What are stress cases?

When an aspect of a person or a context is pushed to an extreme, that’s a stress case.

Some people refer to a stress case as an “edge case.” We prefer the term “stress case” (which we learned about from Eric Meyer and Sara Wachter-Boettcher’s Design for Real Life) because an “edge case” sounds like something that doesn’t happen very often.

In fact, stress cases happen all the time! Nobody is normal. As appealing as your “target demographic” looks, you don’t actually control who will show up to use your design, and people are… well, human. That patient, reasonable, calm, healthy, able-bodied, literate, accurate, safe, well-intentioned, and happy user in your mind’s eye doesn’t actually exist.

And, of course, people and environments that aren’t “users” in the classical sense are very much part of your design. Has your rent been driven up by Airbnb, have stray dockless scooters made it hard for you to navigate your sidewalks, or has someone accidentally uncovered your family secrets because of a mail-in DNA test? (Yes, this happens – a lot.) Systemic effects can cause even more stress cases than what you could find out from individual users.

If you like doing the right thing for fellow humans, you need to design using stress cases. If the moral argument doesn’t convince you… well, we doubt you like lawsuits, all-nighters, or bad PR. You can’t afford to ignore this.

How stress cases can help you

Stress cases are guideposts for decision-making. They guide your design research and your usability testing. And they can inspire great ideas that might not otherwise have occurred to you.

A common misconception about stress cases is that they make you add extra features, which costs time and money. If this is happening, you’re thinking about stress cases too late in your process.

Let’s say you’re working on a device, and you discover one month before release that it needs to be waterproof. At this late stage, waterproofing feels like an “extra feature.” But if you’d known a year ago that waterproofing was important, waterproofing would simply be part of your plan.

Another common misconception is that stress cases are a big bummer that take the fun out of your creative process. This is only the case if you want it to be! For us, thinking creatively about how we can make solutions work for people, come rain or shine, fills us with energy and purpose.

What you’ll find here

We’ve put together some methods to help you use stress cases with your product, service, or experience design teams.

We can also offer you individual help with various aspects of stress cases.

This page is a work in progress, and we’d love to hear your feedback so far. Email molly [ at ] superbloom [ dot ] design.