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Paradox of Specificity (User Research)

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Paradox of Specificity (User Research)

The Paradox of Specificity is a user research and user experience theory which suggests that adapting our efforts to the needs of a more specific group will result in solutions (products, concepts, services) which are actually useful to a much wider audience.

In short, the more specific you are when designing a service, the more you will consider the user, and the better that product or service will be. Paradoxically, focussing on a more specific user group at the design phase will allow you to develop a product which has more generalist appeal.

For instance, museums or galleries designing a digital (or even virtual reality) tour aimed at children off-school during the COVID-19 outbreak of early 2020, would need to consider:

  • Attention span of children (as opposed to parents) – we need to cram it with as much good stuff as possible, in a relatively short time!
  • The degree to which the content should be educational vs. entertaining – are children spending all of their time at home in lockdown are more likely to be looking for something entertaining, what is the threshold for this?
  • The types of system which may or may not be available – it is likely that many more children (or their parents) have access to a mobile phone or tablet at home than do a laptop – does this put limitations on the service we deliver?

The result of this deeper thinking, about the specific audience in question, will typically produce a concept which is actually more broadly appealing.

A couple of examples:

The Worldwide Web (originally called “The Mesh”) was intended to allow sharing of information and knowledge exchange between scientists and academics at universities and other academic institutions working globally — a very narrow audience with a specific set of goals in mind. Obviously, the ability to share information in seconds, globally, has really caught on!

OXO's Good Grips peeler (essentially a 'speed peeler') was originally designed to aid those with arthritis in the kitchen. It is now used by a wide array of professional and home cooks on a daily basis. 

The roller-suitcase was originally designed for airline cabin crews - just wide enough to be able to be pulled down an aisle between seats, the correct dimensions to fit in overhead lockers, and the wheels were to ease the impact of several trips from one side of an airport to another each day. Of course, it soon caught on with other passengers and is now widely seen in terminals around the world. If someone had set out to to design a case which appealed to all travellers, it would have required pouches for laptops (business), pockets for formula or snacks (parents with young famillies) and the list goes on. The end result would have been designed for everyone and appealed to nobody!

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