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Why you should never design an experience for the average customer

Tim Williams

Todd Rose’s book ‘The End of Average’ achieves the remarkable feat of making the subject of statistics interesting. It also holds a surprising cautionary tale for anyone concerned with designing a customer experience.


In it, Rose tells the story of how during the early days of jet aircraft, the US airforce was faced with an unusually high number of crashes. Investigators could find no obvious mechanical faults so concluded that pilot error was the cause. But, this explanation didn’t sit right (quite literally as it turned out). These were among the most skilled and experienced in the business; how could so many such pilots suddenly be making so many mistakes? And why were so many different types of aircraft having accidents?


A senior officer tasked with finding out what was really going on decided to look at the problem from a different angle: was there something about the design of this new generation of aircraft that was inherently flawed? To answer this he went back to basics, asking simple questions about why cockpits and instruments were laid out the way they were. The answer was that aircraft designers were ‘following the science’ and optimising the positioning of controls based on the average size and body shape of airforce personnel. On the face of it, this sounded perfectly logical until he discovered that the number of pilots who actually shared the exact body shape as the ‘average’ pilot was precisely: zero.


By designing for the average and not allowing for individual adjustments the airforce had created a system that was very efficient from an organisational perspective but dangerously ineffective for the individual.


There are parallels (albeit less immediately catastrophic) when we see brands taking an ‘inside out’ approach to their customer experience - forcing them to engage in ways most convenient for them and designed to streamline their own internal processes. Rather than make it easy for anyone to be a customer they design the experience around an idealised view of the customer they would like to have - one who ‘self serves’ rather than bothers their customer service department, who understands how to navigate their web site without a hitch, who never has to return a faulty product; who basically understands how not to make a nuisance of themselves by being an individual.


They design an ideal customer experience for the ideal customer.


Who doesn’t exist.

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