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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.



Designing for the extremes (or why your average user doesn’t exist)

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.

17 Responses to Designing for the extremes (or why your average user doesn’t exist)

  1. Art Seaton

    You can’t be all things to all people. Bill Gates tried that and, while he has had enormous success, his superiority in the market is beginning to wane. Part of the reason for this is innovates who create a program that does the basic stuff and then provides the bells and whistles as add-ons. One such example is an office suite. How many of them no longer come with the database portion of the package? But, how easy is it to get that database portion and attach it if you’re one of those extreme types who actually use it…and even then there are some bells and whistles in that database portion of the package that you probably have no need for. Bill Gates used to include all that in his “Office” package and now a lot of people are looking for alternatives.

    Does designing for the extremes mean having all those bells and whistles available, but not forcing them on the customer who doesn’t want or even need them? If so, then it appears that you’re designing for the average but having the esoteric niceties available for the extremes.

  2. Michael Grange

    Good article, and I completely agree! It does sound like you’re describing a personalised user experience, which is entirely relevant in today’s society. Expectations of a personalised user experience are only set to increase as IT innovation brings technology, of various forms, evermore into our everyday lives!

    Keep blogging!🙂

  3. Syd

    What you’re proposing (correct me if I’m wrong) is designing for a niche and/or targeted audience (which you refer to as the extreme). This is a practice that can be observed across successful businesses that know their audience and create and/or tailor products, services and interfaces that interest their audience.

    There is no need to design for the masses or in this case the “average” when you know your audience (I agree this to be an effective approach). However knowing your audience requires both qualitative and quantitative research (that is time and cost intensive). In most cases the latter takes precedence as it’s a lot easier to acquire and get quick results but NOT always the most effective (or targeted).

    Strategy is often an overlooked stage in the design process…

    • Susana Gonzalez Ruiz

      Hi Syd, thanks for your comment!
      One example.
      Let’s imagine that we are designers of home phones and we know that the average user is a man. We perform qualitative and quantitative analyses on this base and we design the final model. When we launch it into the market, we discovered that women and children have problems to manage this phone because it is too big for their hands.
      If we had considered these minority profiles, we could have designed a slightly smaller phone, perfect for all users.
      (Obviously, this has its limitations.)

  4. me myself

    ummm, any data to back up this conjecture? it flies in the face of most data that show that the simplest solution is often the best.

    • Leonardo Villela

      I think it’s a hypothesis based on deductive method, if a “extreme” can understand our message in a design, the understanding of the rest is just a logical result of the hypothesis itself. And this is the way how the humankind has reached so many great advances, so all of we (designers) must to listen this advice at least.

  5. Bob Poliachik

    There’s a trade off between covering all the bases and covering most of the bases.
    If you are prototyping I think you need to consider extremes, but aim for the 80% in the middle.

    If you need to get something done fast, you may not have a choice in considering extremes.

    I don’t consider designing for mobile an extreme. It’s one of 3 (or 4) main formats that you *have to* design for.

    When writing code you have to consider every option. Many times the exceptions to the rule consist of the majority of the code. (e.g. Most of the time a value is 1, but you have to code for more than 1, less than 1, and maybe even negative values).

  6. Glenn

    Insightful. We’ve often come across the same paradox. The client has an idea in their mind of their ‘users’ but then negates other users that equally could be paying clients, subscribers etc. Also we all have different facets of our own personalities and this means even our own usability patterns are in constant flux..

  7. Jimmy

    I see what you’re saying here and I tend to agree. The problem I see with this type of approach is that it’s initial constraints may be limiting to a larger concept. It requires a lot more planning in the initial stages, but I also don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing. Unfortunately there always unforeseen occurrences, especially under tight deadlines so I guess all we can really do is keep learning, adapting, and refining from project-to-project. No two are ever the same.

    Great post too. I’m definitely following.

    • Susana Gonzalez Ruiz

      Hi Jimmy,
      Thanks for your comment, I agree with you. Designing for the extremes is a design approach with its limitations (as well as designing for an average user). A designer will always find a “frontier” of users that cannot be included, but we also should avoid being too “designer-centric”, generating an exclusive and artificial design.

      • Leyna Bencomo

        Fantastic blog. With your permission I will refer to it when I talk to faculty on my campus about designing their courses for students with disabilities.

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