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What are the Stress Cases in LX Design?

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Having devoured Cal Newport’s Deep Work, I moved on to a smaller volume, Design for Real Life by Eric Meyers and Sara Wachter-Boettcher. This was another great read.

Edge Case to Stress Case

From the outset of the book, Sara and Eric ask us to turn our attention to a redefinition of “edge cases,” those things that we say will never happen or rarely happen with someone using our system or website, or video, or tools (See Jargon File’s funny definition of the term: https://www.oranges.net.nz/glossary.html). And to reposition “edge cases” as “stress cases:” those cases that will break our system, those imperfect users having imperfect days who need to access what we’ve built.

Here’s a perfect example that I think speaks really closely to us as LX designers:

Sara recently worked with one organization that did start imagining its users under stress: a big-box home-improvement retailer[…]

In early 2015, the chain decided to improve [their online DIY guides] and started researching ways to make them more valuable.[…]

While working on this content, they realized something: all those how-to and buying guides were written from the same peppy perspective of someone who’s looking forward to their project […] but many people end up at the retailer in panic: a water heater dies unexpectedly and the customer needs to replace it today. The fridge gives out and they’re dumping spoiled milk down the drain. The toilet breaks and… well, you get the picture.

Design for Real Life, Eric Meyers and Sara Wachter-Boettcher

The person or people who created this content could have easily been part of an instructional design team!

Stress Cases First

The upshot of this realization in the big-box store was that their happy, peppy content wouldn’t work in the stress cases above or in a major home disaster like flood or fire damage. So they began reworking their guides to think about stress-cases first by designing for people who might be using it in a stress situation.  Prioritizing clarity, plain language, at-a-glance shopping lists and reference tools, and helpful, realistic estimates of the time, skills, and budgets needed, not only made something that worked better for people in stress, but also made learning objects that worked better for their ideal, non-stressed customer persona.

This really hit home to me. I mean, it’s easy to think that the stuff we make isn’t life or death stuff (although instructional designers in some nonprofits or government agency may have to design for more intense crisis situations). But as Meyers and Wachter-Boettcher mention several times, “stress,” and “crisis” don’t have to mean life or death or worse. It can mean everyday stress.

I can imagine a customer-facing learning object being used by someone whose business is in trouble and is hoping that your product will help them fix it. Or an internal-facing learning object being searched for desperately by a sales person who doesn’t want to screw up a deal. The learning objects we create, and the systems we design to hold and serve those objects should serve these people.

For myself, my takeaway from this book is stress cases first.  And it has a lot of carryover into my blog post last week about being a solution architect. A major part of being the solution builder, the person who gets obstacles out of the way, can and should be this idea of designing for the stress case first. With everything I create, design, and curate, if I can push myself to imagine a flawed learner persona, a person in crisis, I can create a better product.

What stress cases can you imagine in your instructional design work? Can you think of any systems or learning objects that wouldn’t work when confronted with a learner in crisis?

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