Oct 7, 2009

Dan Formosa, Designing for Humans: The Average American

Entry #2

The Average American is female. When I’ve mentioned this to groups of females in the US, they applaud – women as majority. When I mention this to males in the US, they also applaud – under the misconception, I suppose, that their odds of getting a date have suddenly increased. The fact that the average American is female seems to be a win-win statistic – something in it for everybody.

In more detail, she is 36.6 years old, is 5 feet 4 inches tall, weighs 163 pounds, watches 4 hours of television a day, owns a bible and drinks 50 cans of soda a month. She believes in both god and the devil. While the description goes on, what is most surprising is that I have lived in the US all my life, and the description of the average American is nothing like anyone I have ever met.

Yet marketing seems to thrive on such information (why else would the Average American command so much attention?). As designers, this single homogenized person hardly provides us with any information at all. Our goal is not to accommodate the average person, but to cover the spectrum. Describing the average American doesn’t result in an understanding of the range of people for which we need to design.

I’ve got lots more I can say about that. Actually, there are a number of ways I can go at this point to continue this blog. Let’s focus first on a related, widespread and very basic problem, and save the “average” thing for later.

If females are a majority, why are they treated as a niche market in so many product categories?  How did Dell Computer come up with their (short-lived) Della site? Why do so many females avoid entering consumer electronics stores such as Best Buy like the plague? Is changing the color on a cell phone the best solution we can come up with – it’s pink, so we now understand females?

How about sports equipment? Females physically develop differently (no surprise) than males. One difference: in anticipation of childbirth, females hips widen during their teen years. This widening changes the angle at the knee formed by their upper and lower leg (known as the Q-angle). This change puts stress on their ACL (anterior cruciate ligament). A common sports injury, female athletes have approximately 8 times as many ACL tears as male athletes. Yet soccer shoe cleats are the same for both genders, and snow-ski binding settings rarely take gender into account.

Shopping habits differ greatly among the sexes – females can be a more demanding audience. Our research confirms that males tend to shop for themselves, a bit caveman-like – “me, big-screen-TV, kill”. Females tend to consider not just themselves, but their spouse, children, extended family and friends. Also, unlike males, females tend to be busy or interested in things other than electronic gizmos, with therefore little time or tolerance for clunky or non-intuitive interfaces.

The reactions we see, from male (and sometimes female) designers is “does that mean we have to dumb it down for females”. No! The exact opposite. You need to smarten it up. There is tremendous opportunity, globally, to break away from male-established paradigms present is all areas of design, and realize that females are the majority, not a niches market, and not simply smaller versions of men.


Daniel Formosa, Ph.D., is a consultant in product design and research, and Dan a founding member of Smart Design in New York City. Dan was a member of the design team that developed IBM’s first personal computer, OXO Good Grips kitchen tools and XM Satellite Radio, and has recently worked with Ford to develop SmartGauge, an instrument cluster for Ford’s 2010 hybrid cars designed to influence driving behavior and save fuel – an innovation for the auto industry.

In addition to his design work he lectures worldwide on the physical, social and emotional aspects of design and innovation. Dan also recently co-authored and illustrated the book Baseball Field Guide, employing principles of information designed to explain the intricate, vague and confusing rules of Major League Baseball.

Click here to read his previous Designing for Humans posting.

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