Book review: Design for Real Life

I recently had the pleasure of discussing Design for Real Life by Eric Meyer and Sara Wachter-Boettcher with a local UX book club. Full disclosure: some of the material in this book is discussed in a YouTube video that I made in September when one of the authors spoke at a conference I attended. You can view a similar presentation at a different conference here, which I recommended if you have or aspire to any sort of design role.

The talk was mostly about how existing products often unintentionally alienate and even sometimes harm people with their design choices, as well as proposing how to improve the situation. The book is divided in a similar fashion, with roughly the first half illustrating the problems with the status quo, and the second half offering steps toward a solution.

The problem

An example that Wachter-Boettcher mentioned in the talk that is also included in the book comes from an experience that her co-author had with Facebook. Many of you are probably familiar with Facebook’s Year in Review, which greets you with an automatically-created video of some of your posts that received the most engagement over the past year. Unfortunately, in 2014, Meyer lost a child to brain cancer. The photo that greeted him was of his daughter’s face, which Facebook had surrounded with festive imagery.

Since then, Facebook has tweaked their interface for Year in Review, allowing for the possibility that not everyone is interested in reliving or sharing the past year. But this problem is not unique to Facebook.

A common part of the UX design process is the creation of user personas, which are personifications of a product’s intended users. But as the book points out, these user personas tend to reflect ideal lives and neglect the stress that many people often experience. As the example persona below shows, I’m as guilty of this anyone.

User persona example with photo of a young woman
Example of a user persona I created for a course.

The book cites examples of how various designs have been improved by accounting for people not always being ideally prepared to encounter their product. One of my favorite examples from the book involves a study on electronic ballots. The people conducting the study focused on people with low incomes and low literacy levels. These people are often among the most stressed people likely to encounter any product, so if it works well for them, people with fewer stressors are likely to get through without difficulty.

The solution

Solutions to problems like these boil down to various ways of having empathy for your users and meeting them where they are. The book cites PatientsLikeMe, a social network for people to share experiences with their health. At first, the founders of PatientsLikeMe thought that people would be primarily interested in connecting with people in similar medical situations. But when they started a project to understand their users better, it turned out that many users were more interested in other criteria, such as fellow veterans or someone who shared their religion. If you don’t keep track of how people actually use or want to use your product, you’ll miss this information.

Another issue discussed with PatientsLikeMe is asking for sensitive information. The book also talks about how sometimes people won’t even complete the account creation process for apps they’ve downloaded because the app asks for information they’re not comfortable providing or that they don’t feel fits their experiences.

At the book club I attended, several participants mentioned they were uncomfortable disclosing their full birthdate. Fortunately, many companies have become sensitive to this and only ask for the month and day, and they explain that the information will be used to send you coupons on your birthday or something like that. But not all companies have wised up.

The book finishes with a discussion of how to present the business case for more inclusive product designs. One content strategist showed video and audio clips of frustrated users trying to deal with a set of forms. The stakeholders were shocked.

There’s often the assumption that something that goes through a computer is objective and morally neutral. However, products and interfaces ultimately come from the human mind and reflect the assumptions of the humans behind them. Therefore, to make better products, be more careful about your assumptions.

Conclusion

If you haven’t figured it out already, I highly recommend this book. I think anyone who has or wants any sort of role in the design process should read it. It’s not a long book or a difficult read; I was able to get through it in about 2 days.

Also, if you want to learn more about the individual authors’ work, here’s where you can find them:

If you’ve read the book, I’d love to hear your thoughts on it, too!

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