When I designed for a single user… | by Abhinaya Shankar | Dec, 2021


Photo by UX Indonesia on Unsplash

I have always been annoyed by UX designed for the average user. Make no mistake. I am, in no way, saying it is easy (or even possible) to cater to ALL users in our customer segments. Imagine doing ethnographic research with every edge case user and never feeling like you could ship a product without excluding them! There enters the MVP (most valuable player) of product development: MVPs (minimum viable products).

In the pursuit of MVPs, we recruit top-of-the-bell curve users to interview and pat ourselves on the back when we design for them. Creating products and experiences always takes precedence over making them accessible to all users. While user research is often undertaken for the purpose of discovery and usability, I hate how most product experiences leave edge users in the lurch. Despite gnashing my teeth at this lack of inclusivity, I begrudgingly accept that this is the path of least resistance. However, the perfect opportunity to design an overfitted system for one user just fell into my lap.

Design Challenge: Design a new Zoom Setup for comfort (without changing how the software works).

A simple design challenge with very few moving parts, the idea was to interview one user and create a setup to address his/her issues. I would present the user with the first iteration of my design. My second (and final) setup would incorporate user feedback and (hopefully) address all the concerns of the first.

A 23-year old, 5’10’’ Southeast Asian female graduate student. Let’s call her Sam.

I adopted a simple user interview process to identify my user’s needs, wants, and aspirations. I asked Sam to describe her current Zoom setup on a Zoom call (the irony isn’t lost on me) and send me an amateur video tour of her surroundings.

  • Sam’s primary need was to combat posture problems that result from her desk being disproportionate to her stature. Back pain and hip flexor stiffness from prolonged bouts of sitting are all too real. Her desk setup needed to be designed to elevate her laptop when she attends 3-hour Zoom classes.
  • As a student, Sam wanted to find easy and affordable fixes instead of splurging on a new desk altogether. She also admitted to enjoying (DIY) home projects if that meant saving a few bucks.
  • She felt self-conscious about the poor quality lighting that made her face appear brighter than her background. Sam believed she would be able to project an aura of confidence at work meetings if her home office set her up for success.
Doodle of the user’s original setup (Self-illustrated)

  • In her new setup, I included a DIY Wooden laptop table with portable wheels that could be placed on her desk. This would help solve Sam’s primary need of being able to elevate her laptop, while also giving her the option to put it away when not in use. I approximated her height to be around 4.33 feet when seated. With her laptop 12 inches (1 ft) tall and her desk 2.33 ft high, this puts her 1 ft taller than her laptop screen when seated. With these approximations, I chose a 1/2-ft elevation for her portable desk.
  • I added a studio-quality ring light ( ~ $10- $12) that could be clamped to Sam’s laptop and charged via USB. This would help solve her aesthetic requirements for better lighting while giving her the option to remove it when she is on her own working at her home office.
  • Finally, I added a lumbar support cushion. This was to help Sam’s postural problems when she sits for long hours. She could also move it to a position on the chair depending on where she feels her back get fatigued.
  • The optional Amazon-box footrest was added to help her stretch her legs during long meetings.
Round 1 — Sam’s improved setup (Self-illustrated)

Sam was happy with the overall initial design. However, she felt she would prefer an elevation add-on that was stationary and had an adjustable inclination. She also wanted a sturdy footrest so she can stretch her legs during long meetings.

  • Sam was anxious about having wheels on her add-on table. She feared the table would move too much, and her laptop would fall off when she wasn’t paying attention. She wanted a stationary setup with elevation.
  • Sam specified a new need after she saw my addition of the footrest. She belatedly realized she suffered from foot pain while sitting for long periods. She wants a footrest that could help alleviate this.
  • Once she saw the portable light and desk, she mentioned she would like her other unnecessary things stowed away during Zoom calls just the same way. Sam mentioned she had a lot of stuff lined up on her table that proves distracting during meetings. She asked if she could have more storage to address this requirement.

  • In the revised setup, I made her a stationary desk with adjustable inclination. The new design meets Sam’s needs for an immovable bottom, fitted with rubber pegs. The desk has an arm that allows the inclination to be adjusted between 0 to 60 degrees. Sam can use the incline position while working and the flat position to attend Zoom meetings.
  • The surface also has a removable rubber non-slip mat. The mat belies a dry-erase board that Sam can use to doodle or take notes. I included mini drawers and compartments to create storage.
  • Sam’s desk has a back cross-section that lines with the wall. I thought she could benefit from an attachable footrest with a lever that allows the inclination to be adjusted. She can also adjust the angle of the footrest to 90 degrees to line up with the wall if she so pleases.
Round 2— Sam’s redesigned setup (Self-illustrated)

  1. Designing for one person is bloody expensive — both cost and time-wise. An obvious observation to be sure, but one user is always more likely to nitpick their experience than the collective that feels resigned to leaving well enough alone. I always remember the “shampoo” example; the font sizing on these bottles is so small we have excluded those with poor eyesight who (probably) don’t wear spectacles in the shower, yet no one complains. This is a double-edged sword. Do we want our users to accept that this is all we are capable of?
  2. Since I only had one person to please, I could go balls to the wall with emotional design — an extremely overlooked aspect of UX design. Even when we design for emotions, it is overtly exploitative and manifests as dark patterns/FOMO UX. Functional design is practical to get the users; emotional design is necessary to the users. This approach to design helps achieve the implicit goal of setting users up for success.
  3. My user interactions were more than a means to an end. Since the design was such a close-quarters undertaking — quite literally modifying the user’s personal space — I questioned if I could reasonably extrapolate the perceived needs of the many. This is quite a risky pondering at face value. One user can NEVER truly capture the average user; this is why we engage multiple users to get the Voice-of-the-customer. While I will continue to lament about the lack of inclusivity in UX design, I definitely gained an appreciation for why we like “happy paths”.

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