Design for average – why not?

At the 2014 Association of Canadian Ergonomists conference in Montreal, we presented a paper on design for average. Sometimes we do this….when you install a counter in your kitchen, or buy a “one-size-fits-all” hand tool, you’re probably considering an “average” user. Usually, this works just fine for most people. But occasionally, the “design-for-average” decision can have some significant consequences.

Let’s consider the concept of “average”. When you think of an “average adult”, how tall do you expect this person to be? In fact, average adult is somewhere around 5′ 7 1/2″ tall. (Give or take, depending on the reference you’re citing.) If you’re male, I’ll bet you’re thinking, “Gee, that seems a bit small.” (If you’re female, “…a bit tall.”) When we think of  “average,” most of us know how we compare with average for our own gender. At 5′ 3″, I know that I’m just a bit shorter than average (female). When designers think of “average” in the context of industry or manufacturing, I suspect they may be thinking about “average male”. An average adult is a relatively small male, or a relatively tall female, and, in fact, there are not a lot of people of this exact height. So if I design the height of a workstation for this person, it may feel a bit high for most females, and a bit low for most males.

The graphic above (sorry that I couldn’t get it to fill the space – the usability/ergonomics of our website design has a long way to go) shows an average male and an average female, working at a workstation that was designed for average adult. Notice how the male is bending slightly, and the female’s shoulder are slightly elevated? This effect is even more extreme when you consider taller males, and smaller females (about half the population). If the task is light and not prolonged, these postures won’t create an injury. Of course, this is not always the case!

Adjustability is the key, and we’re seeing more and more cost-effective, easy, and safe ways of integrating this feature into workstation design. If you’d like to learn more about designing appropriate working heights, please join us for our Ergo Design workshop on October 28th….we still have spaces available!

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