An Atypical User: How the UX Process is Leading to Exclusionary Experiences

21 December 2015

The tech scene’s current love affair with UX design should be a boon for those invested in accessible and inclusive user experiences. After all, the whole point of the UX process is to create a great experience for all users, isn’t it? Ideally, yes. But, in practice, the UX process means designing and building a great experience for a product’s typical user.

What a particular team envisions their typical user to be may vary from product to product, but with few exceptions, this typical user will be:

  • White
  • Cis
  • Able-bodied
  • Proficient in English, western cultural concepts (for instance, that this symbol refers to a home and basic technological concepts (i.e. that clicking or tapping on said symbol will return you to some form of default state)
  • Most of the time, this isn’t a problem, because what makes for a better experience for your typical user is often the same as that for an ‘atypical’ user who doesn’t fit into these categories. Chunking content on your site will make it easier for your typical user to consume, but it will also help a neuroatypical user or someone with trouble reading English understand and use your site without becoming overwhelmed. Descriptive headings, button labels and links can give a typical user confidence they’re understanding and using your product correctly, but are also vital for someone using a screenreader to navigate it.

    However, what happens when an atypical user’s needs are different - or even in opposition - to those of the team’s typical user? Invariably, they’re ignored, implemented poorly or put off until long after the product has shipped. Lean and Agile UX processes only encourage this, with accessibility and inclusivity frequently overlooked in the rush to produce a minimum viable product. This leads to what Caden Lovelace at Cultivate has termed accessibility debt. The later accessibility is thought about in a project, the harder it becomes to implement; the harder something becomes to implement, the less well-implemented it becomes. It’s in this way that UX, a field which sets out to create better user experiences, ends up creating worse experiences for many users.

    This means that, for an atypical user, a product which does create an inclusionary experience for them will stand out. Silicon Valley’s CEOs and start-ups may have overused ‘delight’ to the point of meaninglessness over the last few years, but the concept goes all the way back to the birth of the UX movement - so let’s talk about a few delightful experiences. A person of colour opens the character creation screen in a videogame and the default skin tone isn’t white - they’re delighted. A user who can’t use a mouse is trying to book tickets for an event on their PC and finds a site whose booking calendar is easy to navigate with a keyboard - they’re delighted. An agender user is signing up to a service and they’re given the option to enter their gender themselves rather than being forced to choose between male and female - they’re delighted.

    In a market where every product is trying - and largely failing - to create meaningful moments for its users, inclusionary design choices are ones an atypical user will really remember, particularly when it comes to choosing one product over another. Of course, no team is blessed with infinite time and resources to build their product; when the clock is ticking and funds disappearing, can the effort required to design with atypical users in mind really be justified?


    When integrated into the UX process from the beginning, making inclusive design choices is simple. When you create a diverse UX team, your designers will understand what it means to be an atypical user. When your research includes atypical users’ behaviour, it’s easy to understand their needs. When your personas and scenarios incorporate atypical users, designing for them comes naturally. When you incorporate atypical users into testing, inclusive design choices become even easier in the future.

    And the number of ‘atypical’ users is hardly negligible. There are over eleven million people in the UK with a long term illness, impairment or disability, around two million of which are affected by sight loss. In the United States, African Americans possess a buying power of over one trillion dollars. And, right now, internet users in Asia outnumber those in Europe by over one billion - a number that’s only going to rise.

    These are all potential customers whose experience is being ignored as everyone designs and builds for the ‘typical’ user. As a result, countless products crash and burn because they fail to make an impression. For a typical user, the market is already saturated with choices. When every product is designed for you and your needs, how does one stand out from the crowd? For an atypical user, however, all it takes is for a product to recognise your existence and needs to provide a memorable experience.

    Creating inclusive and accessible experiences isn’t difficult, expensive or time-consuming, and considering atypical users in your design will result in the meaningful moments designers long for. All it requires is for you to question your assumptions about your audience, and find out who’s really using your product and what they need - and isn’t that what we should all be doing anyway?