One of the biggest mistakes companies can make is designing services and products for the average user, an artificial and static representation of real users that generates dysfunctions.


“We have clients come to us and say, “Here’s our average customer:”, for instance, “She’s female, she’s 34 years old, she has 2.3 kids…” And we listen politely and say: “Well, that’s great but we don’t care about that person”. What we really need to do to design, is look at the extremes, the weakest, or the person with arthritis, or the athlete, or the strongest or the fastest person. Because if we understand what the extremes are, the middle will take care of itself”.

– Dan Formosa, Smart Design, Objectified” 

Who is the average user?

The average user is just a formula obtained from the characteristics of our real users. Since it is not possible to take into account the needs of all our users, we design according to the needs of a “typical” user that represents them.

Obviously, these average users cannot represent ‘extreme’ users, those who are further away from them because of some of their characteristics. But this is not important because it is assumed they are just a minority.

However, we haven’t considered two drawbacks:

1. The average user is artificial

The average user is created from the combination of all users. What we get is, in fact, a completely different user. None of our users is like the average user. Therefore, when designing for that artificial individual we create something that doesn’t fit anyone’s needs.

2. The average user is static

The average user is the representation of a moment, motionless. However, real users change constantly, reaching different positions, assuming different roles with different characteristics. In fact, we all are extreme users countless times in our lives. When designing for a static individual, we’re creating something that satisfies nobody.

Because of these two factors, average user-centered design generates two types of dysfunctions:

Dysfunction 1. The usability decreases progressively as we move away from the average user

The degree of usability (understood here as the correct adaptation of a service or product to the needs of the user) is directly proportional to the degree of similarity between the average user and the real user (the similarity is established from that attribute that is most relevant in a given context).

Thus, the larger the difference between a person and the average user, the lower the usability of the service or product. Of course, considering that the average user is a fiction, it is impossible to achieve a 100% of usability.

Dysfunction 2. Usability drops sharply for those users who do not reach the average user’s threshold

In other contexts, people need to reach a minimum threshold, usually determined by the average user, to use correctly a service or product. Thus, the degree of usability for those users who do not reach this threshold will be close to 0%.

Can you find the average user?

Can you find the average user?

The solution to these two dysfunctions lies in designing for the extremes:

Solution 1. Responsive business model

In a situation marked by the dysfunction 1, the solution lies in designing services and products that adapts (responsive) to the needs of different customer profiles or can be personalized, without having to create different products or services.

This issue was discussed extensively in a previous article. In short, a responsive business model is one that recognizes the user’s characteristics and adapts. It doesn’t segment the market based on fixed thresholds. Its structure is fluid, not being a limitation. Simply, at the time a service or product no longer makes sense, it adapts. Some elements are moved, others modify their size and priorities change.

Solution 2. Least common usability threshold

In a situation marked by dysfunction 2, the solution lies in using the least threshold of usability shared by all users, as long as the product or service maintain its consistency.

A typical example would be the page load speed. The average user-centered design created sites with a good performance if the real user had a connection speed equal or higher than the average user. However, this creates dysfunctions in all those cases where this minimum speed is not reached. This situation has worsened with the emergence of mobile devices with Internet access.

The design for the extremes solves this dysfunction by using the least common usability threshold, i.e. the connection speed of mobile devices. The reason is simple: if you can solve this problem for mobile users, you have improved the usability for everyone.