UX design is a team sport and is best played like one

West Bromwich Albion team photo in 1883

I’ll confess, I never really wanted to be a UX designer. If you’d have asked me in my ill-fitting school uniform (is there any other kind?) what I wanted to be when I grow up, I certainly wouldn’t have said, “oh that’s easy, helping to improve the user experience of digital products and services”. Like a lot of UX professionals I’ve kind of fallen in to the profession and that’s ok, it’s been a nice cushioned fall, but it’s not what I’ve always dreamed of doing. I love my job (well most days), I love my profession and I love the UX community, but my first love was, and always will always be sport (unless my wife is reading this, in which case it’s obviously you darling).

I love all sport. I love playing sport, I love watching sport and I love talking about sport. I’m the kind of guy that starts reading the newspaper back to front, starting with the sports section at the back and then moving on to the boring ‘proper news’ at the front. When I was growing up all that I wanted to do was play sport, and all I wanted to be when I did grow up was a professional sportsman. Not for the money, or the fame, or the glory (although I wouldn’t say no to any of those), but because I absolutely bloody love playing sports. I can think of nothing better than to get paid for doing something that you’d willing do for free. How many of us can say that about our job?

Sadly whilst my sporting passion and enthusiasm weren’t lacking, my talent certainly was and being picked as captain of the school football team (or soccer team to any American readers) and winning the player of the year award for my Sunday league football team still remain as the high points of my less than illustrious sporting career. Happily a childhood playing sport has not been for nothing because as it turns out it’s provided a great apprenticeship for my eventual career as a UX designer. You see like football, basketball, hockey, rugby, baseball, netball, cricket, ice hockey and countless other sports, UX design is at its heart a team sport. Sure the rules are somewhat different and you don’t get to wear a snazzy team kit (nothing stopping you though), but it’s a team sport none the less and as such is best played like one. Let me explain.

To help me do this I’m going to talk about football, well Association Football to be more precise (as opposed to that young American Football upstart). As you probably know a football team is made up of a group of players with specific roles for their team. There’s the goalkeeper, whose role it is to stop the opposition from scoring goals. There are the strikers whose role it is to score and create goals and so on. Each player has a specific role to play, and by playing together the team can hopefully score more goals than the opposition and thus win games. The problem is that like all team sports, football is both an individual and a team game and there are always individuals that think that they can single handily win games. When they do we call these players ‘match winners’. When they don’t (and this is most of the time) we call these players ball-hogs.

If you’ve ever played football before then I’m sure that you’ll be familiar with the lesser spotted ball-hog. Every school yard and park kickabout has at least one. A player that just wants to keep the ball for himself. A player that rarely if ever passes to their teammates. A player that will shoot for goal rather than pass to a teammate in a better position and will always demand the ball, even when surrounded by opposition players. Well I’m sorry to say that a lot of UX designers are ball-hogs. It’s true. We (and I’m as guilty as anyone) have a terrible tendency to hog the proverbial ‘UX design’ ball. We want to keep hold of the ball and never let it go. We want to wield absolute authority over every aspect of our precious design. No, you can’t do that because I don’t like it. Yes, it has to look exactly like the mock-up. What do you mean it’s going to be a nightmare to build it like that.

As anyone who has played with a ball-hog will know, it’s infuriating and unless the ball-hog happens to be (match winner) Diego Maradona it’s certainly not the best tactic for the team. No matter how good one player is, they’re not as good as the collective efforts of the team. Hogging the ‘UX design’ ball is not only going to lead to a suboptimal UX design, but it’s also demoralising for the rest of the team, who are no longer able to feed into the design. Dictating every aspect of a UX design also potentially creates a significant bottleneck. If every every move, every passage of play has to go through the ball-hog, then you’re in for one long and painful UX design process.

You see it’s important to remember that whilst each player in a football team has their specific role, they’re not just constrained to that role. Every player can and most definitely should contribute above and beyond their role to help the team. Defenders should not only defend but also attack and even score the odd goal or two. Strikers should not only score and create goals, but also defend (unless they’re Cristiano Ronaldo). Even goalkeepers have been known to score the odd goal now and then (Rogério Ceni has scored a mind boggling 131 from free kicks and penalties). This is not to say that players shouldn’t adhere to their role but if one player always has to dictate the play always has to get involved, always has to score the goals (getting back to Cristiano Ronaldo again) then the rest of the team can’t get involved and it’s the team, and ultimately the end result that’s going to suffer.

Cristiano Ronaldo during a friendly game against Peñarol

Don’t be a ball-hog like Cristiano Ronaldo (at least in his early days)

So don’t be a UX design ball-hog. Play nicely with your team mates and remember that no one player is bigger than the team. As the baseball legend Babe Ruth once said:

“The way a team plays as a whole determines its success. You may have the greatest bunch of individual stars in the world, but if they don’t play together, the club won’t be worth a dime.”

Image credits

West Bromwich Albion team photo in 1883
Ronaldo during a friendly game against Peñarol