Sins of the ‘Happy Paths’

“Computer says no.”

One of Little Britain’s most favourite quotes is the unfortunate reality for many like Jennifer Null’s family. 

Just like the computer pioneers in the past century who conveniently forgot about the year 2000, rare names like Mrs. Null, are lost in the digital world forever simply because they fall into the unfortunate ‘edge cases’ (imagine trying to board a plane with ‘Null’ in the name field on your ticket). 

With a slightly happier ending, Janice Keihanaikukauakahihulihe’ekahaunaele, a Hawaiian woman with a real 36 character long surname, convinced the authority to change the system so that her name can be displayed in full. 

Whether or not we have one of those rare names, being able to enjoy the same access to the increasingly digital world, is a basic human right. However too often, design practices systematically violate this basic principle for the sake of being agile. 

This is a classic dilemma for us as UX designers. Ever since digital was even a thing, designers of Human Factors or Ergonomics have made the consensus in User Centered Design (UCD) process with the following steps: 

  1. Define relevant populations (e.g. age range, nationality, sex)
  2. Define key dimensions or variable for fit consideration (e.g. height, reach, weight, etc)
  3. Determine boundary measures for each anthropometric dimension from reference data, from lower 5th to upper 95th percentile (keeping in mind that some dimensions, such as head clearance in a doorway, may be one-sided)
  4. Compare referenced dimensions with existing real-world products for reality check
  5. Apply dimensions to create mock-ups for initial, informal ergonomic feedback with users
  6. Refine design(s) to create foam or similar low-fidelity mock-ups for fit evaluation
  7. Continue to refine as needed/budgeted

In today’s terms, these basic UCD principles mean that an effective design should accommodate at least 90% of the target population (from the lower 5th percentile to the upper 95th percentile).

Luke W has discussed a great deal about how to tackle edge cases in UX design process. If you are planning to start a large scale UX project, here are a few suggestions to help you plan your ‘unhappy paths’ better: 

  1. System map is still key. System maps, or system flows are logic flows to help articulate the system architecture and the logical relationship between system elements and processes, as well as ALL the possible logical paths. Even though an Agile design process may not have the accurate picture of the full system at the start, it is critical to have an evolving system map to ensure that the system is sound at every stage of the design process.
  2. Brain storm ‘What-ifs’. It’s unlikely we can exhaust all the possibilities in a brainstorming session. But that should not stop us from trying. ‘What-ifs’ are beacons of innovation and torch lights for finding flaws, allowing us to imagine the unknown and achieve the unthinkable. While the team has settled on the key user stories, spend time on the many ‘what-ifs’ and be enlightened by what comes up.
  3. Test, test, test. Just like realtors’ mantra ‘location, location, location’, ‘test, test and test again’ should be the mantra of all designers. Constant and continuous testing with real users will help maximize the exposure of design flaws. This includes adding ‘feedback/report’ options and tracking features post launch, so you can continue to track what goes right and what goes wrong.

Empathy is the fundamental quality of all UX designers. Let’s make sure people like Mrs. Null can enjoy the convenience and delight of modern technologies, just like everyone else.

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