Illustration by George Wylesol

SXSW Sydney: The Myth of the Single User

Human beings are so different, but creators of technology often build everything from iPhones to VR headsets with just one single user in mind. Extended Reality (XR), however, can help us to better embrace diverse minds and bodies.

There are myriad ways of being in the world, yet many approaches to experience and technology-design invoke this idea of "the single user"; a standardised, non-specific person with a fixed perspective.

But what biases are hidden within our assumptions about this mythical user? And how might we instead create experiences and tools that reflect and support diverse perspectives and ways of being?

These are the kinds of questions that Dr Scott Brown, Dr Julia Scott-Stevenson and Michela Ledwidge set out to explore at the inaugural SXSW Sydney, a tech and innovation conference with a focus on the future.

Show up authentically

The session kicked off with a statement of inclusion; a specific, verbalised invitation to the audience to show up in the space in a way that felt authentic to them. Wanna ask a question during the talk? Go for it. Take a break, and wander around the room? Also cool. Sit down on the ground? That's welcome here too.

This moment made me realise how much we are conditioned to show up in educational spaces in very particular ways, even if those ways don't make sense for everybody.

Good intentions are not enough

Dr Scott Brown, an inclusive design researcher at the University of New South Wales, said his PhD spent building a tent for autistic children taught him a lot about the dos and don'ts of designing for diverse communities.

One was the notion that you have to involve the communities that you a designing for in the process.

Failure to do so can result in making what's called a "disability dongle" - that is, a well-intended elegant, yet ultimately useless solution to a problem for people with disabilities.

The idea might generate a lot of initial excitement, venture capital investment, and press, but ultimately, the product doesn't serve the needs of the diverse consumer, and disappears.

For example, a high-tech stair-climbing wheelchair might sound cool AF, but if a wheelchair user says well actually, that sounds incredibly scary, and I'd prefer better ramps and access points, then you have a "disability dongle" on your hands.

Empathy is a start, but genuine inclusion in the build process is better

Somewhat counter-intuitively, designer Mike Montero said in his book, Ruined by Design: How Designers Destroyed the World, and What We Can Do to Fix It, that: “Empathy is a pretty word for exclusion. I’ve seen all-male all-white teams taking 'empathy workshops' to see how women think. If you want to know how women would use something you’re designing, get a woman on your design team. They’re not extinct. We don’t need to study them. We can hire them!”

Building on this idea, Dr Julia Scott-Stevenson showed the limits of empathy in design through the example of an experiment gone wrong where able-bodied people were dropped into an augmented reality experience that simulated the experience of being a wheelchair user.

The problem? Well, for someone used to using their legs, it was like being dropped into the middle of the story. Any acquired change to a person's body or ableness requires an adjustment period - where normal emotions like anger, grief, and sadness abound. But once through that period, there is another side - hope, resilience, and happiness. A poorly thought-through empathy experience can actually end up perpetuating the very ableism it was hoping to solve.

However, an example of an experiment gone right came out of Michela Ledwidge's studio Mod, which used a 3D holographic story pilot to power an experience called Through The Eyes of Our Ancestors.

For SXSW Sydney attendees, this was a unique way to connect with First Nations Traditional Owner Nicholas Thompson-Wymarra and stories from Gudang Yadhaykenu Country in Australia’s remote far north using the power of technology. It also showed the potential for new technologies to capture cultural heritage stories in a new way.

Mod at SXSW Sydney

All in all, "The Myth of the Single User" invited audience members to think more deeply about our glorious, messy, diversity as human beings, and ask how we can incorporate that reality into the ways we conceive of and build technology products.