Data, Creativity, and Fighter Jets: A Tale Of Two Podcasts

I’m a big fan of podcasts—they are the only thing in life that makes sitting in traffic feel like a productive activity.

Neither of the episodes I’m about to discuss are ostensibly about UX—one is about business to business (B2B) marketing and one is about the weird science of averages pioneered by a Belgian astronomer in the 1820s. But they both apply to the practice of UX, albeit in very different ways.

Science and Storytelling

The first thing I did this morning (after coffee, obviously) was listen to a podcast from 8 Point Arc interviewing Bulldog Chief Creative Officer, Brian Maschler. It is about embracing how technology and data are becoming deeply embedded in the creative process. You can’t not embrace technology in creativity at this point—it has become a part of the creative tapestry. Surprise.

The interesting part is thinking about the alchemy of data and sophisticated technology, combined with the nonscientific/qualitative soft science of content and storytelling. People don’t connect with averages—they connect with values-based concepts and empathy for individuals.

Designing for a Smaller Universe

There’s this core concept in UX of taking the “you” out of the “user”—that is, finding who your user is and what their goals actually are, and then designing for that. The key to doing this successfully is 1) asking real people and 2) developing empathy for your user. Asking real people means that you are examining the edge cases and designing for universal usability—not just “sunny day” use cases. Maschler points out that we can’t create in the same way that Madison Avenue advertisers did, “using Nielsen ratings to sell shoes or chips to millions and millions of people.” Yep. So what can we do? How to you gain focus with a million different outliers? Storytelling is a big part of this, he argues—that is, creating a narrative that ignites the emotion of your audience. I agree.

I would also add that this applies to something like helping stakeholders make decisions—and it’s where storytelling deliverables like journey maps, storyboards and personas come in. They are formed by data but they are decidedly not the market-research average.

Backing Up Creativity with Data—To a Point

It’s true that it’s nearly impossible to design for every user in every use case, but designing for the mythical “average person” is the other end of the spectrum, and also not useful. Maschler talks about backing up creativity with data, which is a definitive concept in UX Design—but only, I will argue, to a point. When you design for the average person, you are designing for a set of data, not for actual people.

There’s a great episode of 99% Invisible that came to mind when I was listening to Maschler’s interview this morning. It’s all about the science of averages—and how designing for averages isn’t enough. Maschler said B2B companies are creating for a much more granular audience, a smaller universe. Data is really important, but designers are looking at much more distinctive behavior—the outliers from the average. The concept of the average was created in the 1830s by astronomers who were trying to get information from imprecise measurements.

You should definitely listen to the whole 99% Invisible episode here (it’s short, just do it). One of the most striking things in the episode is their example of fighter jets—and and one particularly badass pilot who is definitely not average sized.

During the Civil War in the 1860s, Abraham Lincoln, who was a big fan of the astronomer Adolphe Quetelet and his concept of averages, ordered a massive study on the averages of the Union Army. This led to measurements for food rations, weapons, and uniforms, as well as the subcategorization of averages (think Small, Medium, and Large). This was a fundamental design philosophy from the civil war forward. Many things you use on a daily basis are still informed by this data set.

Okay, But… Tell Me About the Fighter Jets.

By the 1920s, fighter jet cockpits were being created for the average (male) military member, based on old data—pilots were selected partially by how well they fit into the plane. When WWII happened, suddenly the military needed a lot more pilots, and quickly—except that pilots were dying. A lot. They were losing control of their planes constantly, even in training. In response, by 1950 the military decided to reexamine the cockpit and design for the “new average”—until one of the researchers had a hunch, followed it, and discovered that none of the 4,063 airmen surveyed came close to average in all the measurements. Zero of them.

A cockpit designed for the average pilot, it turns out, is literally designed to fit nobody.

So this is when adjustable seats (and foot pedals and helmet straps and flight suits) were invented. Adjustable everything is so much a part of the fabric of how we live now—cars, airplanes, clothing, digital design.

The podcast talks about this amazing story of a pilot who, in 2003, accomplished an unprecedented, should-have-been-impossible landing of a terribly damaged A10 fighter jet.

The pilot is is one of the best pilots in the world, but would never have flown if it weren’t for flexible design. Her name is Kim Campbell and she’s 5’4” and has to pull the seat all the way up and the pedals all the way forward. And she can land a super damaged war plane with no hydraulics, brakes , stabilization, or steering, thanks in part to flexible design.


Like I said earlier, UX frequently gets to focus on the edge cases—not the averages, but the people who fall outside the average. I’m not saying that being able to log in to your bank’s mobile app is the same as landing a broken airplane, but I am saying that flexibility in design is important, and that looking at individuals and outliers is incredibly valuable. From responsive layouts (for all different kinds of devices) to accessible design (for all kinds of users), the average just isn’t cutting it.

It applies to fighter jets, content strategy, and the design of useful & delightful digital products.

What are your favorite podcasts, UX or otherwise?


(Note: this article is cross-posted on my UX portfolio,