Designing for the “average” user? Turns out, there’s no such thing. The average user doesn’t exist.
When building your online surveys, user personas, empathy maps, customer journey maps, user requirement documentation, prototypes, and products—consider ways to be inclusive and accessible to all users.
Nail polish isn’t just for girls and women; some men wear nail polish. Not all bald people are men; some women shave their heads or lose their hair.
Call out stereotypes and biases whenever you find them. Be empowered to speak up and advocate for all users.
What’s an “edge case”?
An edge case is defined as an atypical, unusual, or rare circumstance or rate of occurrence.
The problem is—with 7.7 billion people on the planet (as of December 2019)—there’s really no such thing as “rare.” A circumstance that happens to “only” 0.1% people means it happens 7.7 million times. Or in the U.S., 329,000 people.
Failing to consider so-called “edge cases” can result in lost customers, bad publicity, injury, or death.
What are some not-so-uncommon use cases and biases to consider?
Whether conducting research or designing an online form, a mobile app, algorithm, or a physical product—consider the following cases and biases.
Note: I’ll continue to expand this list as I come across others to help rid the world of discrimination and poor accessibility. If you see use cases or biases I’ve missed (or mangled), please email me or tweet me @KristineRemer.
Privacy & Safety
A lot of people want to keep aspects of their lives private. Until given explicit permission, it’s best to keep gender, sexual identity, maiden name, hobbies, interests, place of employment, home address, children, and other sensitive information private.
- An employee who is not “out” to co-workers or their employer
- Someone who doesn’t want medical information or DNA leaked or stolen
- Someone who is wary of fingerprint and facial scanning
- Someone looking for another job, but doesn’t want their boss to know
- Someone who wants to keep their hobbies to themselves
- Someone who wants to keep their gift purchase or pregnancy secret
Also consider ways to protect your users’ safety.
- Child custody battles where one parent might kidnap the child
- An abused person hiding from their spouse / partner
- Someone who wants to physically harm themselves or others
- Someone who has been, or is about to be, assaulted
- Someone who doesn’t want voicemails, texts, or mail that an abuser may see
- Bullies, predators, stalkers, and harassers
- Undocumented immigrants who are afraid to share information
- User-friendly privacy policies and user agreements written in plain language
Gender / Sex
When asking for gender or sex on a survey, online form, or questionnaire, ask yourself (or team) if and why this question is necessary. Knowing that 80% of women use your product may invite bias and stereotypical thinking, and push out the very edge cases we want to include.
- Women! Women are CEOs, doctors, and construction workers
- People who identify as a different sex from their birth certificate
- Non-binary people (i.e., people who don’t identify as any gender)
- Gender fluid people
Watch for opportunities to replace gendered terms like “Jack and Jill bathroom” or “his and her closets.”
I am so, so happy that “they” is finally and officially recognized as a singular pronoun. Early in my writing career, I constantly used “they” in effort to be inclusive, and my editors would ALWAYS cross it out and write “he/she.”
Consider that some people may want to include their pronoun on their name tag when registering for events or include it on their public profile. Is there a spot for pronouns in your CRM or online form?
- Mx. for those who want to use a gender neutral title
- Mrs. can be used by divorced or widowed women, too
First, Middle & Last Names
Account for people who have…
- No first names
- No last names
- No middle names
- Hyphenated first, middle, or last names
- 2 or more word first, middle, or last names (i.e., allow for spaces!)
- Special characters in their names (e.g., cedilla, umlaut)
- Single letter first, middle, or last names
- Preferred names (i.e., not their legal name)
- Indigenous and tribal names (e.g., Running Bear)
When asking for an address, consider…
- City or town that is not the same as the ZIP code’s city / town
- Apartment number, suite number
- Apartment number, suite number is a fraction
- No permanent address or is homeless
- Lives on a military base in the U.S. or in another country
- Temporary address
- House number comes after street name
- Long ZIP / postal codes
- States, provinces, departments, regions
- Larger cities may have designated neighborhoods
Race / Ethnicity
See Gender / Sex above. Be wary. Collecting this data may unintentionally invite in stereotyping, bias, or racism.
When using technology with sensors and cameras, consider all skin colors and facial features from all races and ethnicities. Skin color comes in a wide range of pigments from very light to very dark (e.g., soap and towel dispenser sensors that don’t recognize dark skin). I once saw a highly insensitive error message tell a Japanese person to “open your eyes.”
When asking about race or ethnicity, also consider people who…
- Belong to 2 or more races or ethnicities
- Don’t know their race or ethnicity (or what to select)
Watch for opportunities to replace and update slavery-era phrases or phrases that have racist origins, such as “master bedroom” (primary bedroom) or “blacklist / whitelist” (disallow / allow).
Language & Culture
Consider the user’s native or preferred language when leaving voicemails, creating self-service phone trees, voice detections, and so on. When offering interpreter services, ensure there are protocols and best practices in place.
Also, be aware of culture differences. For example, assigning emotions to a numerical Likert scale (in a survey or medical exam room) is confusing to some cultures.
- Symbols & icons (e.g., not knowing what a stand mixer is)
- Non-English speakers
- English as a second language
- Immigrants & refugees
- Undocumented immigrants
- Tourists from other countries
- Unknown mother
- Unknown father
- Parental guardian
- Parents are divorced / separated living separately
- Parents are divorced / separated living together
- Parent is deceased
- Parents are same-sex
- Parents are living together, but not married
- Parent’s last name is not the same as child’s last name
- Older parents living with children
- Adult children living with parents
- Grandchildren living with grandparents
- Unrelated roommates
Spouse / Partner
- Same-sex spouse or partner
- Non-binary spouse or partner
Birthdays & Holidays
- Not all people celebrate birthdays
- Not all people celebrate Christmas, religious, or American holidays
- No landline phone number
- No cell phone number
- No work number
- Work and home number are the same
- Cell phone cannot receive text messages (or must pay for each one)
- Non-U.S. phone number
- Extension number
- No email address
- Email address includes a country code suffix (e.g., au, ca)
Internet & Technology Access
- No Internet access
- No reliable, high-speed Internet access
- Not technically-savvy (i.e., doesn’t know how to use a trackpad, webcam)
- No access to a computer, printer, or fax machine
Social Media Usage
Not everyone has or wants to use their social media account to access an online product. Allow people to sign up for a product or service using an email address, phone number, or alternate method.
Be sensitive to information, images, and purchases that users have shared. Facebook is famous for using user images in very inappropriate and insensitive ways (e.g., “celebrating” a child’s death or a painful divorce).
- No credit card or bank account
- Doesn’t carry cash
Seeing, Hearing, and Speaking
Consider contrast, point sizes, transcriptions for both video and in real-time for live events, screen readers, and cultural differences for symbols.
Take the time to professionally caption all videos. A transcript or using AI to auto-caption isn’t cutting it. 100% of your users benefit from quality captioned videos, not just those with difficulty hearing. At live events, ensure there are sign language translators and/or real-time captioning for streaming events.
- Not able to see, hear, or speak
- Difficulty seeing, hearing, or speaking
- Color blind
- Doesn’t have access to computer speakers or headphones
- Doesn’t speak English or cannot read the translations provided
- Has dyslexia or other reading difficulty
- Cannot read or reads at a lower reading level
- Unable to walk or has difficulty walking or standing (e.g., uses wheelchair, cane, scooter, walker)
- Unable to use or has difficulty using hands or fingers (e.g., arthritis, carpal tunnel syndrome, Parkinson’s)
- No finger print(s)
- Unable to or has difficulty bending (e.g., arthritis, recent surgery)
- Carrying a child, bag of groceries, or other heavy object while multi-tasking
Cognitive Skills & Health Conditions
There are too many cognitive and physical conditions to list, but it’s best to just ask your users how they want to be identified, about their needs, and how they want to be treated.
At the 2021 QRCA conference, one of the presenters shared her experiences when recruiting and researching people who had had experienced a traumatic event (i.e., sexual abuse or rape). One of the most eye-opening was the advice she had received: to take precautions to exclude participants’ caretakers/drivers from the research facility—as some may be the abuser.
To push your team to think and behave differently, look at who is actually using your services or buying your products. Look for people outside your “typical” customer persona, meet them, listen to their feedback, and observe their experiences. For example, a toy manufacturer may find parents or caretakers using their products for their adult children or adult patients.
For More Information
If you’re looking for more edge case examples or case studies, I highly recommend Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s book, “Technically Wrong: Sexist Apps, Biased Algorithms, and Other Threats of Toxic Tech.”