Compassion Isn’t Coddling
People often mistake compassion for “being nice,” but it’s not. At A List Apart, the editorial team still says no when a submission isn’t a good fit. At MailChimp, Kiefer Lee’s colleagues are still quick to tell spammers, even the unintentional ones, that they can’t send more email.
The point of compassion isn’t to soften bad news or stressful situations with niceties. It’s to come from a place of kindness and understanding, rather than a place of judgment. It’s to tell the truth in such a way that you’re allowing others to tell their truths, too.Design for Real Life
We recommend the book Design for Real Life to anyone making things for and with other humans. That’s pretty much all of us. Educators, for example, are always designing, particularly forms. Learn how to make compassionate forms that avoid inadvertent cruelty and exclusion.
A necessary part of design is compassion, and a necessary part of compassion is recognizing stress cases and the structural realities of marginalized people. To design for inclusion and real life, look to the stress cases and the margins. They “put our design and content choices to the test of real life”.
Real life is complicated. It’s full of joy and excitement, sure, but also stress, anxiety, fear, shame, and crisis. We might experience harassment or abuse, lose a loved one, become chronically ill, get into an accident, have a financial emergency, or simply be vulnerable for not fitting into society’s expectations.
None of these circumstances is ideal, but all of them are part of life-and, odds are, your site or product has plenty of users in these moments, whether you’ve ever thought about them or not.
Our industry tends to call these edge cases-things that affect an insignificant number of users. But the term itself is telling, as information designer and programmer Evan Hensleigh puts it: “Edge cases define the boundaries of who and what you care about” (http://bkaprt.com/dfrl/00-01/). They demarcate the border between the people you’re willing to help and the ones you’re comfortable marginalizing.
That’s why we’ve chosen to look at these not as edge cases, but as stress cases: the moments that put our design and content choices to the test of real life.
It’s a test we haven’t passed yet. When faced with users in distress or crisis, too many of the experiences we build fall apart in ways large and small.
Instead of treating stress situations as fringe concerns, it’s time we move them to the center of our conversations-to start with our most vulnerable, distracted, and stressed-out users, and then work our way outward. The reasoning is simple: when we make things for people at their worst, they’ll work that much better when people are at their best.Design for Real Life
The products we create can make someone’s day—or leave them feeling alienated, marginalized, hurt, or angry. It’s all depends on whether we design for real life: for people with complex emotions, stressed-out scenarios, or simply identities that are different from our own.Sara Wachter-Boettcher – Design for Real Life (video)
Technology companies call these people edge cases, because they live at the margins. They are, by definition, the marginalized.
Intersectionality’s raison dêtre is to reveal the systems that organize our society. Intersectionality’s brilliance is that its fundamental contribution to how we view the world seems so common-sense once you have heard it: by focusing on the parts of the system that are most complex and where the people living it are the most vulnerable we understand the system best.
“Essentially, no one knows best the motion of the ocean than the fish that must fight the current to swim upstream. I study fish that swim upstream.”
“Edge case” is, to be frank, a phrase that should be banned from all developer conversations (and then tattooed onto the forehead of anyone who continues to use it).
When we say “Edge Case” we mean “Stress Case”. In their book, Design for Real Life, Eric Meyer & Sara Wachter-Boettcher point out that what we glibly call an “edge case” is normally an enormously stressful event for a user.
It often accompanies high emotions, stress, physical problems, financial problems, etc. When we discount and dismiss the “edge case”, we’re actually saying “I don’t care about that particular user’s stressful situation”.
Design for Real Life and the pathways principle from The End of Average will make you reconsider what you call an edge case.
Normative thinking— the belief there is one normal pathway— has fooled scientists in many fields.
The fact that there is not a single, normal pathway for any type of human development— biological, mental, moral, or professional— forms the basis of the third principle of individuality, the pathways principle. This principle makes two important affirmations. First, in all aspects of our lives and for any given goal, there are many, equally valid ways to reach the same outcome; and, second, the particular pathway that is optimal for you depends on your own individuality.
The first point is rooted in a powerful concept from the mathematics of complex systems called equifinality. According to equifinality, in any multidimensional system that involves changes over time— like a person interacting with the world— there are always multiple ways to get from point A to point B. The second point is derived from the science of the individual, which tells us that, because of the jaggedness and context principles, individuals vary naturally in the pace of their progress, and the sequences they take to reach an outcome. It is in understanding the why that we discover how to leverage the pathways principle to work for us as individuals and as a society.
Design for Real Life is informed by and compatible with neurodiversity, the social model of disability, intersectionality, and structural ideology. I have more on developing compassion for the stress cases of the neurodiversity and disability communities in my primer on the social model for minds and bodies and my “I’m Autistic” piece. Social model understanding is essential to every designer’s and maker’s education and work. It is essential to informed compassion. When we design from a social model mindset, we build pluralism into the world. When we design for stress cases and the margins, we build better things and benefit everyone. Without the social model and intersectionality, we’re just bikeshedding injustice. There is no path to inclusive design that does not involve direct confrontation with injustice. “If a direct confrontation of injustice is missing from our strategies or initiatives or movements, that means we are recreating the conditions we’re pretending to want to destroy.”
An education that is designed to the edges and takes into account the jagged learning profile of all students can help unlock the potential in every child.
People who enter services are frequently society’s most vulnerable-people who have experienced extensive trauma, adversity, abuse, and oppression throughout their lives. At the same time, I struggle with the word “trauma” because it signifies some huge, overt event that needs to pass some arbitrary line of “bad enough” to count. I prefer the terms “stress” and “adversity.” In the book, I speak to the problem of language and how this insinuates differences that are not there, judgments, and assumptions that are untrue. Our brains and bodies don’t know the difference between “trauma” and “adversity”-a stressed fight/flight state is the same regardless of what words you use to describe the external environment. I’m tired of people saying “nothing bad ever happened to me” because they did not experience “trauma.” People suffer, and when they do, it’s for a reason.
- Excerpt from Design for Real Life
- Sara Wachter-Boettcher – Design for Real Life – Amuse UX Conference
- Design for Real Life: ‘There’s no checklist for the human experience’
- Stress cases are “moments that put our design and content choices to the test of real life.”
- Equity Literate Education: Fix Injustice, Not Kids
- Design is Tested at the Edges: Intersectionality, The Social Model of Disability, and Design for Real Life
- Inadvertent Algorithmic Cruelty
- Eric Meyer: Designing for Crisis
- Eric A. Meyer: Design for Real Life | WordPress.tv
- Design for Humanity: A New Perspective on User Experience | Udemy
- Liz Jackson: Designing for Inclusivity – 99U
- Dear Developer, The Web Isn’t About You | sonniesedge.co.uk
- Education, Neurodiversity, the Social Model of Disability, and Real Life