Extreme Users and Outliers

Refining the design of your product and service by going beyond mainstream users.

For research to inspire new opportunities, it is useful to find people who represent “extremes.” Extreme participants help to unearth unarticulated behaviors, desires, and needs of the rest of the population, but are easier to observe and identify because they feel the effects more powerfully than others. Finding people who provide gender, ethnicity, and class balance is crucial for research. By including both ends of your spectrum as well as some people in the middle, the full range of behaviors, beliefs, and perspectives will be heard even with a small number of participants. Including this full range of users will be important in the later phases of the product development cycle, especially in constructing good frameworks and providing inspiration for brainstorming.

Remember, it is better to build a product that an extreme group of users love and taps into a deep emotional pull versus a product that is targeted to a large number of “middle-of-the-road” users but doesn’t nail it for any of them. Focus on the user, not the market during the initial product design phase.

Example: Oxo Good Grips

OXO began with a few simple questions – Why do ordinary kitchen tools hurt your hands? Why can’t there be wonderfully comfortable tools that are easy to use?

The man who asked these questions was Sam Farber, an entrepreneur in the housewares industry. Noticing that his wife Betsey was having difficulty gripping ordinary kitchen tools due to a slight case of arthritis in her hands, he saw an opportunity to create more comfortable cooking tools that would benefit all users.

At the time, kitchen gadgets were dominated by $1.99 vegetable peelers and other undifferentiated, price-driven products. Working with Smart Design, OXO conducted extensive research with users of all ability types, including arthritis patients and young children. While these two demographics were not the mainstream users for kitchen tools, by incorporating extreme user research in the design process, OXO and Smart Design were able to create a product with polished ergonomics and clever functionality. The OXO Good Grips trademark handle – thick, black, nonslip rubber called Santoprene – was designed to nestle in your palm, and the small flexible ridges allowed for a firm grip. Whether a vegetable peeler, garden trowel, or cheese grater, a mundane household object was made comfortable and pleasing.

OXO’s guiding philosophy is Universal Design, which emphasizes designing products that are easy to use for the widest possible spectrum of users. It is important to note that Universal Design does not mean designing products fully usable by everybody, since there is no product that can truly fulfill the needs of all users. But when all users’ needs are taken into consideration in the initial design process, the result is a product that can be used by the broadest spectrum of users. In the case of OXO, it means designing products for young and old, male and female, left- and right-handed and many with special needs.