Reducing Complexity by Design: 3 Key Tips for Managing Edge Cases


Wikipedia: An edge case is a problem or situation
that occurs only at an extreme maximum or minimum
operating parameter.
The most satisfying and memorable interactions are often the simplest. Life is complicated enough, and…surprise…most people don’t want to spend any more time interacting with your company’s call center, sales team, application or website than they absolutely need to. So why are so many interactions between companies and their target audiences so complex? Often complexity is the result of trying to design interactions for everyone, which inevitably leads to interactions designed for no one.

One of the culprits in this drive to satisfy everyone is the edge case. Also referred to as the “Corner case”, the “Outlier” or the “Exception,” these are interaction scenarios that are not typically part of the main set of use cases for a given experience. These scenarios rarely happen, yet unwary design teams can be drawn into spending a disproportionate amount of time and effort addressing them. The solutions typically result in layering complexity on what should have been a simple, streamlined process.

When dealing with edge cases, the stakes can be high. They range from driving up the cost of product/process/system/service design, to the creation of poor employee or customer experiences that jeopardize the achievement of your business goals. The following tips can help businesses and experience designers get the edge on edge cases.
TIP #1 – First Get the Facts:
Research actual usage to understand actual impact

Arm yourself with evidence. Gather available information and/or data to validate that the particular scenario needs to be addressed. Understand the problem from the audience’s perspective and confirm that addressing the scenario as outlined truly is the best way to meet the audience’s need.

If you don’t have evidence you require to make an informed design decision, go get it. Most likely the people insisting the case needs to be addressed have a business case to justify the cost and effort. Ask to see that information. If there is no such business case, insist on doing at least a modicum of quick, primary research with the target audience to make sure the solution has value.

Audience insights are becoming easier and easier to obtain through surveys, remote user testing, field studies, customer reviews, etc. Companies are even using Facebook and Twitter to pose questions and get quick insights for decision making. Of course, the real expertise is in the interpretation of the insights into meaningful stories that will impact business decision-making. If you reach out to a solid representative mix of your target audience, you will start to surface relevant insights to the best way to meet their needs as well as the goals of your business.

Armed with evidence, you can make an informed design decision.

TIP #2 – Reduce Business Complexity:
A complex customer experience is often the result of a business process or product offering that needs to be simplified

Overly complex and convoluted interactions typically reflect organizations and/or processes that are by design overly complex and convoluted. It never hurts to turn the analytical lens on the business and work out the complexity. I’m often surprised how open companies are to a little reflection on their own processes. You can approach the subject by saying something like, “You are asking us to design the experience within the context of the overly complex way in which you currently do business. I’m suggesting we take this opportunity to look into the redesign of the service/process to see if there are ways we can address the root of the problem.”

A good example is Sprint’s recent overhaul of their phone service options. Research into their target audience revealed that they could reduce the number of plan offers to just three (3) and meet the needs of the vast majority of their potential customers. Rather than continuing to add more services in a shot-gun attempt to satisfy a wider base of customers, they re-thought their entire strategy and streamlined their offerings.  They lowered the effort required for a potential customer to choose to do business with them AND they simplified the job of supporting their service options. Win win.

TIP #3 –  Create and Use Relevant Personas:
Use data to link audience priorities to business priorities

If your organization hasn’t created personas that truly reflect your audience segments, create them and use them. Personas provide a constant reminder of who you are designing for and what their priorities are. Many organizations we work with already have personas in some form, but they typically aren’t complete and are rarely being used effectively.

Detail of Persona segmentation data
Detail of Persona segmentation data

Effective personas include quantifiable segmentation data on the current customers represented by each persona. To help manage edge cases, add an additional layer that displays what your organization’s desired percent audience make up is for each persona. This information helps identify those edge cases that affect highly valued audience segments and, therefore, might be worth addressing.

Final Thoughts:

Not every edge case is evil. Sometimes they are the thoughtful details we strive to have in place to make an exceptional experience. Sometimes, when a recognizable pattern starts to appear, they can lead to the creation of innovative new audience segmentations, services, or product offerings. If that’s the case, then run with it!

I worked with a client in the financial services industry who had a situation where 5-10% of a particular customer segment was bringing in 85-90% of the revenue for a particular niche.  In this scenario, what might have been perceived as the edge cases with regard to the flagship product offering were actually the foundation for the creating of a new audience segment that required a separate experience all together. Rather then going down the path of  a “one-size-fits-all” retrofitted experience, we took those edge cases and used them to inform a custom tailored experience, with its own online tools, its own call center reps, all without jeopardizing the primary brand experience.

A well-designed experience needs to be diligently tended and defended. A design can be well implemented originally, but can be denigrated over time by the retrofitting of ad-hoc business requirements based on edge cases that draw people’s attention from the business’s and its target audience’s main goals. Be on the lookout and be ever vigilant to your design. Your audience will applaud your efforts. Your competitors will wish they thought of it first.


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