What UX designers can learn from the soccer field

Uri Paz

Soccer strategy drawing on blackboard

Soccer strategy drawing on blackboard

About six months ago I attended the UX London 2019 Conference which was an interesting and inspiring event.

One of the most memorable lectures was by Jared Spool. In his lecture he talked – among other things – about how team sport thinking can improve design processes in organizations.

As a former professional soccer player in the youth soccer league, it inspired me to think about how my soccer background helped me when I started my way as a UX designer five years ago and still helps me to this day.

I want to share with you some of my insights.

Specialization vs. Versatility

“In my teams, the goalie is the first attacker, and the striker the first defender.” — Johan Cruyff

Although soccer is a team sport, each soccer player is an individual who influences team outcomes with his actions.

Each player should be an expert in his position, but also to be able to deal with the challenge to play in a different position, whether its a midfielder dropping into a defensive role or a winger being asked to fill in as a defender.

It’s better for soccer players to expand their identity and don’t limit themselves to just “I’m a striker” or “I’m a center-midfielder”. This means to keep an open mind and dare to define themselves differently. “I’m a striker and I can play center-midfield”. This way they will add more capabilities to their skill set.

In the UX field like in soccer the areas of responsibility boundaries are blurred and there are multiple overlaps between team positions.

As the UX field has grown, we’ve started to see sub-specialties reflecting the complexity and diversity of our industry like: UX designer, UX researcher, UX writer, UX Illustrator, UX prototyper and more.

The question whether you should be a specialist or a generalist in the UX field is common and there are many conflicting opinions.

Every design project brings new challenges. No two design processes can be the same and as UX designers we should have the ability to adjust. So, besides being able to be experts in some field, a vital personality trait for every designer is the ability to be versatile and have a wide range of skills like researching, defining strategy, analyzing data, coding, illustrating, writing, and more.

Of course, there is a lack of stability whenever we have to change the role from our usual one, it requires adjustment, but this is the reason why the UX field is so interesting and challenging.


“No individual can win a game by himself.” — Pele

The winning team is measured not by skills alone but by the way team members play together as one unit.

A good soccer team moves as a coordinated unit where each player has an understanding and expectation of where the other players will be. Players must support their teammates by joining them to attack, going back to defense or covering for a teammate who has left his position.

The key for a good team to become a better team is to maintain a habit of good communicating between the team players. A well-communicating team makes fewer errors, better passes and better prepared for different scenarios.

UX design just like soccer doesn’t happen in a vacuum and can’t be a one-man show! UX designers should be able to work as part of a collaborative, multidisciplinary team.

The product development core is based on collaboration between designers and many stakeholders: PMs, developers, content writers, QAs, BIs, BAs, marketers and more. The designers have to engage with each one of these stakeholders at different points of the design process. Therefore, we should think about how we can help our co-workers do their best work.

We should remember that each of the various stakeholders has an effect on the design so it is important to involve them during the design process.

As UX designers we have to try to avoid to work on our design without sharing. Instead of sit in front of the screen for too long, it’s better to present our design process with our teammates. Another person’s feedback may push our design in a completely different direction. A transparent design process will help us to justify decision making.

The habit of good communication of designers with the team members can maximize resources and minimize weaknesses.

We have to try to be selfless and understand that the stronger the team, the better the outcomes will be.

In order to become a mature UX designer, it is important to build a good relationship with the team members since without teamwork it’s hard to create and maintain a stable user experience.

Distribute your energy

“There is no need to run all the time. I know what to do and I wait for my moment.” — Lionel Messi

Long games, a large field, and a ball that moves all the time, amount into a serious long-distance run for soccer players (between 9–11 km per match).

Soccer players need to decide when to make an effort and when to spare strength, in other words when to run a sprint, when to run slow, when to walk and when to stand still. For soccer players, the ability to distribute their energy through the 90 minutes is crucial in order to be efficient.

Soccer players need to allow their bodies to recover before the next sprint, because if they don’t they get physically and mentally weak and become a liability on their team.

The mental capability is as important as the physical one. A tired player does silly mistakes or not smart fouls.

To maintain a successful pace requires consideration when to run forward to help the attack, when to run back to help the defense, when to open space for others and when to support another team player who is out of his position.

UX design, as well as soccer, is an intense work of research, planning, mediation, design, support and more. Therefore as UX designers, we have to know how to control our energy.

Most of the time we are working on a particular project or on several projects, but sometimes, unexpectedly, we might work on a high priority project with a stressed deadline and we have to invest a lot of effort.

If we don’t distribute our energy right between the tasks we might be worn out, tired, and make unnecessary mistakes.

We have to know how to prioritize our energy. If we work on several projects in parallel we have to decide what is the best way to distribute our time. Perhaps in order to preserve our energy we shouldn’t be involved in any other projects and attend unnecessary meetings.

Remember that recovery possibility is important and it will help us in the next tasks.

As UX designers, we have to remember to split our energy right between tasks and to know when to invest an extra effort and when — less.

Read the Game

“When you play a match, it is statistically proven that players actually have the ball 3 minutes on average… So, the most important thing is: what do you do during those 87 minutes when you do not have the ball. That is what determines whether you’re a good player or not.” — Johan Cruyff

A good soccer player has a game vision, which means the ability to scan the field and identify situations; as well as the ability to react in order to affect the gameplay.

The soccer field is around 100–110 meters long and 64–75 meters wide, the ball circumference is 68–70 cm, the field has a maximum of 22 players and one referee. A lot of soccer is where the ball isn’t. There is a lot of space to cover and not many players to fill it.

Unlike children’s soccer game where everyone runs after the ball and there is a huge mess, a critical part of being a professional soccer player is to know how to act when you don’t have the ball.

A soccer player should have an awareness of the area around him in order to create opportunities to score or minimize threats. They should anticipate the gameplay.

Soccer players have to be dynamic and make early decisions before they get the ball. Lack of awareness in such scenarios may cause players to be just an observer, in other words, to be static players. Good soccer players don’t pass and wait, they pass and move.

UX designers like soccer players have to be dynamic, to initiate the action by themselves and not to wait for others to address them and just then to act.

We have to react immediately to things that don’t go well, in addition to preventing bad things from starting, before someone else asks us. We have many tools to anticipate scenarios like getting feedback on a regular basis and being aware of what happens around us at the office.

Large organizations have a lot of projects happening at the same time. We have to try to keep track of what’s going on around us by keeping in touch with people from other departments. Therefore, if, for example, during an interview with users, they give us feedback about a gap that exists in the product which is not under our domain we will be able to give them a response and also to update the relevant people.

By being aware of the big picture, we can initiate, prevent bad things from starting, and create opportunities for our peers by letting them know about gaps, support them, and make them better.

Work hard, play hard

“Be honest about how you approach failure. Don’t just be critical of yourself, because that can be self-serving. Approach it honestly, assess your performance, and assess the areas where you have fallen short. Correct them and move on. Don’t dwell on it. Don’t hold on to it.” — Megan Rapinoe

A soccer player is required to keep fit, improve technique, practice game tactics and learn from mistakes through intensive training and progressive thinking.

Besides the personal responsibility of the player for self-development, it is also important to take part in a culture of learning in the team. According to Dr. Jeff Sutherland, there is a huge importance of encouraging team members to work together to narrow any knowledge or performance gaps by learning from each other.

UX design is also a field of continuous learning. We have the responsibility to study by ourselves and take part in the learning culture at the office.

Attention to learning keeps us sharp and in a growth mindset.

Besides wide field, there are also constant developments in our world of UX: like new programs, new methodologies and more. On top of that, we have to try to keep track of our projects and learn from them — what was successful and what didn’t work.

Indeed, the way designers grow is through constant learning, execution, getting feedback, problem tracking, and correction.

Dealing with constraints

“Don’t let small obstacles be in the way of being victorious. Remember you are stronger than the challenges you face.” — Cristiano Ronaldo

A soccer player has many constraints: opposing team players, conditions of the field and, of course, a deadline of 90 minutes.

Some people think that constraints mean they can’t be creative. However, Dr. Brent Rosso’s research came to the conclusion that people are more creative when they have constraints: “Teams experiencing the right kinds of constraints in the right environments, and which saw an opportunity in constraints, benefitted creatively from them. The results of this research challenge the assumption that constraints kill creativity, demonstrating instead that for teams able to accept and embrace them, there is freedom in constraint.”

Like soccer players, UX designers also have to think about constraints in a different way.

We have a lot of routine restrictions like aligning to design system, technological considerations, accessibility and, of course, our bitter relationship with a deadline (what seems like a simple screen changing can take a long time…).

The limitations like those I mentioned above force us to try to find shortcuts that can engage our brain network and could actually help us be more creative. Also, constraints make us more focused on a particular task.

Instead of feeling limited by constraints, think of how it can make you more creative.

In conclusion

In my opinion, UX designers will gain if they think like soccer players! As UX designers we cannot run in the same format all the time because there are too many conditions that affect us like during a soccer game.

We must be specialists and versatile, team players, stay dynamic, keep an open mind, and make changes according to the situation.

On a personal note, every person gets inspired by something else. Inspiration evokes new possibilities. A background from another world allows us to rise above the daily normal routine and change the way we perceive our capabilities.

Each designer has a different source of inspiration, my inspiration is soccer. what’s yours?

Thanks for reading!