Sara Wachter-Boettcher

Design for Real Life: ‘There’s no checklist for the human experience’

Digital products touch every aspect of our lives: friendships, relationships, work, finances, health, grief, you name it. They’re how we share, how we express our thoughts and feelings. They’re us—in all our messy complexity. Failing to support this has a cost. These accidentally awful experiences are alienating.”
Design for Real Life by Eric Meyer and Sara Wachter-Boettcher

No one sets out to plunge a digital dagger into someone’s emotional well-being—or even to ruin their day with a crappy experience. But as Sara Wachter-Boettcher and her co-author Eric Meyer discovered, it happens every day, in spite of our best intentions. Design for Real Life is a small book with big implications for the way we approach experience design.

We’re excited to have Sara as one of our keynote speakers at Delight 2016. As a preview, I spoke with her about some of the challenges she addresses in the book (edited for brevity and clarity).

Carmen: A lot of times, when we think about delight, we think about some sort of over-the-top gesture that a brand might make toward one customer or a handful of customers that’s so out of the ordinary that people really notice it. And a lot of what you’re talking about is, “Don’t be a jerk.” Not that people are trying to be a jerk, but is it possible that an experience feels great just because it doesn’t piss you off? Is it the absence of a bad experience?

Sara: Oftentimes, yes—an efficient, non-intrusive experience can be wonderful. I like the idea of delight, but I get a little bit hung up on whether or not that’s viable for a lot of organizations, or whether that’s a good goal to have. What I’ve landed on is this idea that delight is a wonderful feeling, but it’s not a very good design goal. It trains people to be looking at those surface-level things. Where are the bells and whistles? What’s going to be fun or whimsical? When people get hyper-focused on that, they often lose sight of the foundational work that makes things just function and not harm people.

For example, just today, I saw this tweet come through, which is the kind of thing people send me all the time because of the book. There was a screen capture of what somebody got from TimeHop, the service where you can sign up to receive reminders of things you posted in past years. It’s like, “On this date in 2012, you posted this thing.” They’ve done a lot of work to try to make it fun and clever. Sometimes that works, but in this scenario, they really missed the mark:

TimeHop screenshot

TimeHop couldn’t have anticipated that this was going to be about somebody’s funeral service. When you read it, the copy is meant to be poking fun at how long the post was and it’s kind of making a joke. But the joke comes off as pretty condescending and insulting to the user.

I think this is where TimeHop went wrong. It’s meant to be fun; it’s meant to be funny. If you sign up for TimeHop, you’re intending to get these messages. But in this scenario, they wrote the copy in a way that judges the user’s content. That’s so dangerous. In their quest to be delightful and funny—and in some circumstances, that would have been delightful and funny—they missed a foundational piece. The foundational piece is not making fun of what a user may have written, because they’re not going to know whether that’s appropriate or not.

It’s easy to miss these problems if you haven’t learned to look for them. There’s no checklist for the human experience, no easy way to ensure our products won’t cause harm. But as designers, writers, strategists, developers, and product people, we can train ourselves to seek out those stress cases, and vet our design choices against them.”

Carmen: You’re right. People are, like, “Oh, we’re going to design delightful experiences,” but that’s a bit loaded. One of the things that we really try and bring into the Delight Conference is the complexity and the rigor that is required to make these things actually work.

Sara: I just think delight is a terrible place to start. If you see a child crying, you don’t just throw a clown in front of them. First, you would figure out what’s wrong. When we say “delight” that’s where a lot of people’s brains go: What are the balloons and streamers that I can put in front of this situation? But actual delight starts at the foundation of having your needs met in a way that feels respectful, and then it builds from there.

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….”

Carmen: What is the difference between an edge case and a stress case? And how does that change the way you approach your research or design?

Sara: Eric Meyer and I talk about this quite a lot, because it’s a really helpful way to reframe decisions. A lot of designers and developers are trained to think of things as edge cases—to say, we need to focus on “typical” people rather than worry about extreme circumstances. What we realized is that calling something an edge case is literally saying, “this is not important enough to care about.” It’s saying, “this is just a fringe concern.”

Instead, when you’re talking about people—particularly when they don’t quite fit whatever you thought of as average—it’s a lot more helpful to think of them as stress cases: people who put pressure on your design and see how strong it is.

When you are designing a website or another digital experience, you have an opportunity to say, “How can I make this work better for people who are in a stressful scenario?” It could be they are in crisis: They need to book a plane ticket in a hurry to get to somebody who is sick. They need to find information very quickly because they’re in an emergency scenario. Or, it might be people who don’t fit into tidy little boxes around identity. For example, we might say that the majority of people identify as male or female. But there are plenty of people who don’t, or for whom answering that question is difficult. Designing for them will make things better for everyone.

Compassion is more than being nice. It’s accepting people as they come—in all their pain, with their challenges—and not just feeling empathy toward them, but doing something with that empathy. It’s recognizing that users facing stress and crisis need more than our sympathy. They need our help.”

Carmen: You make a distinction between empathy and compassion. Could you talk about that a little bit?

Sara: When we talk about compassion, it’s not just about getting inside somebody’s head. It’s not just about feeling for them, it’s also about action. It’s saying, “What are you going to do with that empathy? In which ways are you willing to help them?” We talk a lot about customer experience and user experience. We talk a lot about how well we serve customers. But when it comes down to it, it’s actually not that common for organizations to take a compassionate approach to their users. Doing that requires you to really go to them and accept that in their world view, all the things going on in their life are big and important—probably a lot more important than your organization and whatever it is that you want them to buy.

That’s hard for an organization to do because most organizations spend so much time talking about themselves. I think that real, true customer centricity is so much more difficult than we often give it credit for. It’s one thing to have some personas and model out a user’s task or a user’s journey. It’s another to say, “Let’s think about what life is like for this person and how much space we actually have in their life.” And the truth is, it’s probably not that much.

It’s one thing to believe in doing right by users, but quite another to get people with fancy titles to draw connections between compassionate design and successful business. No matter how much you want to build the practices and principles we’ve covered into your work, you may still need to get the support of bosses, clients, or executives to make it real.”

Carmen: How can someone influence or help drive a more compassionate approach to design within their organization when, as you say, most organizations, in spite of their stated efforts, are pretty inside-out thinkers?

Sara: I think the first thing I would say is that this is not some sort of one-time thing. This is a big shift. This is a way of thinking that has to make its way through organizations. I don’t expect it to be fast, and I don’t expect it to be overnight, and I don’t expect it to be perfect. What I would say to anybody who says, “I think this stuff is valuable, but I don’t really know how to make it possible in my company and feel a little discouraged,” I would say start small. Start with yourself.

The first piece is to be able to say, “If you start thinking differently, if you start thinking with a compassionate lens instead of looking at every scenario in that way, you’ll be able to bring things up to your team and you’ll be able to help them make better decisions.”

Oftentimes, we do things that are pretty unkind to our users simply because nobody ever thought about it. If you think about it and talk about it, that will get other people thinking, too. I do think that is powerful. I don’t want to undersell the importance of grassroots change in organizations. I think it really matters.

About Sara Wachter-Boettcher

Sara Wachter-Boettcher (pronounced Wahk-ter-Bett-cher) is a consultant, author and editor focused on bringing compassion to content strategy and design. Her company provides strategic consulting and training to in-house teams for large financial services, software, and pharmaceutical companies, as well as a range of nonprofit associations and institutes. Her clients include The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Home Depot, Trek Bicycle and Harvard. Until starting her own consultancy in 2011, Sara directed the content strategy practice and served on the senior management team at Off Madison Ave. Sara is also the author of two books, including Content Everywhere and Design for Real Life.