Designing for extremes: The nerd & the newb



20. July 2018

Read time

6 min


Design Thinking, Concept Development, Decision frameworks

The only two Personas you really need. Why designing for extremes allows us to use personas like a tool, not a trophy.

After years of slaving over personas driven by qualitative data, spending weeks in windowless “war rooms”, amidst a forest of post-its, I’ve begun to question: “What is the point of making Personas?”

Does the benefit outweigh the effort it takes to create them? Are they the best way to get a team to think about the people they are designing products for? I wonder if my client will use them if they will quickly become irrelevant if these carefully crafted personas will become a fleeting deliverable rather than a cherished tool.

When I think about the last time I used a persona to actually design something…I made it up on the spot, sketched it on a scrap of copy paper, thought through my designs from my persona’s perspective, and then made adjustments to my designs. I relied on what I’ve seen users do in the field on other projects, and created a temporary lens through which to view my designs. It wasn’t fancy or official, but it worked pretty well. We should choose the right tool for the job at hand.

Personas have been placed on a pedestal. A shiny leave-behind to keep at the end of an engagement with a design consultancy; the stamp of UX approval. But the purpose of a persona is to be a tool, not a trophy.

Design for extreme

When considering a new product or service, the first set of personas you design for should represent the extremes. Designing for extremes is a deceptively useful tactic. Imagine a bell curve. The curve represents where your users sit on a continuum of product or service adoption. The ends of the curve represent opposite traits; early and late adopters. Many will be tempted to focus their efforts on designing for the majority. They want to slice it up into market segments and understand what those people like. This seems like the meatiest and most rewarding piece of the pie.

But in trying to please a diverse group of people with diverse needs and behaviors you will end up designing something generic. Personas are a strategic tool you can use to define specific goals like: identifying your core use case and optimizing for usability. When you focus on the extremes, you focus on the highest priority issues. The most commonly held high priority issues are: what makes people buy this thing, and what is keeping them from buying this thing?

When you design for your early adopters you consider: What do they get most excited about? How can they help to maximize the hype of a new product? How can we convert more users into early adopters? What are their motivations?

Designing for the late adopters is also interesting: Perhaps they represent some distrust in your company. If you address their issues it will likely have a positive effect on your majority users as well. Why do they wait so long to adopt your product? Is there an issue holding them back that can be easily addressed?

When you design something for the extremes it tends to have a positive impact on the majority as well.

A classic example of this is the Oxo Good Grips Story. Sam Farber set out to design a more comfortable vegetable peeler for his arthritic wife, Betsey in their garage. Turns out everyone wanted more comfortable, ergonomically designed kitchen tools and Oxo quickly grew to become a household name.

The Nerd & the Newb

Let’s take the key things we want to learn from the two extremes and create a set of personas from them. We would essentially have: 1) The user group who has the most influence on your customer base and 2) the users who struggle the most with your product. These are the most important personas for you to design for: the Nerd and the Newb.

The Nerd

The nerd is either your most discerning user or your competitors’ most loyal user. They are the ones doing all the research to find the best products and services. They are very knowledgeable in their area of interest and willing to try new things. Most importantly, their friends and family call them for recommendations. Your goal is to be the company they think of first.

Most of us operate on the recommendations of people we trust. Word of mouth is still the most powerful marketing tool we have.

When you design for the Nerd you are really designing for the social network surrounding them. Their impact is exponential. Their network will pass along a recommendation to others: “Oh my uncle knows a lot about computers and he recommended this one to me, you should get one too.”

They are the best users you could possibly talk to in a research setting. They tend to be more articulate about what they like and dislike when compared to your average customer.

Early Adopter
Expert User
Trusted Recommender

When you design for the Nerd

  • Your reputation and reach will grow. Gain access to a network of people, not just one person
  • You design a better product. Tailor your product to core value that you as a company uniquely offer.
  • You save time on user research. Go straight to the expert users and gain more insight in each session.

The Newb

Late Adopter
First-time User
Struggles with tech

The Newb: Once you’ve addressed the needs of the Nerd, it’s time to design for the Newb. The Newb has a hard time with new things, particularly technology. To a technology legend like you, it may not always be obvious where the potential pitfalls lie. But the Newb is pretty good at finding them. We all have someone in our lives who call us for tech support; design it for them.

Designing for the Newb is really about designing for usability. If it’s so easy the Newb can use it (without help) then you’ve designed something most people can use. This concept is in keeping with the principles of Universal design, although perhaps a little less delicately put. If you design for the person who struggles the most with your product, it will ultimately benefit everyone.

Universal design also takes into consideration accessibility and inclusion, so keep those in mind as well. Have you considered how someone with impaired vision would use your product? How people of different backgrounds might experience your product differently? Designing for the Newb is just a quick way to remember to design inclusively. The goal is to make a product everyone can enjoy using.

When you design for the Newb:

  • The usability of your product will improve. You will find all the issues large and small which cause other users to drop off.
  • These changes benefit everyone. We aren’t compromising on the core use case as determined by the needs and behaviors of the Nerd, just improving the flow to get there.
  • Address issues of trust, communication, and service that may not have been addressed at all previously. Hence the late adoption.

Primary and Secondary Personas

The order of who you design for first and second is really important. You design for the Nerd first, and then you design for the Newb without breaking the flow for the Nerd. The Nerd is the primary persona, they set the direction, help you find the core use case, what makes your company uniquely positioned to serve them. So you must start with the Nerd. The Newb just helps you make that core use case accessible to the majority.

Behavioural > Demographic

It’s worth noting that the personas described here are behavioral, not demographics. A behavioral persona is a fictional person who embodies an observed behavior or a set of related behaviors amongst your users. A behavioral persona will help to illustrate the motivations behind those behaviors and describe the common problems or issues users who exhibit these behaviors face with your product. They are nuanced and insightful. They do not represent all users but rather the extreme or specific cases.

A demographic persona is usually a genericized representation of user segments. They often have an age range like 18–26, an assigned gender and nationality and a made-up name and backstory. This practice is dangerously close to stereotyping groups of people. Peoples’ demographics are rarely relevant to their behaviors related to a product or service.

In conclusion

Personas are often glorified and misused. When we look to them as a tool we must consider: what is the most effective tool for the job? Designing behavioral personas, based on extremes (like the characteristics of early and late adaptors) is a more effective tool. The Nerd and the Newb allow you to discover, in short order:

What are the core use cases to focus on as a company?

What are the significant challenges to usability?

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