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A real person living in a world designed for unicorns


Medicine can “fix” our deteriorating bodies and minds up to a point. Vaccines, medication, medical procedures can help us (the patients/health seekers) survive, stay alive. Staying “healthy” or self-sufficient is a different story. 15% of the global population is considered to be living with disabilities by the WHO (world health organization). This percentage will triple by 2030 if we take into consideration Non-Communicable Diseases (health conditions that are not transmittable but can be chronic and interfere with a person’s daily life). Currently, the percentage of these conditions reach 77% in the European region, 44% in Canada and 45% in the USA. There is a big movement through governments to prevent these conditions by educating citizens to have healthier lifestyles, so they can live longer “healthier” and self-sufficient. But what do healthier and self-sufficient mean?

There is no magic

A medical doctor treats a person about a condition that threatens the person’s life or disturb the person’s daily life. This person continue living but that does not mean that they are healthy. It is just that their bodies/minds have been treated to continue working in a functional way in a specific society. For example, a person with ADHD can take medication to help focus their attention and act as others expect them to act but that does not mean that they are now “fixed”. It means the environment can accept this person. The medication may have other side effects that may not be considered problematic based on the society. Similarly, a woman with reading impairment (e.g. dyslexia) may face barriers in the western world where women are expected to have a higher level of literacy, but if the same woman lived in a society where women are not expected to learn to read, then she would be perceived as healthy.

If 77% of Europeans have NCD (from neuro-developmental disorder to chronic depression and from allergies to chronic cancer) who is the normal healthy person? Our bodies and minds confront societies with a reality. There is no normal healthy person, there is a diversity of bodies and minds. The society may have been designed to accommodate for a specific range of bodies and minds but the ones who cannot deal with the design are considered outliers, exceptions and end up to be marginalized from the “general” population as the “unfit”. The normal are the ones who can cope with the design of the society they are living in. They have a specific range of energy levels, specific body abilities, and they look/act according to what is perceived as “healthy”. For a person who works in Human-computer interaction this is translate as:

Normal/healthy are the people who can cope with poor design

Design for unicorns

The designers of an IT artifact or service are supposed to create this artifact or service in a way that covers the user’s needs, wishes, and values, not the other way around (i.e. design something that the user struggles to use).

Often, I use the picture on the left in classes I happen to teach. It shows a perfectly functional ATM that the user is unable to use. How would you describe this image?

Is the person too short or is the ATM placed too high? We often design services and technology focusing on the “normal” or “average” person, but can anyone even possess the characteristics of an average/normal person? Or is it that the ones who can cope with the design are virtually considered to be “normal”? What if a person is shorter or taller than the “normal” and had to compromise their body posture (often causing injuries) to use the ATM? Who is responsible for these injuries and who is responsible for the shorter person’s “inability” to be self-sufficient?

Most societies are currently designed based on the fictional normal or average person, leaving citizens to cope with poor design of services and technologies. It may be difficult to design without categories, majorities, or averages. However, by designing based on these notions, we unwittingly perpetuate a fictional reality which needs the user adjust to the artifact instead of the opposite. It is like we design for unicorn users letting the real people struggle with poor designs. In the dawn of a future digitalized society, it is time to change our mindset and start designing for the diversity of real people.

This blog is influenced by the following books:

· The rejected body

· Normal sucks: how to live, learn, and thrive outside the lines


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