The importance of SBAM in the iterative design process

A fragment of the Garden of Remembering
Posted by Apheori (talk) at 11 October 2013

Any designer or developer who has worked on user-facing problems can tell you that users can be, shall we say, problematic. Between the unrealistic expectations, the blatant cluelessness, and the inability to grasp and follow the most basic concepts, users will manage to negate even the most elegant and powerful of designs, either forcing a team back to the drawing board time and again, or simply out of business.

To get around this, designers develop various processes, heuristics, and patterns in order to fend off their users' collective stupidity. And it works, to an extent.

That extent is SBAM.

SBAM stands for 'Slightly Below Average Man'. It is simultaneously a subpar superhero and an important paradigm to keep in mind - because if SBAM cannot handle something, who can?

The answer is, on average, everyone else. SBAM can't handle much of anything, but if SBAM can at least avoid making matters worse using the current iteration of your project, then you're probably on the the right track.

Assuming the worst of your user

"I can do everything you can do, only slightly worse!!"

~ Slightly Below Average Man

Generally speaking, your users are idiots. Even when they are not down to SBAM standards, they will try to do things without paying attention to what they poke, they will skip the directions, they will open the wrong box, and on occasion, they will show up for work in the wrong office. It is best to take this into consideration throughout every stage of the design process, as by later stages vulnerabilities might otherwise be too ingrained into the product to cover for them.

"Well, I saw the burning building, and remembering the old fire-safety code, 'Fight fire with fire', I knew what I had to do..."

~ Slightly Below Average Man

It is also not unusual for users to confuse different, similar concepts, in particular when tired, so it is important to include safeties and confirmations into dangerous features to help prevent them from burning down the city.

Knowing when to label things

"Wait, if Villain Man's lair is over there, who did we just kill?"

~ Slightly Below Average Man

When things are unclear, it is important to include labels and directions; otherwise your users may be unclear as to what to put in each field on a form, how to operate a door, or if they are in the correct building. Avoiding ambiguity in the earlier stages of development is important, as then you will know what all needs to be labelled later.

Avoiding labelling things problematically

"Haha, Villain Man will have to do better than this to stop me from infiltrating his lair... A button labelled 'Slightly Below Average Man: Press here to trap yourself'? This is poor even for his standards."

~ Slightly Below Average Man

"Blast! I'm trapped!"

~ Slightly Below Average Man

Unfortunately labelling things can also be problematic for some users. For instance, when presented with a control that says do not use this unless you know what you're doing, most people in fact will not try to use it unless they know what they're doing, but that is only most people. Other users, when given a clear instruction, will feel the need to rebel. Similarly, such users may also become unhappy if they take the instruction to be an insult to their intelligence, in particular if it happens to be redundant with a previous instruction - 'What, do you think I can't read?' - and subsequently cease reading any of them.

Testing throughout all stages of development is imperative to minimise this kind of reaction, and thus avoid resultant SBAM behaviour.

Avoiding excess features

"Gahh! I tripped over my cape."

~ Slightly Below Average Man

Because users are idiots, they cannot be assumed to know how to handle excess features. Avoid them if at all possible - propose anything you feel might be useful in the early design stages, but whatever you do, remember to weed out what features you can before release, or SBAM will trip over them.

Unfortunately a true SBAM will still probably manage trip over any remaining features, as well as a random passerby and quite possibly even large trees if given the opportunity.

"Gahh! I tripped over my foot."

~ Slightly Below Average Man

"Gahh! I tripped over this seamless marble floor."

~ Slightly Below Average Man


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