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,


Dear Sugar, How do I Love Thee? Let Me Count the Ways.

They say we should never meet our heroes.

When we see our heroes for who they are, they mostly fail to live up to our expectations. They are, like us, flawed humans who make mistakes and fuck things up and hurt the people they love on accident or sometimes on purpose. They are, like us, people who say things they sometimes don’t mean and sometimes things they do mean, things they mean so much that it exposes a bone of truth so raw and ugly and scary that we wish we’d never said them in the first place. This beastly truth should make them less eternal, less ideal, less honorable, less heroic.

But what if it doesn’t? And what if our heroes present themselves from the beginning as so human that we can’t even construct that illusion around them? What if they’re so painfully honest that we can’t pretend?

About a year and a half ago, I happened across an article posted online by an acquaintance called “DEAR SUGAR, The Rumpus Advice Column #64: Tiny Beautiful Things.” It is a letter to the author’s self in her early twenties, prompted by a reader, and it is powerfully written, specific and moving. Please don’t trust me on this, go read it yourself. You won’t regret it.

“#64: Tiny Beautiful Things” has been a defining article, a crucial set of rules, an unofficial manifesto in which all the details don’t apply to me but the core values do. Sugar wrote anonymous, beautiful and wretchedly truthful articles. She wrote about death and love and fear and sex, about writing and courage and and the people who we become when we think no one else is paying attention. She wrote about trusting yourself. About living out what you already know to be true, that “you must trust your truest truth, even though there are other truths running alongside it.”*

Dear Sugar provided me with answers for questions that hadn’t even formed yet; questions I still haven’t parsed. Something about that article in particular pulled a thread out from inside me, started an unraveling, an emotional and lovely and terrifying thing.

To herself and to her readers, Sugar said, “You are not a terrible person for wanting to break up with someone you love. You don’t need a reason to leave. Wanting to leave is enough. Leaving doesn’t mean you’re incapable of real love or that you’ll never love anyone else again. It doesn’t mean you’re morally bankrupt or psychologically demented or a nymphomaniac. It means you wish to change the terms of one particular relationship. That’s all. Be brave enough to break your own heart.”

I read this before I knew my partner would break up with me. I was someone he loved; he was, in this moment, simply someone who wanted to change the terms of this one particular relationship. I thought about this as I processed it; as I processed my own advice to friends who were also considering leaving their partners and I told them, “be brave enough to break your own heart,” and I meant it. And then all of a sudden I was on the other end of it. With the clarity of eight months’ time now since the breakup, I can tell you that this paragraph gave me something. It didn’t make me understand my own situation more than I already did, but it gave me something to hold on to, another truth to face, another thread to pull. That perspective made things more bearable. “You are not a terrible person.” Like I was saying it directly to him.

In February this year, Dear Sugar came out as Cheryl Strayed, an author I’d never heard of. Part of me was terrified to find out who she was, because being a real person with a real name and a real face would ruin the Sugar mystique. Part of me really wanted to know, because I wanted to gorge myself on her work, to devour every word she had written. In April I read her novel, Torch, a piece of autobiographical fiction about cancer, about her mother’s death. In May I read Wild, her memoir about hiking the Pacific Crest Trail a few years after her mother had died and her marriage had fallen apart at her own hands. I looked up every essay I could find online, and I read them all. In July, Tiny Beautiful Things came out as a collection, a physical book I could hold in my hands, a bound volume of Sugar.

And last night, she came to speak at Amsterdam Bar in St. Paul. I requested the night off from work months ago, because I needed to be there, to see her, to hear what her real voice sounded like and the cadence with which she read her own words. It was so odd, in the beginning, the mix of feeling this real devotion to a stranger who wasn’t a stranger, the din of bar patrons chatting, the weird desperation we feel when we want a drink from the waitress and can’t get her attention. The dizziness, the red wine warmth and fuzziness of the whole situation, the odd lighting and bad sound. It felt like swimming, or like it wasn’t real. They say we should never meet our heroes.

The discussion moderator said something important. He said to her, “You make me want to be a better person. You make me feel like it’s okay that I’m not.” I agree with him.

It was intense, sharing the experience with all these other people, people who said “awww” in all the right places, as a chorus of emotional voyeurs. It was a stark difference between that and when Sugar was anonymous and I had this private relationship with her, reading at my laptop, connecting with her veiled but very naked and vulnerable self. And I felt like no one was looking. Like I shared something with her that no one else knew about.

Part of me wonders if Sugar can ever come back, now that she’s been unveiled, identified. Someone at the reading last night asked this, and Strayed said yes, she can and she will. She told us that she always wrote with the knowledge that she would one day put her name on Sugar’s words, that being Cheryl was not any different from being Sugar. “I was never anonymous to myself,” she said.

The last thing she said while onstage was about the importance of finding solace in the wilderness—whether that wilderness is the PCT or the banks of the Mississippi River. She is right.

And for me, that also extends to the wilderness of the unknown territory of yourself. It felt like she was saying to me, you must find solace in the trees and roots and shadows and animal noises and the sweet and rotting and bodyish smells of your own unknown forest. She once wrote, “walk without a stick into the darkest woods.”**

And here I am. I’m standing at the edge of the forest. I’m leaving my stick behind, but I am bringing a book.
Walk with me?

Andrea, me, and Cheryl Strayed with Tiny Beautiful Things at the Amsterdam Bar, 10-16-12


** source

Open Book: on writing, on classes, on not-travel.

I took a writing class at The Loft in the Open Book building in Minneapolis, ascetic but warm and inviting. There are classrooms and workshops, huge heavy printing presses and stacks and stacks of art books that seep simple beauty.

One of the things I’ve been struggling with lately is finding my writing voice as a person who lives in one place and goes to a normal job—at least for the time being—if I don’t travel, what will I write about? If I don’t write, where can I go? Am I writing for myself or for other people? I’m perfectly aware that many great writers are not constantly deluged with stimuli the way you are when traveling; that a good writer can take a very ordinary thing and make it compelling. Traveling made writing easy for me because I just had to write what was immediately in front of me and there was always something new and lots of things that weren’t ordinary at all. I suppose my challenge now is to find a way to write about things that are not that.

It is starting to become more real to me that I am not leaving for Antarctica this year. As my friends and colleagues scramble to get their contracts, to pack their lives into boxes to place in storage, to fill their suitcases with belongings they need for many months away from home, to get their medical screenings taken care of, I am very aware of things settling down in my life, not winding up. For the past two years the end of summer was the end of my time in Minnesota, and the beginning of a huge trip with long plane rides and new cities and cold, breathtaking arrivals heavy with meaning. Even though I know it’s the right decision to stay home, and even if only for a few seasons, it still hurts to remove myself from the velocity of that lifestyle.

And I have to think harder about what to write.

I always enjoyed school and I like taking classes like this one at The Loft because it helps me to hear other peoples’ takes on similar assignments. I like hearing other people read the same poem I just read, but in a different voice, because it helps me pull back from my own myopic interpretation of its words. I like being immersed in the output of others because it makes me think harder about what I produce, and because for me creativity begets creativity. The more I read and look at art and listen to music and watch performances, the more excited I get to write, to make, to dance.