Designing for Extreme Users

Uzma Barlaskar
3 min readMay 26, 2018

Persona based design thinking has been in vogue for a long time. I believe the origins of persona-driven design started in marketing and then moved into digital product design as well. While appealing in theory, I have found persona-based design to be quite challenging because it tries to define a set of average users of your product. I run into the following challenges usually

1) Defining an average user is tough. Especially in products that have millions of users. We come up with profiles, behaviors etc. from UX research but how do you know if they are truly representative of all the users who use your product.

2) Confusing user experience. As you start layering features on your product, it becomes hard to optimize your product for all the personas that it targets. This ultimately leads to a confused design that works for no one.

A technique I learned at Stanford Design School that I love to follow is to design for the extreme user. One way to get more clarity of thought in your design process is to design for the extreme user. You can pick either end of the spectrum. For example, the novice user who’s using the internet for the first time, or the power user — who squeezes out the maximum value out of your product. It could be super users of your product, or non-users. Or people with physical challenges. Define a dimension that you want to understand more and identify who’s on the opposite ends of that dimension.

One popular misconception with this process, is that designing for the extreme user means you are not designing for all your users. Designing for the extreme user is actually a process, and not a goal unto itself. The goal of this process is to understand the motivations, and problems that are amplified for your extreme users and understand how those problems would manifest in the needs of your regular users.

Picking an extreme user forces clarity of thought in your design. You keep this user in mind each time you design a feature. This leads to user flows that feel organic instead of a mish mash of features. It’s much easier to socialize this user across the board so that everyone on your team is thinking about this user — how should we onboard them, what would the product look like, what would the content say. Also, extreme users shine a bright light into the value proposition that can build a moat for your product. They make it very clear what parts of your product are critical. For example, if you are developing a messaging app, you might design for the user that has intermittent network connection, an old phone model with limited data storage capacity. If you make the product work for this user, it will work for everyone. The core value proposition of a messaging app is to be able to communicate with everyone, and designing for the extreme user enables that.

Extreme users are also great sources of inspiration. Very often, understanding how these users use the product show us how they hack your product and use it for something you had never even considered. For example, at Facebook, we noticed that some groups had really high user activity. On examining these groups closely we found people were buying and selling things on these groups. This showed that there was a need to be fulfilled for exchanging goods on the platform which ultimately led to the creation of the Marketplace product.



Uzma Barlaskar

Growth @WhatsApp. PM @Facebook. Former Entrepreneur (CEO, PatternEQ). Stanford MBA. Still an engineer at heart . Find me on twitter: @uzmabarlaskar