Elitism: a new idea in UX

This article first appeared in issue 241 of .net magazine – the world's best-selling magazine for web designers and developers.

As UX designers, we’re taught and told to expect little from our users. Common practice is to believe users are mostly helpless idiots who shouldn’t be trusted with pointed objects or a rational thought.

In a modern design process, we have to ditch old assumptions and learn new patterns of design. This means anticipating new behaviours from our users. Don’t make them think? We had better be past this by now. Mindless users mean useless design, and we shouldn’t be designing for the non-thinker. We need something to cut through our own bullshit and design something amazing. That’s where Elitist UX comes in.

Let’s go elitist!

Elitist is not a word typically associated with UX. If you claim to be a UX pro who toils on behalf of users, stop treating them like idiots. Become elitist in your efforts and stop worrying about what they may or may not do.

Let’s put the word ‘elitist’ in proper perspective before we get too deep into this. Most people use the word as meaning: one who despises people or things regarded as inferior, especially because of social or intellectual pretension.

I prefer this definition: elitism is the belief that some individuals who form an elite — a select group with a certain intrinsic quality, specialised training, experience and other distinctive attributes — are those whose views on a matter are to be taken the most seriously or carry the most weight. By that definition, Elitist UX is simply an insightful and skilled designer creating an experience for an elevated class of user. Decide on a user base and elevate their needs over the needs of people not likely to use what you’re designing.

Aiming for the wrong target

Personas are usually a horrible exaggeration of demographic data scraped together by a digital strategist. It’s someone like ‘Jim’, a father figure who does DIY projects and drinks American beer. He makes decent money, loves his family, believes what he wants regardless of the crowd, uses a computer for more than four hours a week, has a smartphone he loves and would really be into what you’re designing. I’m going to put this out there: there’s nothing worse than a digital strategist with daddy issues.

We usually fail to consider the mother of three who uses her smartphone as a video player for the noisiest kid in the backseat, the 16-year-old who has more learned technology behaviour than you’ll accumulate in the next 10 years or the grandpa who calls on the phone to tell you he just sent you an email. These are real users; it’s just easy to ignore them. Elitist UX is for designing for realistic use by real people. Doing so provides opportunities to limit the features and look forward with design.

Train users to look forward

Much of UX is unwittingly training a new generation of users to rely on past conventions while using new technologies. Don’t assume the audience has any knowledge of UX history or theory. Therefore, we can disregard those theories. Throw the shackles off and be of the elite group, rejecting the old patterns others are perpetuating.

It’s not about excluding users or making it difficult for them, it’s about proposing new methods to perform actions. Patterns of use on new devices are accelerating faster than we are accounting for. No one used a gesture until it became obvious. No one thought of a two-finger vs three-finger swipe until there was technology to support this action. Once the technology was available, the gestures were obvious and expected.

Don’t be too comfortable

Creating something remarkable is hard work. It’s important to remember that we don’t design to make things simpler, we design to make people’s lives better and that’s something an ordinary designer can’t do. Become elitist in your work, cater to a smaller and better defined audience, and propel UX forward.

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