The Problem with Averages

If you’re interested in inclusive design, I’d recommend listening to “On Average” from the podcast 99% Invisible. From the episode:

So in 1926, when the army was designing its first-ever fighter plane cockpit, engineers measured the physical dimensions of hundreds of male pilots and used this data to standardize cockpit dimensions. Of course, the possibility of female pilots was never considered. Of course.

The size and shape of the seat, the distance to the pedals and the stick, the height of the windshield, even the shape of the flight helmets were all made to conform to the average 1920’s male pilot. Which changed the way the pilots were selected.

You basically then select people that fit into that and then exclude people that don’t.

Designing for the average and excluding anyone who doesn’t fit that average isn’t, well, inclusive. The episode goes on to discuss how design (including in the military) has become more inclusive — but it’s still something we struggle with.

From what I’ve seen in software design and development, one of the challenges is deciding which user personas and scenarios will be considered in your design, and which issues are only edge cases. Where and how do you draw that line? It’s also a matter of just remembering to think outside your own perspective, to consider cases that you haven’t thought of already. (As designer and fellow Automattician Mel Choyce pointed out, it’s about challenging your own biases by seeking out and really listening to users with different perspectives.)

As a linguaphile, I tend to notice when software design struggles or forgets to include non-English languages. For example, designs that aren’t responsive to languages that take up more space (ahemGermanahem) or that don’t consider right-to-left languages end up excluding entire populations of potential users in other parts of the world. It can be hard for monolingual designers and developers to know how their products work in other languages, and it’s always satisfying when I have a chance to test a product and suggest language-based enhancements, so people can use our products in any language. It’s one small way I can help democratize publishing for users around the world.

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