Issue 33 // In Case of Emergency 

Early in life we’re told to prepare—to look before we leap and to save for a rainy day. Contingencies and backup scenarios are our security blankets; they let us rest assured that even when things go wrong, we’ll be alright. 

We require emergency exits and fire escapes in our buildings, and we find flotation devices under our airplane seats. Yet we don’t often extend this sense of preparedness beyond our physical world. When things go bad and we’re at our worst, shouldn’t our apps provide us the same affordances as our tangible products?

This is the heart of Eric Meyer’s recent An Event Apart talk, “Designing for Crisis”—that by adopting the mindset of a user in crisis, you improve your designs for all. In a departure from issues past, and as a sign of things to come, we asked Eric if he could elaborate on his talk in this newsletter. We’re honored to share it here.
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Editors: Laurissa Wolfram-Hvass, Jason BeairdJeffrey Zeldman, and Toby Malina
Artwork: Caleb Andrews
On Twitter: @MailChimpUX


We’re stoked to have An Event Apart here in our hometown on February 16-18, 2015. Care to join us at the conference? Use the code UXNEWSLETTER to save $100 on your ticket.

Want to familiarize yourself with some of the speakers from this year’s line up? Here’s just a few them, along with links to recent blog posts or articles they’ve written:

The 10% Solution: Where Empathy Meets the Edge Case

by Eric Meyer
“We’re designing for the 90%, not the 10%.”

How often have you heard that when you and your clients or colleagues get together to talk about your web projects or products? How often have you said or felt it yourself?

In many ways, it makes sense. You want as many visitors as possible, and you want to help as many of them as you can. You want to hit the tall, fat part of the bell curve of visitors. Building a design around the edge cases doesn’t sound like a winning strategy. And in many cases, it probably isn’t. Hence our industry’s agreed-upon best practice of designing for the 90%.

The problem is that when we start thinking of some of our visitors as “edge cases,” we’re a lot more likely to stop thinking about them altogether. Furthermore, it becomes seductively easy to use “edge case” as a bin for “use cases I don’t know how to handle” or “use cases I just don’t want to think about.” There is no shame in—okay, no, that’s wrong. There is shame in this. But it’s a shame we all share, so don’t feel that you’re uniquely terrible to have fallen prey to it.

The best designs, and the best designers, keep the edge cases firmly in mind, and use them to strengthen what they create. This is a topic I’ve been exploring recently with my talk for An Event Apart, “Designing for Crisis.” The core thesis is this: by looking at your designs through the eyes of users in crisis, you can make what you create better for all your users, whether they’re in crisis or not. In many ways, this is similar to the drive toward designing for accessibility: creating an accessible web site is also creating an efficient, future-friendly web site. It’s also very similar to the idea that if you design a tennis racket that can be used by a person with arthritis, then it will be more usable for everybody, not just those with arthritis.
A good example of design that takes crisis into account is MailChimp’s Voice and Tone guide. It directly addresses, in a way I’ve never seen before, the reality that human beings will have a range of emotions when interacting with a site, and shows how to properly address each of those emotional contexts. For example, a success message comes in a context of relief, pride, and joy, so the design directives are things like “pat these users on the back” and “feel free to be funny.” At the other end of the spectrum, a compliance alert—that is, a situation where the user is being informed of an account suspension for failing to comply with MailChimp terms of service—has a context of confusion, stress, anger, and fear, and thus the design needs to be calm, straightforward, and without a hint of humor. Joking around with someone who’s panicking is rarely a good idea, particularly if you don’t know them personally. It’s not just confusing and off-putting, it’s tactless. Heartless.

By taking those “edge cases” into account, the MailChimp team is able to create a much stronger design for all users. Respectful and helpful in times of stress; fun and jovial in times of success. It’s almost incredible to realize how many sites don’t do this properly. Once they settle on a “brand tone,” it gets applied everywhere. A fun, upbeat site tries to carry that tone into its error messages, and comes off as mocking instead. A staid, serious site adheres to that approach even when things are going great, and comes off as flat and remote.

To most people, there’s nothing more staid and serious than banking, and a lot of banking web sites either conform to that stereotype, or try—very badly—to overcome it. A notable exception is Simple (formerly Bank Simple), which has an incredibly well-designed experience. As an example, suppose you realize you’ve lost your Simple card; you can block it via the iPhone app. There’s no joking about it, just a big red button saying “Block Card” and then, simply, “This is a reversible process” with a link to learn more.

This is a really great instance of striking the right tone and giving the right support to people in a moment of crisis. It’s quite scary to have lost your card, a window into your bank account. Not only does the blocking screen have an obvious call to action (“Block Card”), but there’s the reassurance that this is something you can undo later, if the card turns out not to have been stolen or left somewhere vulnerable. The awareness of the context, and the tone for that context, is pitch-perfect.

Now, take that awareness of context and tone one step further. Imagine that someone comes to your site when they are deeply panicked, but they still need what you have to offer. How much of your design will distract and confuse them, instead of help them? What blind alleys might they fall into, and what assumptions have you made that will frustrate them? Finding those problems for users in crisis will show you things that are misleading about your design for all your users. Thus, resolving them will help everyone.

You might be tempted to dismiss all this as irrelevant to your site. “Who would ever come here in the middle of a crisis?” you might ask. On its face, that might seem sensible; and yet, similarly to what Karen McGrane has said about mobile users, you don’t get to decide what your users will feel the need to do in the middle of crisis. They do. Be ready for them, or you will fail them. This can be as simple as reducing the steps needed to reset a password, or auditing your content around warnings and error messages. Those aren’t complete solutions, but they’re very good starts—and once you start looking at your work this way, you’re likely to find many more places to do better.

This isn’t easy; being human never is. But that’s exactly what we need more of at this juncture of web design and history itself: more humanity. Tackling this level of compassion as a design goal will be an enormous challenge, full of mistakes and setbacks. But it’s critical work, on par with anything we’ve done before. I’m very much looking forward to what will come from all of us meeting that challenge together.

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