Designing a product resembles the Limbo dance: All depends on how high we rise the bar. The height determines who we will exclude.

No average, no extremes

One of the most important design challenges is creating standardized solutions that accommodate to the widest variety of people. While most companies focus on their target audience, this is, the average user, the answer offered from the human-centered design has been including the extremes into the design process.

According to this approach, a solution that works for the extremes will certainly work better for everyone. We can see this in many real examples. However, there is a basic mistake. There is no such thing as the average user. And if there is no average, there are no extremes.

extremes ideo

The extremes, as defined by IDEO

The social construction of the extremes

The concept of the average person, as we know it today, appeared during the 19th century in the industrialized Europe of nation-states.

Adolphe Quetelet and later Sir Francis Galton, discovered that the “error theory”, used by astronomers to locate stars, could be also applied to the distribution of many human features. In essence, the “error theory” -or “law of error”- was an approximation tool used to determine the likelihood of location of a star by taking into account the variety of sightings.

The frequency of sightings, once plotted into a graph, described a bell curve. The most frequent sightings, falling into the center of the curve, indicated the (estimated) correct location of the star.

Normally distributed measurements

Normally distributed measurements

Quetelet and Galton realized that the distribution of some human features, such as height, weight or intelligence, also fell under the bell-shaped curve. Consequently, applying the error theory, the abstract human from middle of the curve was the “average person”.

Although the average denotes the usual and the ordinary, it actually became an ideal that excluded the “deviations” or “extremes”. The statistical construction of the average functioned to justify the exclusion of the extremes, assuming that the problems faced by those people were consequences of their own limitations.

The liMBo effect

If we assume that the average user is, in fact, a theoretical construction, the following logical conclusion is that the concept of extremes (applied to real people) is also a construction. There is no such thing as the extremes.

Consequently, to understand why some people cannot use a product or service, we should shift our focus from the user to the own solution. The reason why a solution doesn’t work for the extremes lies not in their own limitations, but in the limitations of the solution.

Designers create the extremes by designing products and services that exclude them.

On the basis of this logic, when we observe a little closer how users interact with products, we see that, in fact, most people (even the average user) have difficulties using them. These are “frictions”, little usability difficulties that though not hindering the use of the product, make it less user-friendly.

levels of design frictions

These frictions are almost unnoticeable for some people, annoying for others, and a barrier for some people who we call extremes. In this sense, designing a product resembles the Limbo dance. All depends on how high we rise the bar. The height determines who we exclude, not the contestants themselves.

And take this into account: many people may be able to go under the bar, but all them have to make an effort.