What can Startups and Corporates learn from an obscure 1950 research study on the bodies of 4,063 Air Force personnel?

A lot of companies say they put their customers at the heart of everything they do.

These are the people who they design their products and services for.

The customer is always right …(?)

And yet, usually they don’t actually know who their customers are.

As companies grow and become more efficient at collecting and analysing customer data, the tendency is that they want to understand the characteristics of their customers.

And the most common way of doing this which I have come across is to begin calculating averages.

You will see statistics like.

Our average customer is a male Procurement Manager at a Medium-Sized Enterprise with 1000-5000 staff, is 56 years old, has a salary of $98,000 and spends $26,783 on our services annually.

I’m amazed that they don’t highlight the fact that this person’s favourite colour is orange and his favourite music is 1980s Rock.

Alternatively, many Startups, Marketing and Design Thinking Agencies also use a tool to imagine their potential average customer, usually called a Customer Avatar or Customer Persona.

They will discuss (invent) the characteristics of their ideal customer(s), what their pain points and desires are, and how the company’s product could serve them.

So you might end up with an Avatar for:

Name: Average Annie
Gender: Female
Age: 27
Occupation: Social Media Manager
Marital Status: Unmarried but in a relationship
Goals: Increasing traffic to website from social, Media activity driven by campaigns, Increasing Follower count
Challenges: Demonstrating ROI on Social Media content strategy, Producing new content for a slow-moving industry
Pain points: Fear of decrease in organic reach to followers, Amount of time to get approval for new campaign
Other made up Characteristics: Dreams of owning a mini-pig, Is vegan on Tuesdays

In both cases, these small and large companies may think that they now better understand their typical customer, and can design solutions and new innovations accordingly.

There is however a major problem.

There is no such thing as an average person, let alone an average customer.

I’ll let Matt Parker explain in the video below, with the fascinating story of how Gilbert Daniels was tasked with finding the physical measurements of the average man in the US Air Force in 1950.

Trying to measure the average man

In the 1940s, the US had begun changing the design of its airplanes. Whereas previously they had been large and roomy, they were now becoming smaller, tighter and faster, which necessitated pilots’ uniforms to be almost skin tight.

So in order to ensure the design and procurement of the appropriately sized uniforms, the Air Force looked to Gilbert Daniels to measure 132 body measurements of 4,063 Air Force personnel. This should be a large enough sample size so that the averages would be highly accurate, and the uniforms based on this average should fit most people.

However, what Daniels had suggested would happen, and which turned out to be true, was that once you began looking for people who had the average measurements of multiple characteristics (such as in the case of his study: height, waistline, arm length and [ahem] nipple height), there were no actual people who had all of those characteristics.

In other words, if you were to design a uniform from the average measurements of all of these 4,000+ men, it would not actually perfectly fit a single one of them.

In fact, in his summary of the research, presented to the Air Force, he showed that starting with the full list of 4,063 personnel, after trying to find men who were the average for only 9 characteristics (out of 132 measured), only 2 men fit the bill.

Adding one more characteristic, so 10 in total, and not a single man was “average”.

What this means for developing for customers

What did the Air Force do with this insight?

They actually changed their procurement program away from specific averages to fit perfectly, and instead embraced the variety of their people’s measurements by making most of the aspects of the uniform adjustable, such as being able to tighten or shorten parts of with straps. This way, every pilot could get a version that fit them perfectly.

So it’s impossible to find your average customer. In reality, it would not be a real person who actually exists.

If your average customers’ income is $50,000, then that could mean you have two customers with incomes of $45,000 and $55,000 (very similar), or $10,000 and $90,000 (very different). In the first case, a product that appeals to one might also appeal to the other, whereas in the second situation their tastes are likely to be extremely different.

And designing innovations to meet the specific average needs would end up ignoring the actual challenges and desires of people slightly further away from the average.

Even worse are Customer Avatars and Personas.

I see these being used a lot in workshops, because apparently it provides an opportunity to think of what a customer would want.

Unfortunately, because in almost all cases these customers are made up, they are more like ideal customers instead of average representations of real people.

You will never meet a person who is actually your ideal customer.

Everyone has their own needs, challenges and characteristics, so stop making up fake people because it is easier, and go out and begin speaking to real people.

I actually advise against creating avatars, precisely because speaking to real people is the only way to understand their unique situations, rather than assume they will all act, think and react in the same way.

The same goes with designing products and services.

Make them adjustable and flexible enough so that different people can use them and see their value based on their own unique characteristics.

That way, your average customer will be satisfied, because all your customers will be satisfied.


Did you know that scientific evidence shows your creativity decreases over time

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Creativity & Innovation expert: I help individuals and companies build their creativity and innovation capabilities, so you can develop the next breakthrough idea which customers love. Chief Editor of Ideatovalue.com and Founder / CEO of Improvides Innovation Consulting. Coach / Speaker / Author / TEDx Speaker / Voted as one of the most influential innovation bloggers.