Rach, Shaq and Two Design Problems

Rachmaninoff and Shaquille O'Neal's exploits teach us two really important lessons in the design world, and today, we explore them.

Rach, Shaq and Two Design Problems

Article by : Prabhat. It would make them very happy if you figured out the movie reference in the title of this article.

Let's set a bit of context. Sergei Rachmaninoff is one of the greatest pianists of all time. Quoting from Wikipedia "he was a Russian-American composer, virtuoso pianist, and conductor. Rachmaninoff is widely considered one of the finest pianists of his day and, as a composer, one of the last great representatives of Romanticism in Russian classical music."

Now, Rachmaninoff is not exactly someone you would hear of as a beginner level pianist, and not someone you would hear a lot of in general. This is surprising, considering one would hear many more pieces by Liszt, often considered one of the greatest piano composers of all time, and known for conjuring some of the most nightmarish arrangements known to humankind. The issue being, while Liszt is hard, playing a piece by Rachmaninoff, is impossible - actually, physically, impossible.

The deal is, Rach had huge hands. Really, really huge hands.

Yes. Really huge hands. It's claimed that he could stretch across an octave and 4 notes - nearly 12 keys with his left hand. An average human could do well to reach an octave, while a trained pianist could normally do an octave and a few keys (I can do an octave and 2), but very rarely 4 - but those two extra keys change the tone of the music entirely.

What Rachmaninoff did, was single handedly (double handedly? cause, piano, two hands?) seal off music for more than half the world's population - a targeted elimination that was more thorough and brutal (ok, that's subjective) than any racial segregation throughout history.

Shaquille O'Neal is probably a bit more famous than Rachmaninoff. NBA star, and quite the television personality, he has made quite a name for himself owing to sheer skill and size. He does clock a good deal taller than the average in a league known for humans well above the average height, but in addition, his hand size, shoe size (23) and strength (capable of breaking backboards) have set him apart, and made him quite the fan favorite.

Backboard breaking was a hobby for Shaquille O'Neal

Shaquille O'Neal is probably most known for compilations of comparisons of him with normal sized objects - holding full sized plastic bottles with a couple of fingers, downing entire meals as though they were a snack and many many others. Simple put, you would not want a Shaq approved design for mass manufacturing.

Yep, big big hands

Rach and Shaq are the perfect examples of some of the biggest problems faced by teams while designing a product.

Rachmaninoff shows that you do not want your design team to consist of exceptional people (unless your product is designed for them of course). A pianist would rather take the years of practice to play a far harder piece by Liszt, than play an easier, yet physically impossible piece by Rachmaninoff.

To be entirely fair to Rachmaninoff, little did he know that people would be struggling to play his pieces almost a 100 years down the line. However, as someone designing a product meant to be used and manufactured on a large scale, you have to remember to design for the average person, and also in the average manufacturing setup. It's also a good reason why conventions exist. Assume you had a random piece of metal that you found to be the perfect size for, say, a crank, and used it to manufacture your own fancy line of hand-cranks -  the problem is not only that it is designed specifically for yourself, but also that the manufacturing can never be replicated by anyone in the world.

Meanwhile, Shaq is a good example of the requirement of flexibility in design, failure management and catering to sample populations. As mentioned, Shaq is a beast, and his capabilities brought about an entire redesign of standard backboards in the NBA, not something a lot of people would be capable of. However, basketball itself has a major flaw - heights are fixed. And let's face it, the taller you are, the better a chance you have at succeeding at basketball. The game is a whole lot easier for tall people, and in all fairness leads to much more exaggerated scores when it comes to professional games, which consist exclusively of people well above the international average.

So what do we learn from basketball? When an exceptional person is one of the most common users of your product, you better design it to suit them, or set in place a contingency for when they figure out a flaw. And when a large section of the world wants to use it -  it would be smart to allow for some flexibility in adjusting for large samples of the population.

Take for example a semi-professional basketball hoop - since it's designed for a large population, adjustability is important - being able to fix it at various heights. But you want to design it for the contingency that someone like Shaquille O'Neal could use it for a dunk.

On the other hand, a phone poses quite a different issue. It's not exactly mass manufacturable, but the fraction of people in the world with large enough hands to make 6.5 inch phone unusable, is quite small. Phone's are mass manufactured so you want to work towards your larger audience, but the design should hold up to the extremes.

The lessons are quite simple articulated - make sure your design team is not exceptional, or at least take into consideration inputs from an average person. And cater to the wider audience for usability, but always have a failsafe for an exceptional case.

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