You need 3 types of User Advocacy

Summary: User advocacy helps you fight for the rights of users. By advocating with these three lenses, you can better design for inclusive, accessible, and culturally appropriate experiences.

User Advocacy needs specialized lenses.

User advocacy is a requirement of doing UX. It’s about fighting for the rights of your users. However, just thinking about your generic users misses out on an equity-sensitive approach. Equity involves advocacy, which means actively supporting, speaking up, and allowing their voice and specific needs to be heard. You cover users’ active needs but also ensure those needs are comprehensively understood and championed.

Why this matters: Say you want to include Black users in UX design. From an exclusion standpoint (based on unemployment levels in the US) 6% of African Americans face unemployment. It’s half of that for White folks. Add a disability like blindness and it soars to 70% unemployment rates. This means you need “Inclusion Advocacy ” to cover the marginalized user experience – in this case, you’re focusing on Black users. Next, you need to understand their specific disability experience. You need “disability advocacy”.

When you do accessibility, take a disability-centric approach. That means make your user research about all 5 disability types. But don’t stop there. Disability does not live in a vacuum. Do “Inclusion Advocacy” as well. Like intersectional recruiting that acknowledges multiple overlaps in exclusion, do intersectional advocacy.

Plain old user advocacy is too generic.

User advocacy means you are advocating for “users,” possibly specific user composites (personas). Inclusion advocacy brings forward an Inclusive Design approach. Disability advocacy honors the unique experience of disability, giving it disability justice.

Don’t generalize “a user is a user.” Don’t lump all users into one ‘human bucket.’ Respect the culture and lived experience of users left out by unique experiences. Why? Because the law thinks about it that way. Disabilities get ‘accommodations’: a parking spot, for example. Unlike disability, you don’t get a unique parking space if you are Black–but you might get treated badly by an employee for ‘being Black.’ Therefore, employees require cross-cultural competency training. UX needs a similar advocacy+ approach.

Advocacy vs Sympathy or Empathy

Sympathy involves acknowledging someone’s emotions without experiencing them personally, often accompanied by feelings of pity or sorrow for their situation. Empathy, on the other hand, entails understanding and sharing the feelings of another, demonstrating a profound capacity to relate to their experiences. Both of these can be shaky, patronizing, or faked. This is the basis of the ’empathy backlash’ in the UX community.

Unlike sympathy and empathy, advocacy involves actively supporting and amplifying user’s unique needs. This is especially urgent for those facing challenges or injustice. While sympathy and empathy foster understanding, advocacy translates that understanding into tangible action, creating a pathway for meaningful societal impact.

Distinguishing the 3 Types of User Advocacy

1. User Advocacy 

User Advocacy says: advocate for users’ needs and preferences by replacing subjective assumptions with research-based personas. Unlike the traditional practice of conjuring personas out of thin air, research-based personas are born from meticulous data analysis and user research.

Why it matters: By conducting in-depth user research, designers can tap into the pulse of users’ desires and pain points. This data-driven approach eliminates guesswork and empowers designers to create experiences that resonate with users on a profound level. User Advocacy demands the abandonment of one-size-fits-all solutions, favoring a nuanced approach that stems from genuine user insights. This shift from assumption to validation ensures that user needs are not just acknowledged, but also addressed with precision.

2. Disability Advocacy 

Disability Advocacy extends beyond compliance with accessibility guidelines to embrace the unique needs of users with disabilities. While automated tools can serve as a starting point, they are by no means a panacea for accessibility challenges. This is where Disability Advocacy comes into play, shining a light on gaps that automated tools often overlook. It’s the springboard for boosting your quality and equity in accessibility.

Why it matters: Designing for users with disabilities requires a paradigm shift that necessitates understanding their specific needs, usage scenarios, and challenges with Assistive Technology. For instance, advocating for ALT tags on images is not just about adherence to guidelines, but about enabling blind users to perceive and understand visual content. This type of advocacy bridges the gap between automated solutions and true inclusivity, ensuring that digital offerings cater to all individuals, regardless of their abilities. Good accessibility also boosts SEO and makes designs more accessible to everyone. For example, ‘curb cuts’ in place in the US by law (for wheelchair users) allow bikes, prams, and zimmers to benefit.

3. Inclusion Advocacy:

Think of “Inclusion advocacy” as designing culturally relevant experiences. This starts with marginalized user experiences at home. In the example above, understand the challenges of your product or service from a Black-lived experience. If you are involved in global product or service design, it means understanding local populations so your UX strategy is more culturally sensitive:

Localization encompasses more than just translation; it delves into the goal of cultural sensitivity. By conducting comprehensive global user research, designers can unearth cultural nuances that have a profound impact on user behavior and preferences.

Why it matters: Consider the fascinating case of Korean subway mapping apps. Through cross-cultural Inclusion Advocacy, it becomes evident that two distinct apps are tailored for locals and foreigners. This differentiated UX strategy comes from a nuanced understanding of cultural values between visitors or transplants and locals. The “local” app emphasizes time-saving (a Korean value). The other app avoids time design features.  While this example adds a Globalization/ Localization lens to Inclusion Advocacy, it highlights the need to do this at home. UX should consider such cultural subtleties, to create experiences that resonate on a cultural level.

two apps for korean subway localization UX
This Korean subway app (Left) is contrasted with another app (right) used by visitors or second generation Koreans, because it uses more English. The visitor app emphasizes ease of use, while the ‘local app’ offers time-sensitive indicators such as ‘fastest exit’. The cultural significance is that time is a dominant value in Korean society.

Bonus lens: Planetary advocacy. In doing Sustainability UX, we need to account for the planetary ecosystem.

Big idea: Advocacy is the cornerstone of UX Excellence

But user advocacy needs a triple-lens: User Advocacy, Disability Advocacy, and Inclusion Advocacy. These dimensions move beyond lip service, advocating for genuine user understanding, inclusivity, and cultural relevance. By shedding assumptions, researchers and designers can embrace data-driven personas, bridge accessibility gaps, and create culturally attuned experiences.

By recognizing users’ active needs, fighting for inclusivity, and embracing cultural diversity, user advocacy can dramatically improve outcomes for users who need it most.

Go deeper: Check out our Inclusive Design training or Cross-cultural design localization training

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