find yourself squinting at your phone’s screen under the sun? Trying to type with one hand?

Maybe you have struggled deciphering a voice message on a noisy subway ride, or filling out a form while feeling sleep-deprived.

If you pay attention to how you use technology, you will soon realize that life hardly ever resembles the happy path that we envision for our digital products.

However, gathering inspiration from your own challenges can only get you so far. And that is especially true if you belong to the predominant (but very narrow) set of demographics and abilities of people working in tech.

Once you are done observing yourself, it is time to look around you.

Learn from other people’s experiences

How would you go about your daily routines with technology if you had an arm injury, if you were blind, or if you were experiencing depression?

People’s abilities and needs are way more diverse than we usually account for on user journeys and personas. Also, none of these people will be dedicating 100% of their mental energy to navigating your product or website content.

Look around you, beyond your own circles and demographics, talk to more (diverse groups) of the people your product is supposed to help. Listen to their experiences, and learn how to recognize bias, harm, and exclusion.

What makes digital experiences frustrating for them? What makes them give up? What excludes them from participating in something you can do without barriers?

Design for humans, not “personas”

The more you look around you and talk to humans, the less you will be able to fit their needs into neat layouts, stereotypes, and smiling stock pictures.

And that is actually a good thing.

The full range of human diversity is shaped by ability, culture, language, gender, age, socioeconomic status, religion and spiritual beliefs, political and ethical values, and many other factors, always intersected.

These differences and fluctuations are what makes us human. And, chances are, it is humans you want to design your products for.

Solve for one, extend to many

This is the premise behind the tool called Persona Spectrum, developed by Microsoft’s Inclusive Design Team to foster empathy and to show how a solution scales to a broader audience.

By designing for someone with a permanent disability, someone with a situational limitation can also benefit. For example, a device designed for a person who has one arm could be used just as effectively by a person with a temporary wrist injury or a new parent holding an infant.

– Microsoft’s Inclusive 101 Guidebook

When you start aiming to serve a diverse market, made up of real people who experience real life circumstances, many business benefits also come your way, such as:

  • Increased access and retention.
  • Increased engagement and satisfaction.
  • Reduced friction and frustration.
  • Increased emotional connection and organic growth.

Crafting products that empower people, making them feel capable, and allowing them to take control of their own experiences is key to achieving long-term market success.

Build products for a better life

Lastly, remember that every decision we make can raise or lower barriers to participation in society.

Building products for real life can be a great step forward, but what if we committed to building products for a better life?

Inclusive products, services, and environments are what allows us to experience life by the side of our loved ones, to meet strangers that become our friends, to learn from each other, and to grow as people.

Let’s do our part there.