How watching the Tour de France can make you better at UX

Image for post
Image for post

The Football Word Cup is the most watched sporting event in the world. Next is the Olympic games. What do you think is the third most watched sporting event in the world? Wimbledon? Nope. The Superbowl? Nope. The Champions League? Not even close. Given the title of this article, I suspect you’ve already worked it out by now. The third most watched sporting event in the world is none other than the biggest, and most prestigious bike race in the world — The Tour de France.

A staggering 10 to 12 million people watch the Tour de France by the side of the road (it helps of course that it’s free to watch a road cycling race) and millions more tune in to watch on TV. I’m one of them, having passionately followed le Tour (as aficionados call it) for over 20 years — from the lows of the Festina drugs scandal in 1998, and the later Armstrong EPO-fuelled years of domination, to the recent highs of seeing Chris Froome secure his forth Tour de France title.

I’m fascinated by professional cycling. Stripped down bike racing is simple — Get from A to B quicker than anyone else. But once you dig under the surface, boy is it a complex and fascinating sport, full of tactics, nuances and surprisingly learning that can be applied to UX. Don’t believe me? Well here are 10 surprising lessons I’ve picked up from watching the Tour de France, that I believe are equally applicable to the world of UX.

1. Great pros have served their apprenticeship

Having ‘good legs’ is obviously not important when it comes to UX, but serving your apprenticeship as a junior certainly is. I’ve previously discussed what makes for a good UX designer, and whilst technical ability is obviously very important, be it interaction design skills or prototyping skills, there’s no short cut when it comes to building the all important experience and know how necessary to be a great UX pro. Like the cycling ‘Neo pros’ it’s important that if you’re a relatively new UX professionals you serve their apprenticeship. Get exposure to lots of different aspects of UX, and learn as much as they can from more experienced pros.

2. Great pros have a T-shaped skill set

I’ve spoken before about how great UXers should also have a T-shaped skill set. They should be a bit of a jack of all UX trades, and a master in some of those. This is becoming especially important as UX is becoming more and more specialised. It’s important to build a broad UX skill-set, to get a bit of exposure to user research, UX design, mobile design, service design and so on. Having build this strong foundation of UX knowledge you can then decide on what sort of a UXer you want to be. Do you want to specialise in user research? Perhaps mobile design or more strategic service design? Perhaps you want to become a ‘Rouleur’ UX generalist? Like a pro cyclist you should work to your strengths, and find the kind of UX role where you’ll be able to excel.

Image for post
Image for post
The green, yellow and polka dot jerseys at the Tour de France

3. Great pros are great teammates

You can’t win the Tour de France on your own and the same is true of delivering great user experiences. I’ve written before about how UX design is a team sport because design is a collective and collaborative endeavour. Design simply can’t function in a vacuum and everyone should be able to contribute to the design process. Just as Chris Froome couldn’t have won this year’s Tour without the help of his Team Sky teammates, you can’t deliver a fantastic user experience without the help of engineers, product managers, researchers, designers, developers, testers, and all the other people that make up a typical project team.

4. Great pros continually hone their skills

Likewise you should continually work on your UX skills, especially your weak areas. Presentations skills, visual design skills, prototyping skills, research skills, all the things you need to be a great UX pro.

5. Great pros have a plan, but are prepared to change it

Having a plan, but being prepared to change it is also a key lesson for UX pros. When you come to a project you should have a clear UX plan of action, even if that plan hasn’t necessarily been formally documented. For example, how will you ensure that a user-centred design approach is being taken? What UX activities are you planning to undertake? How will user feedback be incorporated into a design? As a project progresses periodically take a step back and evaluate the plan. Does it still make sense? Should you change your plan based on changes to the project, or perhaps a change in the ways of working? Plans need to be fluid and changeable, but don’t use that as an excuse for not having a plan in the first place.

6. Great pros look for marginal gains

“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

Marginal gains make a huge amount of sense in a professional sport such as road cycling, where any advantage that can be gained over a rival can be the difference between winning and losing. The stakes are not perhaps quite as high when it comes to the sorts of projects that you probably work on, but the power of marginal gains is equally applicable. Consider all the small 1% improvements that you could make to the user’s experience, and start to identify possible marginal gains. You can find out more about identifying, applying and tracking marginal gains in my article titled, The aggregation of marginal gains and what you can learn from Team Sky.

7. Great pros employ the latest technology

You should also be looking to employ the latest technology to enhance your work. Sure, don’t use new technology for the sake of it, but continually be on the look out for new tools, and new technology that might assist you. For example, apps such as Mocking Pad and SketchPad that allow you to quickly create wireframes on a tablet; collaboration tools, such as Slack; online prototyping tools that are purpose built for real time collaboration, such as Figma; and the latest prototyping tools, such as Adobe XD. Try out new tools and technology and if they aren’t more effective, you can always go back to what has worked for you in the past.

Image for post
Image for post
Riders like Bradley Wiggins always utilise the latest technology

8. Great pros keep a progress diary

Keeping a detailed diary of your work and progress isn’t just an important habit for pro cyclists, it’s an important one for UX pros as well. By keeping a log of your UX work and activities (and yes, this means more than just filling out timesheets) you can make it much easier to put together case studies and that all important portfolio that you’ll no doubt need when applying for new roles. It’s also extremely useful for tracking your progress against long term goals. Make sure that you keep track of all your design assets, UX activities and try to take photos where ever possible, such as during workshops. You can find out more about putting together great UX case studies by reading my article titled, How to bring your UX work to life with compelling case studies.

9. Great pros define their long term goals & tirelessly work towards them

  1. Place well for experience in the 1978 junior world championships
  2. Win the 1979 junior world championships
  3. Win the 1980 Olympic road race in Moscow
  4. Win the world professional championships by the age of 22 or 23
  5. Win a first Tour de France by the age of 24 or 25

Remarkably Le Mond went on to achieve most of his goals, winning the Junior world championships in 1979, the world championships at 22 and his first Tour de France at 25. Le Mond was of course a very talented rider, but he was also very driven, and by defining his goals, and then working tirelessly towards them, he managed to achieve the vast majority of them.

It’s a hugely useful exercise to define your short, medium and long term career goals, just as Greg Le Mond did. Think about where you want to be in 1, 2 and 5 years time. What sort of projects would you like to work on? What sort of UX skills and experience will you need to work on? By defining your goals you can start to plan out what you need to do in order to get to where you want to be.

10. Great pros enjoy what they do

Pro cyclists wouldn’t put themselves through that sort of pain and suffering if they didn’t love their job, and whilst the average UX role hopefully involves a good deal less pain and suffering (although I’ve experienced a few projects that might come close) a vital ingredient of being a UX professional is enjoying what you do. I’ll echo the sentiments of Mark Cavendish, ex-world champion, winner of 30 stages of the Tour de France and arguably the greatest sprinter of all time when he says:

Image for post
Image for post

If you like this article then please recommend and share it. You can find lots more articles like this on my blog: UX for the Masses

Image credits

Written by

Former techy turned UX Jedi. Checkout out my blog (UX for the Masses) for more about me.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store