The Fallacy of Average

The Fallacy of Average

Let’s begin with a question.

What is average?

Are you average? Do you live in an average house in an average city with an average spouse? Do you make an average salary and drive an average car and eat at average restaurants? 

What about your company? Is your company average? Are your employees average? What about your customers—are they average?

While you’re thinking about that, consider this.

A while back, Vanguard, the global investment management company with more than $7 trillion dollars in global assets under management, decided to overhaul its mobile app for personal investors.

From the onset of the project, according to the write up from Neilson Norman Group, the global leader in research-based user experience, Vanguard encountered a problem that is common for many digital product teams: the app had several diverse user groups with many different needs.

This meant that the company’s mobile-UX team had to prioritize its work to maximize user satisfaction while balancing conflicting needs and resource constraints.

In a perfect world, revamping a digital product like a mobile app would be fairly straightforward. You’d identify the target user group, get a quick handle on their needs, and then get to designing the UX and UI.

But in the imperfect world that we live in, that’s almost never the case. Regardless of what type of business you’re in or what type of app you’re trying to create, you’re often contending with the same challenges that Vanguard confronted: diverse user groups with many different needs.

What this means is that decisions have to be made early and emphatically about who gets what, and who who actually is.

People often think that coming up with an “average” list of needs or designing for the “average” person is the right path forward.

But this is a mistake.

Because there is no such thing as average.


In The End of Average, Todd Rose writes, “We must stop pretending that there is such a thing as an average person and start designing for the individual…When we design for average, we design for no one.”

What he means is that when you design for the average, then you design for just that— the average—meaning you aren’t designing for any one, actual person.

Like so many frameworks we come across in business, average is nice in theory but terrible in practice. (Also see: The problem with logic is it’s often not logical.)

When you design for the average, you’re designing something that will ultimately leave every single user unsatisfied in one way, and no one user satisfied in all (or most) ways. It’s much better to design (or write or build or create) for someone, and risk alienating some people, than to design (or write or build or create) for no one.

To put it succinctly, average is a fallacy.


The Vanguard solution

When Vanguard embarked upon its app-redesign project, they did what every good design team does and turned first to research, which was a combination of online surveys, analytics data, and qualitative usability testing.

The Vanguard team started with a true-intent survey that intercepted users interacting with Vanguard products and asked them questions about their motivations for visiting. One of them was this: Which of the following reasons have you had in mind when visiting a Vanguard digital experience?

The answers allowed the team to ultimately narrow down the high-level, top 10 most critical tasks that clients wanted, and that the new app had to support.

As NN/G reports, “Because of Vanguard’s historic affiliation with the long-term, buy-and-hold approach to investment, many of its clients follow that passive-investment philosophy. As a result, the top-task survey showed that most users were using the app to occasionally check the overall value of their investment balances, download tax documents, and contribute money to their investments.”

The point that I want to make here is that Vanguard did two things right away that are essential to any successful design project.

First, they identified who they were designing for. Vanguard’s mobile app targets its personal-investor audience, many of whom are passive investors, as opposed to financial intermediaries and institutional investors, who are served with other digital products and have different needs.

Second, they understood they couldn’t design the app to meet everyone’s needs, so they chose to focus on the common needs of passive investors first, and then design functionality for the less common active investors second.

They understood that they couldn’t come up with a persona for an “average” user or an “average” audience. Instead, they defined the audience and user right away (passive, novice, personal investors) and then designed the app around their top most-critical needs.

“A world designed for the average person is a world that is frustrating, unfulfilling, and ultimately unsustainable,” writes Rose.

He’s right, and it’s time to put the fallacy of average to rest for good.

None of us aspire to be average anyway. 

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