The aggregation of marginal gains and what you can learn from Team Sky

Team sky rider

What has washing your hands properly got to do with winning the Tour de France? Not much on the face of it, but ask Dave Brailsford (now Sir Dave Brailsford), general manager of Team Sky, one of the top professional cycling teams in the world and he will tell you. You see a sick cyclist is very unlikely to win the Tour de France, and a cyclist that washes their hands properly is less likely to get sick, so washing your hands properly is a micro step towards winning the Tour de France.

“The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together”
– Dave Brailsford

Tour de France peleton

Who knew that washing your hands properly could help to win the Tour de France?

How can we do this better?

The aggregation of marginal gains has led to Team Sky obsessively analysing everything that they do and asking a very important question, “How can we do this better?”. It’s a question that has led to hundreds, if not thousands of ‘marginal gains’ being made, from improvements to the riders bikes, to their training, the food they eat and even the bus they travel in (amusingly nicknamed the ‘Death Star’ because it’s black, enormous and possibly susceptible to ‘Force’ guided proton torpedoes).

Team sky bus

Team Sky’s ‘death star’ – just one of many marginal gains Team Sky have implemented

The aggregation of marginal gains is a principle that has undoubtedly been successful for Team Sky. It has led to countless race wins and top 3 placements and has helped the team to quickly reach the pinnacle of their sport (and no, I don’t subscribe to the idea that drugs have in anyway fuelled their success – Team Sky also have a very deep rooted anti-doping principle).

Applying the aggregation of marginal gains to UX

So what has a bunch of lycra clad cyclists and their ‘death star’ team bus got to do with UX? Well the aggregation of marginal gains is a principle that the UX industry and UX designers should also be embracing. The idea that you break down something and then seek to improve everything by 1%. That something could be the user experience of a product or service, a specific user journey or even a specific touch point or screen design. You see UX design all too often looks for the big impact changes, the killer feature, the big design change that will make a massive improvement to the user experience. But it’s usually through small step changes, through these 1% marginal gains that significant improvements are most effectively made. A 1% gain is usually obtainable, it’s usually feasible and it’s usually low risk. Get enough of them and all those ‘marginal gains’ soon add up to very significant gains.

Here’s a great exercise for you. Take a product or service that you want to improve and create a high level customer experience map (Adaptive Path have an excellent guide to customer experience mapping if this is something that you’re not familiar with). Then for each step of the customer’s journey ask yourself, or indeed your product team a very important question – “How can we improve the customer’s experience?”. Start to put together a list of marginal gains that you might implement and also outline how you are going to measure these improvements. After all, how will you know if gains have really been made if you can’t measure their impact? You can also do this for key pages and interactions. For example, what marginal gains can be made in relation to the homepage? What about the registration or the checkout process?

The aggregation of marginal gains is equally applicable to the UX design process. Here’s another great exercise to try out, this time ideally as a team. Find a white board (or large roll of paper) and a stack of Post-it notes and map out your UX design process. Map out all the steps that your team typically carry out and then breakdown each step into the activities that are undertaken, and the people that are involved. Then for each activity ask yourself, “How can we do this better?”. Look for marginal gains within your UX design process and try to implement them. Track the success of your changes (you do have KPIs for your UX design process don’t you?) and hopefully as your marginal gains add up you will not only see significant improvements to your designs, but also to your UX design process.

UX design process being mapped out on a white board

Why not map out your UX design process and look for margin gains?

Like all the best principles, the aggregation of marginal gains is really quite simple, but fantastically powerful once you start to put it into practice. It’s a principle that I’ve tried to follow in the work that I carry out and I implore you to do likewise. We can’t all be Tour de France winners (sadly I gave up that dream a long time ago!), but we can certainly all have Tour de France winning principles…

See also