This post is a follow-up to the ‘Understanding People’ story, written as of the Digital Experience Design course at Hyper Island. A video of this post can be viewed here.

The Fundamentals of Extreme Users

In this post, I’m going to give you some tips on how to spark innovative ideas by talking to extreme users and how they can help you gain a better of the you’re designing for. I’ll begin with a brief description of what an extreme user is, give some examples of what they do and explain how extremes can help you come up with holistic designs that can work for everybody by sharing a case study of extreme user interviewing in practice.

What is an extreme user?

An extreme, or “lead user” is a consumer of a product or service that has created a workaround or ‘hack’ that better fits their needs. Oftentimes, potential lead-users will be found within the group of dissatisfied customers, left with unmet needs they seek to fulfil and are willing to share with the service provider. (Duverger, 01, p. 539) These users can be placed onto a spectrum representing a hand.

The thumb represents those who use a service or product a lot and the pinkie finger represents those who might not use a product at all or very rarely. The three fingers in the middle represent the mainstream users. Often, companies will design for the mainstream — those users who are likely to be the majority of a company’s target audience — but it is often the extremes that can come up with innovative solutions for their needs that benefit the mainstream. As an example, back in 2007, early Twitter user Chris Messina pitched the pound symbol to the online community as a way to ‘organise messages into meaningful groups’. (, 2012) Now, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram use what is more commonly known today as the hashtag.

What makes an extreme so valuable is their characteristics and motives. (Duverger, 2012, p. 539) Firstly, their personal needs are generally ahead of the marketplace and can tell what a more generalised market need will be in months or years to come. Secondly, by creating a solution to their problem, it is they who will significantly benefit from it to begin with. Third, and this is something that mainstream users might not be willing to do, is that extremes are willing to share their ideas freely. Finally, extremes often have a significant knowledge of the industry to be able to put their solution to good effect. (ibid.) Because of these characteristics, lead users are more likely to possess knowledge relevant to a solution and are likely to be centrally involved in contributing that knowledge. (Jeppesen and Laursen, 2009, p. 1582)

Let’s go back to the hand analogy and focus on the thumb. One example to look at might be gamers, or more specifically, speed-runners. Streaming services like Twitch and YouTube are awash with examples of extreme users of video games, completing speed runs by taking advantage of glitches and hacks to complete the game in as quick a time as possible. Games like Hearthstone and Star Wars Battlefront, that make use of microtransactions as a part of their business model, have attracted gamers called ‘whales’, and they tend to spend hundreds or thousands on microtransactions to gain the upper-hand over their rivals, expand their in-game collections or even just to personalise the game to their tastes.

Extreme History

But it’s not all about the money or time spent doing something. Some historical examples of lead users include Alexander Graham Bell, who in 1872 invented the telephone to support his work helping the deaf; in 1808, Pellegrino Turri built the first typewriter, so that his blind lover could write letters more legibly. And, in 1972, Vint Cerf programmed the first email protocols for the emerging Internet as a way to communicate with his deaf wife while he worked. (de los Reyes, 2016) What we can gain from extreme users is that they are people and not just a consumer. That might sound obvious, but they have needs and if those needs aren’t met, it can drive them to come up with innovative workarounds that might not have been clear without them.

So, where do extreme users fit into your project? Usually, you would conduct your interviews with your users in the ‘Inspiration’ phase of IDEO’s human-centred design model (2015). Available on IDEO’s, (n.d.), it recommends four things that can help you get the best out of your interview.

When looking at recruiting people to interview, look at everyone that might use your product or service. Talk to people who use a service a lot, and those people who don’t use it at all. Talk to children and the elderly, people who live on their own and those who live with large families. Ask them how they might use your product or service. Ask them if there is something similar that they currently use and try and find out if it does or doesn’t suit their needs. Also, try and get as diverse a group as possible. Make sure you talk to men and women and if you happen to come across an extreme user in another context, make sure you talk to them there. One thing to be mindful of is that extremes can sometimes be left out of conversations and discussions like this, so it pays to make them feel like their voices are vital to your research.

While looking at extremes can be super beneficial to your project, the people you speak to will be dictated by your design challenge. Things like gender, age, income and social status should always be taken into account, but make sure your project leads you to talking to more nuanced extremes. (, n.d.). If your project is looking at improving the gym experience, talk to people who use the gym every day and those who don’t use the gym at all, and see if there are patterns that emerge that will benefit everyone’s gym experience.

In 1986, Eric von Hippel and Glen L. Urban studied the ‘lead user’ concept that had been proposed to the development of new products that were subject to rapid change. (von Hippel, 1986, no page number) In von Hippel’s test, it was proven that lead users have both useful and unique data relating to the needs of those products and the solutions required to address those needs. Concepts of new products that had been developed by lead users were strongly preferred by a representative sample of users (ibid.) of similar products. Over fifty percent of the sample users said they would choose the lead user concept over the system they were currently using and even when the price of those concepts was priced higher than competing concepts. Amazing right? Von Hippel’s report just goes to show the power of human-centred design.

So, there you have it. This has been a post on the fundamentals on interviewing extreme users and hopefully I’ve given you some insights on how they can be beneficial for your next project. Let me know how it went in your next project! If you have any questions, feedback or anything else you want to talk to me about, hit me up on Twitter @ajhuxlee.

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