Performance by the aggregation of marginal gains, What we can learn from sporting superstars

User experience; Big air and big ideas, by David Hunt

The Sochi Winter Olympics has been quite a spectacle. Putting aside the politics and the controversy, it has been a truly awe-inspiring sporting display. Like most people, I’ve been absolutely gripped by it and spent Sunday evening ‘casually’ browsing flight prices to Val d’Isère, considering the possibility of a break with my board.

Whilst competing at the games in 2018 might be little more than a pipe dream, I take inspiration from the parallels between the methods of these winter superstars and our practices at HAVAS LYNX. Our game might be user-centred design, but the outcome we aspire to isn’t so far from that of the athletes in Sochi. Like a boarder dropping into a half-pipe or a sled driver ripping round the bobsleigh track, our work can help those that we engage with feel connected and even inspired. The build up to such a major championships requires meticulous preparation. Identifying and addressing potential areas of improvement is a rigorous science. Data from practice runs and previous events is analysed, examining everything from split times to a rider’s claim that ‘it just doesn’t feel right’. Both data types are equally as valuable in UX; a qualitative insight such as a patient interview can reveal as much as reams of quantitative data.

Whatever it’s form, this data is then collated and evaluated into concise insights; problems that need solving. Then the exciting part – solving these problems. The science of hypothesis and analysis is worthless if you cannot couple it with the creativity. However meticulous, your research will only highlight the problems, not solve them. How many times have you heard a sports commentator exclaim ‘that came out of nowhere’ in response to a moment of sheer brilliance from an athlete? Free-style skiing is one of the most exciting sports I’ve watched in my life. I can’t help but marvel at the way GB star James Woods and his contemporaries constantly push the boundaries of their sport, inventing new tricks and putting together more imaginative and exciting runs. Working in healthcare, our work has the potential to dramatically transform outcomes, but only if we show the same ambitious zeal as the likes of ‘Woodsy’ and co. For our work to be successful it must inspire, challenge and connect. Invoking such responses is not a matter of routinely following a checklist.

A new idea in its raw form is great, but the job’s a long way from finished. These sparks of inspiration need to be fed back into the UX process to be honed and refined. Bobsleigh’s are tested for aero-dynamics in wind-tunnels, reviewed over hundreds of test runs as the team of engineers tweak and improve the design. We must be as meticulous and focused in our testing; products and services must be tested for what matters and by who they matter to. A small, focus group can be just as effective as mass-testing if well-selected.

New ideas are great, but innovation isn’t only a matter of the new. It can be the mastering of something old, something that’s done before, and improving it. Dave Brailsford’s troop of British cyclists were unstoppable at the summer Olympics of 2012. During the games there was a brief controversy surrounding the wheels the GB team was using, as if instilled in these wheels was a black magic giving them an advantage. Was their success really due to having an ace up their sleeve that no one else had? Could one single product, EPO a side, turn a whole team of men and women into winners? I don’t think so. Brailsford (Performance Director of British cycling) says their improved performance was down to ‘the aggregation of marginal gains’.

There wasn’t a single item or process that gave the GB team the advantage over their competitors, they were just doing a lot of little things a little bit better. The cumulative effect of all these things was what made such a resounding difference; those one percents added up. It’s the same in user experience design.

‘It means taking the 1% from everything you do; finding a 1% margin for improvement in everything’

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