Book Review: Design For Real Life

By Sara Wachter-Boettcher and Eric Meyer

Book Cover Not too long ago, Beth Dean spoke at Refresh Portland. Her talk centered around emotional intelligence in design; specifically, the kind of empathetic, edge or stress case scenario that Design For Real Life is all about. She even mentioned the well-known story of Eric Meyer, one of the authors of the book, who was confronted with a picture of his recently deceased daughter by Facebook Year In Review (not something anyone would want to celebrate).

One of the audience members asked: but can you really design for every edge case? Can you be sensitive to every user? An impossible task for sure, and I was curious how this book might tackle that question.

They didn’t tackle this question head-on, although they did create a questioning framework. Take that year in review feature—the authors begin by putting people into two groups: people who want to share it, people who don’t. From there, they break both groups into people who want to relive it, people who don’t, and people who had a great year or a horrible year. There aren’t any specifics about what conclusion you may draw from this kind of thinking—the point is to go through the thought process. To realize that not everyone is always having a great time, is calm, or is in a great state of mind when interacting with your product or service.

Beyond simply realizing one should keep their users’ humanity in mind, I found the book lacking in actionable steps. They point to doing user interviews as a main source of valuable information, but rather explain how to do them, they list some other books as reference. A Book Apart (the publisher) focuses on creating very short books, so the scope of the book is meant to be limited. However, I found it to be so limited that it ended up feeling vague. Same with customer journey mapping; the description is very high-level and aimed at designers who have little experience with the practice.

They do stress the importance of seeing people where they are (go to their homes or places of work), and options for how to understand stressful situations. Given that you can’t actually interview someone under great duress or in an emergency situation, it’s difficult to get a true sense of how people are thinking and acting in those moments. They recommend using collaging as a bridge to difficult conversations; it allows people to open up about tough subjects through imagery rather than language. Participants create collages to explore their emotions of a situation; afterwards the facilitator asks questions about the image produced, resulting in a more open dialog.

This book would benefit anyone new to design or a product owner who doesn’t have much experience with customer interviews or journey mapping, who could use a broader vision of what designing for real life really means.

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