The Needs of the Many: Why You Can’t Design for Everyone

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It makes sense for designers, developers and copywriters to want our websites, web applications and digital campaigns to be accessible to everyone on any device, anywhere.

It’s a noble idea and I'd love to be able to do that all the time. Unfortunately, it’s also like reaching the speed of light—the closer you get, the exponentially more difficult (or costly) it becomes. In the real world, making “something for everyone” is not only impossible, but improfitable as well.

Let’s back up. As I’ve mentioned in the past, I went to school for industrial design. It was there I learned about a discipline known as human factors and anthropometrics (aka ergonomics). The basic idea is that every object you design will have rigid physical constraints. Things have a size, weight, flexibility, etc., and because you need to build the thing, you have to make choices about the range of people you design for.

Anthropometric measurements organize human beings along a variance scale. The one below is by height, but there are a million other attributes that are cataloged as well. While not always the case, height typically corresponds to important traits such as hand size, weight, strength, reach, etc., all important things when designing a physical product, which is why height is used in this way. The humps in the graph reflect most of the population, also known as the “90th percentile.” As you can see, the closer you get to either end of the hump (the very tall or very short), the amount of people in those ranges decreases dramatically. That’s just how it is.

Anthropometric Data

So why is this important? Let’s say you are designing something handheld, like a vegetable peeler. It needs to be held in the hand, obviously, but considering the 90th percentile, you’re immediately met with a problem. How big and small can hands get? You might first think, “well, let us take the extremes and design for them. Surely that will cover the range, right?”

Nope. This photo shows an average adult woman compared to an NBA basketball player. How would you even begin to design something to be hand held that works for them? It’s a challenge, for sure, but could you do it? Probably. Maybe some kind of adjustable or telescoping handle. Or maybe you make separate production sizes. But what about older people with arthritis? Ok, maybe it has a really squishy handle, too. People missing fingers? Maybe it also has ridges for extra grip?

You get the idea. Designers are great at coming up with all kinds of solutions for these kinds of things, but in the end, it all boils down to price and the law of diminishing returns. 

Every ingenious solution has a cost. Say that adjustable handle that makes our NBA player comfortable costs another $1.00 per unit to make. That means every 90th percentile customer is paying an extra $1.00 for another (much smaller) user group’s consideration. That could lead to fewer people buying it all together because A) they don’t need the feature because it’s not for them or B) it’s too expensive. 

Cost, accessibility and relevance are an interrelated system. Most of the time, something extremely accessible to most users will have a higher cost, because of the time it took to consider all those users, or in the production costs involved to getting the thing to work. There are some golden products that achieve the trifecta, but it is certainly the exception. On the other hand, to make something “just for me” like a tailored suit, for example, puts costs and relevance first with accessibility way in the back.

A great example of this is the adjustable desks offered by Xybix, a former client of ours. Their desks move up and down to adjust to different people, are temperature controlled, use hypoallergenic materials, etc., and start at about $4,000 each. Perfect for dispatch centers with rotating staff and highly designed for accessibility. And you pay for it. The desk I’m at right now has two inches of adjustment and costs $150 bucks from IKEA, and they sell a hell of a lot more of them. One product isn't better than the other, they are simply made for different user groups.

Desks

The point is this: design is always, always a compromise. You will never be able to provide the same experience for everyone. Think back to our 90th percentile. It’s true, compromise means a non-optimal experience for the 10% of users, but it also means that you can make the lives of 90% better. If Spock were here, you’d know what he would say.

The Needs of the Many Outweigh the Needs of the Few

Let’s jump back to the web. When we talk about our attributes of cost, accessibility, and relevance in the digital space, what we are typically talking about is time. Time to test screen readers for the blind, time to test on Blackberrys and IE6 on Win 2000, not to mention testing how Russian words (typically longer) break navigation, different connection speeds handle progressively loading images, how color blind user see your on-states, and a million other possible user contexts (including people with fat fingers). And that’s just the accessibility piece! 

What makes things even more complex is when we’re selling something (be it a product or experience). Which, of course, is always. How do then make something relevant AND accessible in a way you can afford? It’s simple, you probably can't. You have to compromise somewhere.

Putting it another way, do you want your website to be a great experience (another way of saying ‘relevant’) for your target customers, or an ok-to-good experience to anyone and everyone? Can you have both? Probably. Where there’s a will there’s a way. But do you want to pay for it? Probably not. Targeting specific 90th percentile groups are going to give the best cost/relevance/accessibility combination for the best ROI, whether that means product sales or happy users.

And that’s how simple it is. On the surface, it may seem a little cynical, reducing users to a chart of percentiles feels a little cold. But in the real world, design compromise is a necessary evil. By defining a unique 90th percentile audience (for digital or physical products), you are far more likely to make an impact to a small group.

I'll end with a short anecdote from my childhood (this is how you know you're getting old, btw). When I was in daycare, the teachers would give us Koolaid every day. To spread it around, the "juice" was watered down so that all the kids could have some and they wouldn't spend a ton of money. Fair, right? Yes, but such a disappointment, day after day. They sacrificed relevance, or experience, for the sake of cost and accessibility. But what if full-strength Koolaid was only for the well-behaved kids? Or perhaps every other day, but full-strength for every kid, sacrificing cost and some accessibility for maximum fructose-experience? My point is not that it is always better one way or the other but that there naturally IS a one way or the other, whether you like it or not. You can naver have it all ways. But by recognizing this fact, designers, web developers and businesses can make active choices and the right compromises for their users.