Debunking the Myth of Average

By Samuel Greengard  |  Posted Friday, December 27, 2013 09:20 AM

One of the most significant challenges in designing any system—software, machine interfaces or consumer items—is understanding who will be using the product and how they will be using it. Businesses spend countless dollars and hours conducting market research, beta testing and tweaking specifications in the quest for perfection.

IT departments are at the center of all of this. Obviously, information technology is a key component in unlocking results. But what's intriguing about the process is that many organizations focus on the average employee or consumer. By combining data from the entire customer base, it's possible to arrive at a composite of what the typical customer looks like.

From there, business and IT executives define design, content and an array of other things. But there's a problem with this approach: It's fundamentally flawed, and it consistently leads to poor results.

As L. Todd Rose, a high school dropout who is now a faculty member at Harvard University, points out in a Ted Talk presentation, the mistake is made over and over again in business, education, government and other institutions. He presents the problem the U.S. Air Force faced in 1952, when it introduced better and far more advanced jet aircraft, but witnessed a drop in performance and an uptick in crashes. The Air Force blamed the technology, the pilots and the flight instructors for the problem.

Eventually, a researcher named Gilbert Daniels discovered that the Air Force had designed the cockpit based on the average dimensions of a pilot. While the concept of designing for the average seems reasonable, Daniels discovered that among a total of 4,000 pilots and 10 dimensions, nobody matched the average dimensions. In other words, engineers were designing for a theoretical pilot that didn't exist!

Once the Air Force understood that a more successful approach revolved around designing for the edges of normality, pilot performance spiked and crashes declined. The Air Force subsequently banned designing for the average.

Rose says that the same concept applies to a just about everything—including business. It's critical to understand the range of people using a system—whether it's an app on a smartphone or customer support in a call center—and design interfaces, workflows and IT systems around these parameters.

The reality is that most organizations aren't equipped to deal with this challenge. Business and IT have designed products for the average user for so long that they don't know any other way. But in the digital age, success requires new expertise, new skills and unconventional thinking. It requires a new breed of IT and business executives who can see beyond the flat earth of averages.