179 – There is no average

Posted by  Anecdote International —March 2, 2023
Filed in Anecdotes, Podcast

If you design for the average, you might find you’re designing for no one. Listen to hear how challenging an assumption held for 30 years transformed aircraft cockpit design.

Women in cockpit

This week, Mark has another aircraft story for us. But don’t hesitate over the play button. Indranil Chakraborty (IC), our Anecdote Partner based in India, recently shared this story on his website, and it was simply too good not to retell on Anecdotally Speaking

IC found this story in Todd Rose’s book, The End of Average: How We Succeed in a World That Values Sameness. So if you’d like to learn more, we recommend you pick it up! 

For your story bank

Tags: aircraft, assumptions, design, difference, diversity, thinking differently

This story starts at 01:51

In the 1920s, the man-powered flight was in its infancy. But industry folk knew they had to wrap their heads around cockpit design. So they gathered measurements to build a profile of the ‘average pilot’.

For the next 30 years, the industry used the data to inform cockpit design.

In the 1950s, the United States Air Force was the most advanced in the world. Their pilots, aircraft and technology were getting better and better. But their results were getting worse.

In a single day, 17 pilots died in different accidents.

So, they set out to find what was to blame. Eventually, they realised they were using 30-year-old data to design cockpits, and things had changed dramatically since then.

They decided they needed a new average and conducted a study involving 4,603 pilots at the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio.

They measured each pilot across several dimensions and then chose ten dimensions that they thought had the most significant impact on cockpit design, including height, arm length, leg length, weight and shoulder width.

They used the data to produce a new average and assumed they’d design cockpits based on those numbers.

Lieutenant Gilbert Daniels, a Harvard graduate, came across the study. He had studied human dimensions, and his studies showed that even in very similar ethnic and socioeconomic groups, hand sizes varied tremendously.

He looked at the data and whether, for each dimension, a particular pilot met the average measurement. His peers had assumed most pilots would fall within the average across the ten priority dimensions.

But of the 4,603 pilots, none fit the average on all ten.

So he picked just three dimensions, and only 3.5 per cent fit the average.

He proved there was no such thing as the ‘average pilot’. And the industry threw out the assumption that had guided cockpit design for 30 years.

Air forces asked aircraft manufacturers to design to the edges, not the centre. The manufacturers said it was impossible, but when the air forces didn’t budge, manufacturers produced great ideas.

About  Anecdote International

Anecdote International is a global training and consulting company, specialising in utilising storytelling to bring humanity back to the workforce. Anecdote is now unique in having a global network of over 60 partners in 28 countries, with their learning programs translated into 11 languages, and customers who incorporate these programs into their leadership and sales enablement activities.

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