Dementia and Dopplr – how designing for extreme users benefits us all

To the RCA for Innovation Night, tied in with the college’s summer show. The evening included awards for students in the Helen Hamlyn Centre, which uses people-centred design to support independent living and working for ageing and diverse populations.

Focusing on the needs of people often ignored by mainstream business and design is obviously a Good Thing, and no matter how young and healthy we may be it comes with a dose of enlightened self-interest. Not for nothing are the awards titled “Design for our Future Selves”.

But designing for “extreme” users can also reveal truths and perspectives highly relevant to the rest of us. Consider, if you please, Matthew Holloway’s Virtual Breadcrumbs project, in collaboration with people with dementia. In the words of the awards website:

This experimental design proposal looked at the problem of memory loss and began to explore means in which information we collect through our lives could be summarised and communicated back in meaningful ways. From key findings visual outputs were designed, such as wallpaper that contained important events in a person’s life. Further experiments were also carried out with travel images reduced into a single strip and tested on people who had been involved in the travel to assess their ability to provoke memories.

… and in this case a picture is almost certainly worth 1000 words…

Virtual Breadcrumbs

So it was a delight to see this theme come through again at an unrelated talk on Dopplr, hosted by the Information Design Association, this time for a different kind of extreme user – the business traveller.

Matts Jones and Biddulph gave us a fascinating insight into the design principles behind their elegant and useful website, where a key piece of the brand identity is the algorithmic use of colour to represent places. As a user builds up a history of travel, the places they’ve been displace Dopplr‘s standard “sparklogo” colours. This…

Dopplr logo

… slowly becomes this…

Mattedgar badge

Matt and Matt have stayed true to Dopplr’s laser-focused mission – not to replicate other more general social networking sites, but to be the best in their chosen niche, making the experience of travel more delightful with added serendipity, and helping people look back on their travels afterwards.

Far from making life boring, this clarity of purpose gives them the freedom to play, to make multiple ways of capturing our travel plans, to wallow in the giant ball pool of trips and coincidences that we create. Their enthusiasm for the data is infectious.

It would be easy with all this eye-candy for the human stories to go untold. While the Dopplr crew are painting a model of the world with MD5s and RGB values, their website is making real stuff happen. Coincidences are spotted, meetings are arranged, dinners are eaten, drinks are drunk, people have conversations, and who knows what more. Somewhere in the world, sometime soon (if not already) a Dopplr baby will be born.

What’s the colourful thread running through these two stories? Well I think it has to do with the dividends we all get when design focuses on the needs of a well-defined user-group, even if we’re not part of that group ourselves. Fortunately few of us suffer from dementia, but we’re all forgetful from time to time, and could all do with visual cues to link us back to past experiences. Fortunately few of us travel at the speed of a whippet, but most of us travel a bit, and those who don’t have friends who do.

Naturally there are risks in this: high tech businesses can fall into the trap of designing only for “power users.” But it does mean that only ever looking at the average customer will only ever yield average results. Sometimes it takes the people at the edges to show us the way.

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