Why a ‘unicorn user’ is better than a designer

Summary: Chasing a unicorn UX designer is not practical. Why is a ‘unicorn user’ better than a designer? They help you scale Inclusive Design efforts. Unicorn users offer richer insights into User Research based on their historically underrepresented experiences. When designing products and services, they can improve your reduction of bias, risk, and harm.

First, what’s wrong with a ‘UX Unicorn’?

The term “UX unicorn” is often thrown around to describe a rare individual who possesses a vast array of skills, making them seemingly capable of handling any UX, Visual Design, or Dev challenge that comes their way. This mythical creature is sought after by many employers who hope to find a single hire who can fulfill multiple roles, reducing the need for specialized teams. However, the concept of a UX unicorn has its dark sides, both from the perspective of employers seeking such a candidate and the employees trying to live up to this unrealistic expectation.

See the Downsides of a UX Unicorn

Find ‘unicorn users’ to amplify Inclusive Design

A ‘unicorn user’ has a cross-over identity that can help you explore inclusive personas. What makes them a unicorn is their intersectionality. Intersectionality means we don’t have just one identity or attribute, such as gender. Instead, experiences with gender + disability + race may highlight aspects of our lived experience. The roadblocks, barriers, and hesitations from cross-cultural mental models may be relevant to UX strategy. This is especially important with Inclusive Design efforts.

To begin with, start recruiting users with access to more than one identity-based experience. This is called intersectional recruiting. The alternative is to recruit by silo, for example, 5 users with disabilities, 5 women, and 5 black users. Instead, by recruiting five women with disabilities, a mix who are black, you can get deeper insights.

Why this matters: Embracing intersectionality in the recruiting process for inclusive design purposes is imperative. Scaling Inclusive Design so that you are avoiding token inclusion is critical: “We interviewed one of our employees with a disability”. Instead, an intersectional lens gives you a more real-to-life view. Understanding your users’ lived experiences and identities is vital to avoiding bias.

See Design for Real Life (book)

Examples of what unicorn users offer

First, in localization UX, studies show that website layouts and colors are culturally specific. Even expectations for images can be different among cultures. By finding users who have varied experiences, you get the same impact as having a diverse team:

Inclusive cultures in organizations are 8X more likely to achieve business results (Deloitte report)

What we’re seeing: A user with an ‘invisible disability’ (neurodiversity) shared how a cluttered layout was overwhelming and how a more simplified layout would be easier. This same user felt too much reading meant the key task was easily missed. Female users in another field study complained about aspects of an experience biased toward males. Products were flawed due to male anatomy (pockets for male, none for female) and the assumption only men performed the tasks.

So why is a unicorn user better than a designer?

Next, instead of looking for unicorn designers (Jack of all Trades) look for ‘unicorn users’ to provide deeper insights. Unicorn users can guide you to problems you might not be aware of. This is especially the case in Accessibility projects. It’s also why you should do Ethnographic Field Studies for Accessibility, not just testing.

Conclusion

To embrace an inclusive design culture, prioritize ‘unicorn users’ in your design process. Intersectional recruiting can profoundly influence the inclusivity and effectiveness of the design process. This way, you ensure that products and services cater to a broad user base’s diverse needs and experiences. Instead of building for ‘users’, plan your UX with diverse users who can alert you to aspects of your design that are offensive, inaccurate or ‘off’.

Want to learn more Inclusive Design strategies? Join Frank Spillers Inner Circle UX mentoring micro-community

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