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News, the occasional rant and maybe even something smart to say. If I'm going to write it down for posterity, it's going to be here.


Desert Island Books: "The End of Average" by Todd Rose.

The End of Average

In discussion recently, a friend of mine who is a primary school teacher shot me a suspicious sideways glance and, in mock disgust that barely masked her approval, queried: "You're one of them 'lifelong learner' types, aren't you?" Guilty as charged. I read a fair bit to get my learning fix on,  so I thought I would slowly share my list of favorite books and recent reads with a quick review of each, and why I think any readers of this will also enjoy that.

Recently I picked up Todd Rose's interesting little book, "The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness". This book kept popping up in interviews, talks and other articles that I would watch or read on designing for people with different physical and mental capabilities and needs: you cannot simply create one design for all people and expect it to be successful for any one person who actually needs it to be a certain way. In other words: you can't design for the average. Instead, the take-home message is that to design for diverse user groups you must design diversity into your product, system or service. This is kind of no-brainer fundamental aspect of universal design. Rose argues emphatically in his book that the notion of 'average' has crept into the machinations and calculations of just about every system, service or product we have, and that is just plain wrong. No one person fits the mold that 'average' creates. No one single person in the world is actually average

He begins his story describing the U.S. Air Force in the early days of jet fighters. Jets were much faster than their piston and propeller driven predecessors of the second world war - aircraft that were difficult enough to fly just beneath the speed of sound, and deadly when they surpassed it in a dive. Since the early days of air combat the air force had employed a one-size-fits-all philosophy when designing cockpits. This means that for some pilots a critical switch, indicator or gauge was an awkward reach, or inconveniently hidden from regular sight. Rudder pedals that might have required maximum leg strength were not positioned for many pilots to create the force required to get themselves out of trouble. As a result, attrition (ie death) rates were a real problem for the Air Force. In one day the Air Force lost 27 pilots to non-combat incidents. A young Lt. Gilbert Daniels was selected to study the problem.  Out of some 96 physical dimensions measured across a large population of pilots very few had any strong correlations. This diminished any notion that there was any such thing as an "average" pilot despite their designing cockpits for the average. Daniels concluded that the Air Force could not force pilots to fit a cockpit designed for the "average" pilot; that they must design cockpits to fit all pilots. Since then, every cockpit has been fairly if not completely adjustable to fit each unique pilot. Many pilots describe a fighter plane as something they "strap on" or wear instead of sit in. For this to be true, there cannot be unisex, one-sized-fits-all fitting.

He describes how "Average" came to dictate Taylorist operations on the factory floor, maximizing productivity using average workers. While economically this may have singly been the most successful cultural or policy shift ever to impact American culture, it cost the worker their humanity, individuality and uniqueness. It reduced everyone to a number and a performance metric weighed average. This is something we still feel today. Most western work forces have terrific efficiency and consistency, but completely lack any innovation, creativity and room for true craftsmanship. This is by design. He recounts how Thorndike extended this Taylorist view to the western education system with standardized tests and paces for learning. Each student is still measured against, yes, the average despite their own unique learning styles, paces, and life situations. Schools, like factory floors, adopted division bells to regiment and compartmentalize the time on the clock. All this focus on the average comes with the tyranny of always being expected to be above average from infancy to workplace performance review. I can relate to this, as can Mr. Rose, who tells his own story of being a young father and high-school drop-out. I bumped and scraped my way through high-school and university, figuring out my own way to learn stuff. My brain power has been compared by teachers at varying points in my academic career to both genius and peanut. Unfortunately for me and my grades, my way of learning didn't always result in a great test score. Far from it. Instead, I actually learned the information and retained it long past the multiple choice test it was meant for. I just didn't get an A. I dunno, for a generally below average student (as I was), having two graduate degrees, being an All-Canadian athlete, and spending eight years teaching at the University and Medical School level is all just a little above average.

He described the faulty mathematical and philosophical concept that seems to make using the average to describe the individual acceptable: the ergododic switch. As long as people are different from one another and are subject to change over time. You simply cannot attach the results of an average to any individual. But, oh, we still try.

He describes some of the principles we need to get past what he coins "Averagarianism".

Jaggedness Principle. We are jagged: good at some things, not so good at others. The great example he quotes in his book is that just about every job description says: "must be good communicator". Well, which way are we good communicators? Written, visual, verbal, great over the phone, emotional? We can't be good at all of them, but each of us is good at one way of doing something. 

Context Principle. People are not essentialist. We are not essentially one thing or another. For example, we are not simply introverts: we are introverts at work, or at school. But in other contexts we are extroverts. Context matters to our performance and how we behave. We need to use more of a IF>THEN analysis when anticipating or assessing how someone will perform. IF Glen is in this situation with these people, THEN he will perform that way.

Pathways Principle. We all get there, we just take different pathways. There is always this average way of getting there that we're all supposed to adhere to, but it seldom ever works that way. We all learn how to crawl, but each one of us learned a slightly different way and at a different pace. We all learn how read, just at different rates and in different ways. We all get where we want to go so long as we can get there.  

In short, this is a great little read if you work in design - whether that's interface, experience, industrial design or what have you. It's a great read if you're in human resources and responsible for finding and hiring the right people for a job - something that, as I get older, I realize the importance of for any organization trying to actually be successful. It's the individuals an organization collects, not really the systems it employs, that will make it great. There's a terrific anecdote in there comparing the yearly staff turnover rates of Costco (17%) and Walmart (50%) that reinforces this. Imagine having to train almost 1M new employees per year versus retaining and enhancing the people you already have, growing strength onto strength every year. It's also a really great little summer read if you're a teacher or educator working with little and not-so-little minds, unique and not-so-average as they always are. But this is an even greater read if you, like me, never quite feel like you fit in anywhere.

Perhaps because you, like me and just about everyone else, were always something quite different from average.

Todd Rose, Harvard faculty member, presents his ideas in Harvard’s 8for8 series.