In the late 1940s, the US Air Force had a big problem – pilots were crashing at an alarming rate. An internal study revealed it wasn’t a human or mechanical error, but the design of the planes itself. Their lessons in troubleshooting the flaws in designing cockpits for the average pilot extend directly into our professional lives.
In 1926, while designing the initial planes, engineers took the measurements of hundreds of pilots. The size of the seat, the distance from the stick and pedals, the height of the windshield – they were all calculated with the intent of accommodating the average 1926 pilot. What had gone wrong to cause the increase in crashes? Were the pilots of the 1950s physically bigger? The new planes were stronger and safer than the old ones, what was going on to make them more dangerous?
In 1950 the military commissioned a study capturing 140 dimensions of over 4,000 pilots. The aim was to recalibrate the average pilot. Lt. Gilbert S. Daniels was a junior researcher who recognized the flaw in their approach. In college, he had been part of an experiment measuring the hands of Harvard students. The surprising takeaway was that in calculating the average hand, they ended up with a theoretical hand that no person actually had. If that was the case with hands, just how many pilots did they actually think were average in 140 dimensions?
Out of 4,000 pilots, Daniels showed that not even one pilot was average on as few as 10 dimensions. When reduced to only 3 dimensions, about 4% of the population was a fit. There simply was no such thing as an average pilot. They had tried to make a cockpit for everyone and instead designed a cockpit for no one. This was the source of their crash problem.
Daniels’ solution was to advise the military that the environment needed to fit the individual and not the other way around. While suppliers and engineers initially scoffed at the concept (and cost!) of retooling the planes, the call to innovate created the adjustable seats, pedals, and straps we all know in our modern cars today. It may seem small and obvious, but these changes solved the crash problem. This is the power of making the environment adjustable to the individual.
When we think about client experience, when we think about our new hire training programs, when we think about anything where “average” seems to be the statistically guiding principle, we should remember this lesson: when we try to make something for everyone, we risk making something for no one. We are better off determining how to fit the environment to the individual than forcing the individual into a fixed environment. It takes more work and a little creativity, but quality design is always worth the time.