What could edge cases mean for user research and design?

A reflection on Gregg Bernstein's advice to "not dismiss edge cases"
Edges are places where possibilities may appear or intersect
Graphic by author

There’s a narrow gap between a tile and the wall of our backyard, and red poppies have come up in that tiny space. They stand right at the edge of the black stone tile, their silky petals making the stone tile seem so much more interesting and alive.
Edges are interesting places, ripe with new possibilities, which brings me to Gregg Bernstein’s quote today. Gregg is the lead researcher at Webflow and author of the book Research Practice.
I highly recommend his book for anyone who wants a glimpse of the diverse ways that user research is practiced and how user researchers deal with everyday challenges across different industries.
Gregg says,

Don’t dismiss edge cases.
They demonstrate the boundaries of what’s possible with your product, the unmet needs of your users, and where your industry might be headed.

The possibilities and the unmet needs of the users

One kind of edge case is that which illuminates possibilities. A lot of mainstream solutions like car-sharing began as edge cases and are slowly becoming mainstream.
Another example is that I use Descript, a video-editing software, for editing user research videos. The unique thing about the software is that the software transcribes the videos and you can edit the video by editing the transcript.
Navigating using the text transcript makes it so much easier to find moments of interest in a video. And you can create clips by copying and pasting parts of the transcripts.
Using Descript for user research could be an edge case for the company, but it could also be an untapped possibility for them. I should ask Descript to pay me for marketing this :D, but I really like the tool for English videos.
This also reminds me of the book Thoughtless acts by Jane Fulton Suri, which captures how we adapt and re-purpose objects and the world around us in our everyday lives.

Worst-case scenarios

Another kind of edge case can about design with care and for robustness against abuse. A big chunk of my work has been in healthcare, where edge cases are essential, especially if they relate to safety. So, you explicitly need to identify worst-case scenarios, and design & test for them, regardless of how likely they are to occur.

These worst-case scenarios can include things like products used with harmful intent, system breaking down in the middle of a task, the system being used in a hurry or under emergency, etc. I recently heard a few people call them “Black Mirror”​ scenarios, after the Netflix series of the same name – which I still haven’t gathered the courage to watch :D.

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