Does the ‘Average’ User Really Exist?

800 449 Andy Curry

Photo credit: Torsten Nilsson

How many of your products or processes are designed for the ‘average user’? Chances are, it’s quite a lot. And it’s easy to see why. When finding out more about a client’s users, it can be tempting to group distinct user types with others who share the same persona. In fact, this often seems like a necessary step to reduce the perceived scale and variables within a challenge. 

But is designing for the ‘average user’ always the best approach? 

In this article, we explore the concept of the ‘average user’ in the context of the American Air Force, considering how the themes from the case study can be applied to achieve successful UX design

The ‘Average’ Pilot

Military jet technology took great strides forward during the 1950s. But the American Air Force also noted that its pilots were crashing at a surprising rate. 

Following some initial finger-pointing at trainers and pilots, the AAF quickly discovered that the problem was a physical one: plane cockpits were not properly sized for the pilots. With more and more good pilots crashing good planes, the AAF decided to carry out research into the ‘average’ pilot size, using their findings to design a new cockpit.

But the research showed that there was no such thing as the average pilot size. Each pilot was a different size and build, so there couldn’t be a one-size-fits-all cockpit design. Averages could be defined, but no one individual pilot had measurements anywhere close to the ‘average’. It soon became clear that creating a new cockpit for the ‘average’ pilot meant creating one that was essentially designed for no one

Actual measurements compared to the average.

Image credit: Amelia Horras/YouTube

The solution? Adjustable cockpits with seat controls, spacing and layout all optimizable by the pilot at the beginning of each flight. Cheap and easy, this quickly solved the problem. 

Developmental Psychologist Todd Rose presented on this topic during his TEDx talk, The Myth of Average. He talked about how this approach can be useful when making improvements to educational approaches. But could it also be helpful in product and user experience design?

Who is Your ‘Average’ User?

Most UX designers have created a product or service with the ‘average user’ in mind at one time or another. But this can be a dangerous way of thinking. It’s far better to group users according to their distinct needs, rather than for your own convenience – even if that means you end up with more groups than you first thought. And much like the AAF pilots, each identified user group might have a wide spectrum of needs or parameters. 

How to Design Products or Processes to Fit User’s Needs

  • Identify Parameters

Once you’ve identified the main user groups likely to use your product or service, think about the variable elements within each of those groups. Which elements have the most impact on user interactions? How do they affect the overall user experience? 

  • Consider Personalisation

Once you’ve highlighted these elements, think about ways to deliver a design that can be adapted. In some cases, personalisation is the answer. For the AAF pilots, the key was personalisation of the cockpit with the introduction of adjustable seating. 

But is it possible to make every system fully personalisable? It might not be practical, or even desirable. Limitless personalisation options can bloat functions and options, which quickly becomes paralysing for a user. This becomes a nightmare to manage and support, both for users and product owners.

  • Evaluate and prioritise

The key is to evaluate and prioritise the variables, deciding which of the needs or parameters are truly critical. Sometimes, the lines of an edge case can be blurry. Todd Rose’s TEDx talk introduced the phrase, “design to the edges”, which can be a good starting point – but it’s not always practical. It is better to carefully define which edges you need to design to. 

Carry out thorough research and investigation to identify which elements need to flex and which need to be fixed in place. You’ll probably find that there are fewer adjustable elements than you first thought. After all, the adjustable cockpit seats only had a handful of moving sections in the end. 

  • Define the immovable objects

What about those functions and processes you simply can’t make as flexible as users might want? These exist for many different reasons, so you will need to consider the surrounding factors – for example communications and support with users, how the function is introduced to the user and what change management is needed to ease a user into a new process. These steps are important in any case, but planning for them carefully can help to take the sting out of introducing new processes, avoiding low adoption rates and high support costs – not to mention outright rebellion!

In many cases, accessibility needs for products and services are considered to be disposable ‘edge cases’. However, this should be avoided. Your stats on users with specific accessibility needs will never accurately cover the myriad of unacknowledged, undiagnosed or undeclared needs that millions of people have. Plus, designing with accessibility in mind almost always helps to create a design that improves the experience for all users.

There is No Such Thing as the ‘Average’ User

Although most UX designers have referred to the ‘average user’ from time to time, they rarely exist. It is best to avoid designing products or services for the ‘average user’. Instead, you should make the effort to understand the variables of your users. This will allow you to create products and services with in-built flex, thus improving your website’s UX and promoting a great experience for all.

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