designing for one

In designing for one, students come in direct contact with limitations they would have previously ignored, are made aware of communication issues they would have previously disregarded and are confronted with contexts outside of their own experience.

The research interest came from experience as both a designer and educator. I was noticing that working with an individual was impacting not only the designer but the design itself. 

By nature, designing for one is specifically focusing the attention of a designer on one person. The most common contemporary approaches of designers (user-centred, human-centred, etc.) includes an awareness of who their users might be or who they intend their design to be for. In terms of marketing, these users are segmented into meaningful and distinct groups which are further defined by demographics, attitudes, behaviors, values, or needs (1). Taking persona’s as an example (fictional, research-based characters created to represent the characteristics of different user types), the development of personas are likely to exclude individuals who are are in any way different or extreme leading to the “potential for bias” and the creation of “notions of ideal users” (2). This said, in most contemporary design practices, designers work with ‘user groups’ and even in other more participatory practices, the interaction is between a designer and multiple users. Design research may focus on the individual experience of participants, however the insights are brought forward with the intention of bettering the design for a group. The point of these interactions is to come into an awareness of user characteristics, either of use related to a design, the environment or context in which it would be used and processes related to it. Knowledge around these characteristics is intended to reduce designer assumptions or conceptually make a design better. 

The difference with designing for one is that designer and user come into very close contact. The roles may still be distinct, but because the designer is meeting the other person in a very human context (in their home, in a casual settings, etc.) the process becomes reciprocal; the designer shares and the person shares. The intent is that they find common ground and meet as equals with the participation of the individual (their preferences, abilities, wishes) is reflected in the end design. Linked to principles of Participatory Design (PD) which suggest that design should support the marginalised or underprivileged (3) and should “empower groups of people whose views, opinions and needs might be the most ignored by mainstream society” (4), the idea of designing for one focuses on both Extra-Ordinary User (5) as well as the individual. Although perhaps favouring working with marginalsed or under-served users, designing for one enables a closer look at the every-day needs of individuals. Similar methods may be used to that of other design approaches, a designer may propose going for a walk (guided tour) or follow along (shadowing) or try to visualise a segment of a person’s life (mapping) but the participant is not a representative of others, he/she is representing his/herself; no attempt is made to generalise his/her life. Instead the designer’s focus is to generate a designs (and prototypes) that suit this person in particular, paying particular attention to his/her physical abilities, access to technology, social relationships, interests, needs and wishes. The encounter modifies the design's direction and impacts the end result.

For design educators, the designing for one approach offers many of the attributes of problem-based learning and in terms of outcome, directing a student’s focus onto the daily life, patterns, associations, interests, desires, frustrations of an individual vs. user group leads to inherently different results. Students potentially come in direct contact with limitations they would have previously ignored, are made aware of communication issues they would have previously disregarded, are confronted with contexts outside of their own personal experience that they would usually pay little attention to if they were designing for ‘ideal’ users. Riskier than working with user groups or data-based demographics, designing for one requires additional time investment, planning, flexibility, research into any special needs of individuals, logistical support, enthusiasm and the room to fail or deliver unexpected results. Although bespoke, and ‘one-off’ solutions, these results can also be seen as a way to identify necessary product or design improvements or new innovations. The personalised-results can then, in this way, be transferable or generalisable for larger user population.

from:   Designing for one, about and Pros/Cons for Ingwio D'Hespeel  2017

PhD Research is supervised by:
Dr. Catherine Stones and   Dr. Paul Wilson
University of Leeds, School of Design, UK

Additional support is provided by:
Dr. Simone Taffe
Swinburn University,  Australia



1. Rogoll, C. (2015, November 24). 4 Steps for Defining a Target Audience. Retrieved September 21, 2017, from
2. Turner, P., & Turner, S. (2011). Is stereotyping inevitable when designing with personas? Design Studies, 32(1), 30–44.
3. Carroll, J. M., & Rosson, M. B. (2007). Participatory design in community informatics. Design Studies, 28(3), 243–261.
4. Vines, J., Clarke, R., Wright, P., McCarthy, J., & Olivier, P. (2013). Configuring Participation: On How We Involve People in Design. In Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems (pp. 429–438). New York, NY, USA: ACM.
5. Pullin, G., & Newell, A. (2007). Focussing on Extra-Ordinary Users. In Universal Acess in Human Computer Interaction. Coping with Diversity (pp. 253–262). Springer, Berlin, Heidelberg.

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