Yesterday, I went to a chiropractor for the first time. When she twisted her own spine to show me the ways in which I am out of alignment, I saw the way I sit when I write in longhand. And I thought about Dr. Ralph Stanley.
The first time I saw Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys perform live was in New York City in, I think, 2000 or early 2001. And when he first came on stage, I couldn’t stop thinking about how off-kilter he looked. You can see it yourself in some photos, though they usually stage him so you can’t. His right shoulder is higher and broader than his left.
Then after the first song, he strapped on his banjo. And he was perfectly aligned.
Ralph Stanley aged around his instrument. He has played so long that his whole body has been reshaped to maximize its utility as a clawhammer banjo playing tool. It’s an extraordinary thing to see, and sort of an inspiring one.
It’s also, as my chiropractic appointment suggests, something of a cautionary tale. Now, I’m not going to compare myself to the great Ralph Stanley. But I do think of him as what I call, in my design research work, an “advanced outlier” - someone who shows us a behavior, or a solution, in its most extreme case.*
What Ralph Stanley reminds us is that physical products will have physical effects. Whether it’s exhaustion caused by non-ergonomic tools, or just the strengthening of some muscles rather than others, when we make things in the world, they become written on the body. We can’t always expect it - no one who makes a spiral-bound notebook expects that a kid is going to curl up around it as she writes, and keep writing that way long into adulthood. But in a product design practice, it’s always worth thinking about repetitive actions, repetitive stressors, and what can and can’t be mitigated as we go. Someone who plays the banjo as long and as much as Ralph Stanley has will be quite literally formed by the experience. What forms, in smaller ways, are you imposing on your product’s users?
*Eric von Hippel has talked about “lead users” and “advanced analogues” in his fantastic Democratizing Innovation, which is a similar idea as well.