The Myth of Average Denies Onlyness

Many years ago, the AirForce was designing the cockpit for “the average” pilot. As they rolled out better and better technology, performance was not improving. L Todd RoseFirst they blamed the technology, and then the leaders involved. And, then they thought to blame the users, the pilots. Blaming and shaming fixed nothing.¬† Finally, they got curious enough to do actual research. In doing so, they realized something most of us intuitively know — there is no such thing as “average”.

By rethinking the problem, they figured out that by designing for “the average”, they were hurting everyone. Designing on average destroys talent. First, it makes your talent a liability because those that are gifted get bored by not being able to offer what they actually can, and thus underperform (given their capabilities). Second, people who are weak at certain things that are being measured are not seen for their (actual) perspectives and strengths. By eliminating the idea of “average” the Air Force changed and they changed how cockpits were designed (with things like movable seats that we take for granted in cars today). And, by eliminating the idea of average, they unlocked the human potential of many pilots and improved the performance overall.

Today, there are many institutional constructs — like education curriculum or job descriptions — that are designed for the equivalent of “average”. In other words, we use a singular, rigid solution that treats people simply when, in actuality, humans are rich. Rigid solutions are designed for people to fit in rather than celebrating how they can stand out, and quite possibly do something extraordinary. It’s not that everyone will, but that anyone can and “average” denies this fundamental truth.

This TED talk by Todd Rose (pictured to the right) is one worth watching. Once a high school drop out and now a Harvard professor, he speaks to the topic of educational reform, but I think if you look at it with a little squinting, you’ll see that the talk is more broadly about how do we fundamentally re*imagine our institutions to enable individual potential.

I agree with his notion that we need reform, but I suggest we do it more broadly than education. I suggest we redesign and build institutions to celebrate onlyness. Using his words, I believe “We can do this. And it’s time we demand it.”


4 Responses:

  1. Armen Chakmakjian. July 12, 2013 at 8:34 am  |  

    That’s a great video. Honestly, a simple case of this design mistake is the apple earpod. Supposedly 3000 ears were mapped and measured to come up with a common listening experience for all people. Honestly, I haven’t noticed much of a difference between it and my old skullcandy earbuds with the flexible buds which conform specifically to my earshape. the main difference: the sc’s stay in my ear while I’m listening, and the apple earpods make feel like the are about to fall out all the time.

    Just to prove I’m not crazy, here’s Jony Ive explaining the concept:

    Since I’m not impressed by the earpods, we should blame my ears. :-)



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