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Nice Touch: Marginal Fixes Can Help Others Too

Recently my wife and I took on a challenge to eat only whole foods for 30 days: no sugar, no dairy, no legumes, no alcohol, and no gluten or other grains. It was a helpful challenge that opened our eyes to what really goes into our food, but I’m not really here to talk about that. One of the biggest challenges during our month was finding restaurants where we could safely eat out and still follow our restrictions.

Very few restaurant sites (or printed menus for that matter) show detailed nutrition and allergen information. Most of the time, we were lucky to see a footnote next to certain dishes that would denote them as gluten-free or vegetarian. A few restaurants would also note when nuts, milk, or eggs were used. One restaurant site, however, had a full-fledged allergy info section where we could select which food allergens we wanted to avoid.

Screenshot: A form prompts me to select the allergens I want to avoid, including: Eggs, fish, gluten, milk, MSG, peanuts, shellfish, soy, sulfites, tree nuts, or wheat.
We didn’t have to avoid everything on this list, but I’m sure it comes in handy for a bunch of different people.
Screenshot: Submitting the form returns a table showing the foods that don't contain the selected allergens and filters to search through them.
Thankfully there was more to the list than just salads!

With this tool, we combed through their menu ahead of time and found tasty meals that fit within our limited diet. Without it, we probably would have ended up at a different restaurant. It led me to wonder just how many people have passed on a restaurant (or eating out at all) because of food allergies or dietary restrictions. A feature like this can be just as helpful for people with lethal peanut allergies, lactose intolerance, diabetes, or a restricted diet like ours. And yet so few restaurants provide it.

That got me thinking about where we can consider needs beyond the happy path on other sites, about how we can better serve those who may be outside of the mainstream.

Applying this to your own work

Think about what needs your visitors may have that don’t fit within your basic assumptions. How can you accommodate those needs and give extra information or tools to make their lives easier? Obviously more restaurant sites with allergen and nutrition tools would be a great start. Here’s a few other examples:

  • If your business has a physical address, have you provided information about nearby parking, handicapped access locations, and directions on your contact page?
  • If you sell physical products, do you give enough information to make an informed decision?
    • How big is the item? Will it fit in a small elevator? Is this a week’s supply or a year’s? Will this fit in the space I have available?
    • How much does it weigh? Will this be difficult for me to lift on my own?
    • Does this item fit? Do you provide tools for getting proper measurements?
  • On social sites: Can users see who has access to what they’re sharing? Do they know how their information is being used? What can they do when they feel unsafe?
  • For service-related sites, do you clearly explain the process for services you provide along with timeframes, documents, and expectations for each step?

Beyond these limited examples lies plenty of other potential opportunities. How can you possibly account for the unexpected and unknown? You’ll have to put in some effort, but the reward will be more delighted users.

Proactively seek potential pitfalls

Be receptive to the channels where your users give feedback. Know that for every person who shares their pain, a much larger portion simply chose to go elsewhere silently. Meet with your users in person and listen to them. Explore areas where they’ve had problems in the past. Have members of your team take turns playing devil’s advocate, and explore what happens when things don’t follow the happy path.

Humbly admit your mistakes

We’re all humans building things. Nothing we make is going to be perfect or account for every potential problem. Knowing this, it’s still easy to get defensive when someone points out a flaw in our work. Instead of sinking to debate or looking the other way, take the courageous route and admit when something could be better. Be thankful to those who point out problems, and apologize for not catching them yourself.

Fix it post haste

Once you know an issue exists, address it. Mock up a better way of handling it, test it with users (maybe even the ones who brought it to your attention!), and get it working in a timely manner. While it’s tempting to only focus on features for the majority of users, you might be surprised how many times the little tweaks for marginal users end up adding value for everyone.

Consider the curb cut

Photo: A curb cut gives a gentle slope up from the road to a sidewalk.
A wild curb cut appears! While it is hard to imagine this as an innovation now, at one point it was.

It’s a handy little feature of nearly all sidewalks you may not even notice until you need it. They were originally created in the 1940s in Kalamazoo, Michigan to help handicapped veterans get onto and off of sidewalks more easily. Now, curb cuts can be found everywhere. And they don’t just help those with wheelchairs. Chances are they’ve even helped you (whether you realized it or not). They are handy access points for people carting goods, for bikers, for parents with strollers, for skaters, and more.

It’s an easy trap to get hung up on just how many (or few) users will actually benefit from features like those above. But if you can make someone’s life just a little easier, then isn’t it worth it? You never know, maybe you’ll build the next digital curb cut.

Interested in thinking more about this?

Image: A picture of the cover of Design for Real Life by Eric Meyer and Sara Wachter-Boettcher

I recently read Design for Real Life by Eric Meyer and Sara Wachter-Boettcher. In it, they discuss how we should design sites for stress cases rather than edge cases. Calling a particular use of a site or product an edge case pushes it to the fringe of our attention. Instead, by focusing on stress cases and what to do when our users are already in distress, we can make kinder decisions that help every person. There’s a lot more to the book than that, and I would highly recommend checking it out.

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