Inclusive Software
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Inclusive Software

Time to Listen — Chapter One (excerpt)

This is an excerpt from chapter one of my book “Time to Listen.” You can read more about the book and order the book through your local bookseller or on Amazon.

What’s Wrong with Average

Average solutions aren’t just average as in “meh.” They often cause harm to the people who weren’t considered in the design.

In the design field, there is an oft-repeated story about how a solution designed to support the average person actually killed people. In case you haven’t read the story, I’ll recount it here. In the late 1940s, the United States Air Force had a problem. A new generation of Air Force jets were flying dramatically faster. The original cockpit had been designed in 1926. The jet manufacturers had taken a series of measurements of 1926 pilots’ bodies at that time. They had averaged out all their measurements and designed a helmet to fit the average measured head, a seat to fit the average rear end, and cockpit distances to fit the average arm length. They designed for ten key dimensions, to fit the average (1926 male pilot’s) body. Unfortunately, by the 1940s, the cockpit design was absolutely not working.

Pilots were crashing, again and again.

The Air Force needed its military suppliers to redesign the cockpit so that the pilots would survive. So, in 1950 they put a newly graduated twenty-three-year-old, Lt. Gilbert S. Daniels, on the task. And his first idea was to check the math, which meant measuring 4,000 pilots in the Wright Air Force Base.

After the measurements were taken, Lt. Daniels sat down to look at the data. Of the thousands of pilots measured, literally zero were average in all ten dimensions. Even more interestingly, only 3.5 percent would be average-sized in three dimensions. “It can be seen that the ‘average man’ is a misleading and illusory concept as a basis for design criteria, and is particularly so when more than one dimension is being considered,” Lt. Daniels said.¹ (He must have had a good mentor to be able to speak so decisively in his conclusions.)

As a result of Lt. Daniels’ work, the Air Force asked the jet manufacturers to change their design. Those engineers figured out how to make fighter jet helmets, cockpit seats, and floor pedals adjustable. The pilots were more able to handle the planes while under G forces, pilot performance soared, and many fewer people died.² Physical product manufacturers responded, changing many things in the decades since, understanding that one size really doesn’t fit all in many circumstances. The innovation also led directly to the adjustable seats we have in modern cars, adjustable medical equipment, adjustable desks, and so on.

The Air Force cockpit story is the story of an inflection point, a moment that changed everything. Or not. There are limits to how adjustable any particular design is. Every manufacturer puts limits on how much they are willing to spend on setting up factory production. There are thousands of people who still have to make do with one extreme or the other of the adjustment. Plenty of people still add cushions to their desk chairs. We may not fully design to the average in every physical product anymore, but we certainly don’t design for everyone.

Access for Disabled People

After the end of the second World War, many soldiers came back to their countries with mobility-related injuries, needing canes and wheelchairs to get around. The battles, weapons, and chemicals had blasted their hearing and sight. Disabled former soldiers, in fact, joined society in such vocal numbers in the late 1940s and 1950s that accessibility issues finally began reaching the public awareness.³ The world at that time was not built for wheelchair users; deaf and blind people were not supported. Most buildings — even public buildings — relied on stairs or had other architectural issues that kept disabled people unable to access them without assistance.

Over time, disabled activists fought worldwide to create environments that could include wheelchair users. The American experience illustrates the trend. In the 1960s, American protestors took to the streets, smashing curbs to create their own accessible ramps. In the 1970s, founders of the Independent Living Movement established a wheelchair route through the University of California campus, even “covertly laying asphalt in the middle of the night.”⁴ By 1973, the first American law was passed banning discrimination on the basis of disability. Sit-ins and protests continued.

Meanwhile, individuals with hearing and vision impairments were making strides toward better access to technology. The hearing impaired gained greater access in the U.S. in 1972, when Julia Child’s “The French Chef” was broadcast with captions, and by 1982, ABC’s World News Tonight was broadcast with captions in real-time.⁵ Visually impaired individuals were able to access computers more easily with the development of the first Braille translator in the early 1960s⁶ and the first refreshable Braille display in 1975.⁷ As a result of the tireless efforts of activists and disabled lawmakers, laws protecting disabled people slowly passed all over the world. Japan’s passed in 1970, and it was revised and expanded it several times until it became the “Fundamental Law for Disabled Persons,” mandating social support, welfare, healthcare, community services, and work opportunities for disabled people. In 2007 to 2008 over 100 countries signed the UN treaty “Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.” Everywhere, Braille began appearing on public keypads and elevator controls, in airplanes, and on building signage.

This decades-long inflection point changed everything. A little bit. There are still online resources, buildings, and transit systems without accommodations for the disabled. Adjustment remains an ongoing struggle.

Designing for Access, Not Average

Today, there are still organizations that don’t spend much budget or attention on designing support for people with disabilities into their products. Even technologists think that machine-driven support such as automated video captions “work well enough.” They don’t invest in improving the experience, remaining oblivious to how frustrating automated captions can be for the people who have no choice but to rely on them.

Even when they do design for support, they approach everyone with a disability with the same average solution. Svetlana Kouznetsova, an independent consultant and accessibility trailblazer, has spent her career educating professionals about accessible on-screen design. She explains that all deaf people are not alike, not all blind people have the same thinking style, and you can’t treat a large group as if everyone in it has all the same needs, experiences, and desires. Yet technology companies do just that.

The Average Does Harm

Designing to an average user was lethal in aviation. Similarly, designing to an average user in other contexts also hurts people. Without accommodations, the built environment does tremendous harm to wheelchair users, the blind, sight impaired, deaf, and hard of hearing. Since 2016, when books, articles, and talks all over the design community began to tell the adjustable cockpit story, everyone has been repeating “We can’t design for the average.” It’s been a refrain in education, healthcare, and government circles as well. The digital and service industry, unrestricted by the same limitations of physical space and materials, can incorporate adjustability and customization so much more easily than the designers of cockpit seats or the built environment.

Why, then, does solution design still revolve around the average, especially in the technology world where there seems to be budget and awareness?

What drives the problem is the mindset organizations use. Traditionally, organizations build one solution for one market. They target single solutions to the largest part of the bell curve of people, not understanding that even those people don’t all think the same. In business, government, and even the non-profit sector, organizations define the people they serve by addressing an avatar, a citizen, an average user, a job title. People act as if there are only enough resources for one approach in the digital world, as if they were building physical things. This isn’t true.

Another thing driving the problem is the “market curve” and market segment approach that businesses and their financers still unquestioningly believe. The market curve, the high place in the bell curve with the most people beneath it, is the belief that the laws of math predict what people are thinking and how they are making decisions. The market curve equates demographics to thought and behavior. The market curve is an argument to minimize effort and maximize profit by supporting only the people under the high point of the bell curve — people who think like the employees of the organization. The only way to get organizations with this mindset to support people under the low ends of their curve is to make laws, try to enforce them, and charge penalties. Which means those organizations don’t lift a finger until, or even when, they are caught.

The low ends of the bell curve are not actually low at all when you look at it from the person’s perspective instead of the organization’s perspective. Each person is addressing a purpose, or a part of a purpose, and does a lot of thinking and decision-making toward that purpose. Each person applies a variety of solutions (mental, social, manual, mechanical, and digital) that serve that purpose. Instead of using a bell curve, depict the parts of the purpose, and people’s thinking and decisions therein, as a better way to segment the market.

For example, flying to a different city to attend a conference involves deciding how to get there, getting a ticket, arriving at the airport, boarding the flight, enduring the flight, arriving at the other end, and making adjustments for the new location. These are all parts of the purpose. Airlines often focus only on “business travelers” and “vacation goers,” the highest points of their bell curve. But a business or vacation destination doesn’t really affect the way an individual thinks and makes decisions about getting to the airport gate and boarding the plane, for instance. There are different thinking styles with regard to getting to the gate and boarding the plane. There are some people who focus on doing things correctly, to make the process smooth. Others focus on using their time wisely. Some maintain a peaceful bubble around them to keep the stress out (or to keep their stress from affecting others). And a few focus on making a positive experience for everyone, including other passengers and flight staff. People switch between these thinking styles from trip to trip, depending on who is with them and what’s happening.10

If you look from the passengers’ perspective, there is no bell curve. It’s a set of different approaches to the different parts of the purpose. Airlines can measure themselves by how well they are supporting each thinking style, in each part of the passengers’ purpose. People who are deaf are a part of each of the thinking styles and have additional thinking that surfaces in this perspective. People who are neurodiverse are a part of each of the thinking styles, and also have additional thinking that surfaces. Airlines will see the gaps where they are failing to support this thinking and decision-making. Airlines will see that a large portion of the thinking is ignored. In this way, when you look from the passenger perspective, it’s utterly evident that the market curve is false.

This problem is fixable, especially in technology. All digital experiences and lots of services are, in fact, driven by a “back end” of software, databases, networks, and humans — a back-end that can support several different front-end experiences. Organizations are not actually in the position of having to multiply costs to build multiple physical products — if they will design for that ability. Granted, there is thirty-year-old software architecture still in service, which breaks at the slightest touch. There are debates in the board room whether to pitch the old back-end into the bit-bucket and start fresh. There are cost tradeoffs, and the balance is increasingly tipped toward starting fresh. A well-designed back-end can interface with several different user experiences for a comparatively nominal extra cost. The design will then lead to more people experiencing support instead of harm, and more people reaching for that experience, knowing that it was designed with them in mind.

No one has the time or money to make 1,000,000,000 custom-tailored user experiences for each individual. Users also do not have time and motivation to adapt solutions to their own needs. But you can go from designing one average experience to two or three excellent experiences that solve for the thinking and decision-making of people with different thinking styles. You can look from the perspective of the people’s purpose. You can support people in an inclusive, positive, powerful way. With a little extra work, you can effectively support people, and break the mindset of the average.

It’s that or fall back into the habit of creating harm.

¹ United States Air Force, The “Average Man” by Gilbert S. Daniels, Technical Note WCRD 53–7, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio: Wright Air Development Center, Air Research and Development Command, 1952, https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/010203.pdf

² Todd Rose, “When U.S. Air Force Discovered the Flaw of Averages,” Toronto Star, January 16, 2016, https://www.thestar.com/news/insight/2016/01/16/when-us-air-force-discovered-the-flaw-of-averages.html

³ “The History of the Wheelchair Ramps,” MedPlus, October 29, 2019, https://www.medplushealth.ca/blog/the-history-of-the-wheelchair-ramps/.

⁴ Emily Nonko, “How Wheelchair Accessibility Ramped Up,” The Atlantic, June 22, 2017, https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/06/ramps-disability-activism/531273/.

⁵ Olivia B. Waxman, “How Deaf Advocates Won the Battle for Closed Captioning,” Time, March 16, 2020, https://time.com/5797491/closed-captioning-captions-history/.

⁶ Joe Sullivan and David Holladay, “Early History of Braille Translators and Embossers,” Duxbury Systems, August 12, 2021, https://www.duxburysystems.com/bthist.asp.

⁷ “History,” HelpTech, accessed November 22, 2021, https://helptech.de/en/info/help-tech/history.

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