For Whom the Bell Curves...

Notes from a talk at World IA Day.

Topics: The End of Average, Scale, system boundaries, dimensional reduction, machine learning.

In the late 1940’s, the Air Force was trying to figure out why their jets were crashing. The technology worked in the lab, but it failed at scale. After eliminating every other possibility, engineers turned their attention to the cockpit.

“Back in 1926, when the army was designing its first-ever cockpit, engineers had measured the physical dimensions of hundreds of male pilots… For the next three decades, the size and shape of the seat, the distance to the pedals and stick, the height of the windshield, even the shape of the flight helmets were all built to conform to the average dimensions of a 1926 pilot.”

When scientists revisited those numbers from 1926, they discovered that none of the 4,063 pilots measured fell within the average range of all ten dimensions. Upon learning this, the air force did something really cool:

“By discarding the average as their reference standard, the air force initiated a quantum leap in its design philosophy, centered on a new guiding principle: individual fit. Rather than fitting the individual to the system, the military began fitting the system to the individual. In short order, the air force demanded that all cockpits needed to fit pilots whose measurements fell within the 5 percent to 95 percent range on each dimension.”
“When airplane manufacturers first heard this new mandate, they balked, insisting it would be too expensive and take years to solve the relevant engineering problems. But the military refused to budge, and then — to everyone’s surprise — aeronautical engineers rather quickly came up with solutions that were both cheap and easy to implement. They designed adjustable seats, technology now standard in all automobiles.”

By designing for everyone, the cockpit fit no one. The air force realized this and unwittingly created a paradigm shift in design thinking.

Instead of fitting the individual to the system, the system should fit the individual.

Alan Laidlawgeneral assembly