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The Power of the Extreme User & Designing (In)correctly

Caroline Lee
Content Strategy - Accomplice

When we design products, we’re all about the users. Managing user expectations has become an integral part of creating products and service – especially given the premium placed on disciplines that empower those users, such as user experience design. But once a product is out in the market, we can see the difference between good and bad design through two process dimensions: a team’s ability to understand their user spectrum, and their urgency in solving for needs before they become problems.

Needs, however, are not limited to those of the primary users. Enter extreme users: the people who either break your product or make it bulletproof, depending on how a design process identifies them.

Described by IDEO as users “at the edge of the bell curve that help us capture workarounds and interesting behaviors,” and sometimes referred to as super users, extreme users can inspire an entirely new direction in product use cases. Plus, as Fast Company posits: if we design for extreme users, we make average users superhuman.

Below are three considerations toward integrating extreme users into your design process (and ultimately, designing better products).

Accessibility is key.

One dimension of understanding what makes a user extreme is identifying ways in which they access and use a product or service – or ways in which they don’t. Designing for average users typically ushers in research around primary users who maintain no foreseeable issues in the way they would engage with a product or solution.




But the problem with considering users of this nature is that they don’t make up a majority. So-called average users only make up a small portion of the accessibility spectrum. And if the advent of elevators that carry people instead of freight are any indication, designing for everyone has benefits across the board: accessibility standards not only made buildings more traversable, but also enabled cities to build vertically and use geography more efficiently.

Averages are flawed, and the Law of Unintended Consequences has a far reach.

Statistics are often a strange representation of the general population when it comes to distinguishing characteristics – narrow at best, and extremely dangerous at worst. And when used to level the playing field and better understand a user base, averages can misrepresent an entire population. As Lt. Gilbert S. Daniels discovered in overhauling pilot cockpits for the US Air Force, “if you’ve designed a cockpit to fit the average pilot, you’ve actually designed it to fit no one.” In business, this dilemma is known as the flaw of averages. Uncertainty and extremes muddy average waters, and can render stats with the best of intentions moot.

Beyond cockpit specifications, establishing an “average user” for any product or service assumes that most users will engage with it the same way. And as we know from especially versatile products like corn starch, petroleum jelly, and duct tape – they don’t. Need a prime quantifiable example? A quick scan through the reviews of puzzle-linked foam exercise mats on Amazon lauds the product for uses in costuming, sound recording, and baby-proofing.

Rather guessing the prime use of a product or solution, we can paint a better picture through individual use cases – especially those which aren’t immediately obvious. By identifying and exploring paths of extreme users, design research represents a more holistic view of a product.

Know your users – and that they may not be who you think they are.

In 2016, Bethesda Softworks re-released Skyrim, the most popular title in the Elder Scrolls video game franchise. Whereas marketing and narrative development efforts in the gaming industry have historically orbited around one particular customer segment – most often reflecting a younger, male audience – they did not necessarily account for users representing groups of players that defied expectations.

So it makes sense that Bethesda and Skyrim fans alike were surprised when an 80-year-old woman surfaced online as an ardent fan of the series — and beyond that, made a name for herself streaming the title on YouTube. Shirley Curry has uploaded over 300 videos documenting her play through of Skyrim, but perhaps achieved greater success in shattering expectations around what a gamer looks like. On her growing YouTuber subscriber count (nearing 300,000), Shirley told PCGamer that the unlikely combination of her age and choice of hobby could empower others like her to engage with unexpected , too.

Technology moves at a breakneck pace to meet the needs of early adopters in the market, but often fails to recognize the presence of users like Shirley. Recognizing extreme users like her could guide design toward more inclusive character creation modules, and development toward testing technology that better accounts for a gamer’s physical limitations.


We hear it in retail and customer service everywhere: the customer is always right. Even if we can’t guess what “right” might look like from a product’s outset, anticipating unexpected and unconventional uses of our work make us open-minded and prepared for anything.

Ultimately, we’re all after bulletproof design that genuinely delights its users. Embracing the power of the extreme users enables us as designers and researchers to anticipate the full potential of our work, and to break our products at times in anticipation of making them stronger, faster.