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!


Vikram Borar

Many a times I come across a question — is there any difference between UX for enterprise products versus consumer products — or do organizations follow a different process while finalizing UX for B2B and B2C companies. A simple answer would be YES, there is a difference — because of the varied business model, the mindset to innovate and the challenges designers face while dealing with UX. I will try to explain these in detail a little later — let me start with defining what B2E and B2C are, quickly.

B2E (Business-to-Enterprise) most commonly referred as B2B (Business–to–Business) is nothing but the exchange of products, services or information between businesses. For example, SAP selling CRM (Customer Relationship Management) to Vodafone or Vodafone selling high speed network to GE or Volvo selling busses to a large tour and travels company. It is different from B2C where businesses sell products or services to the end consumers. This could refer to individuals shopping for clothes or buying mobile for themselves, or even buying a new motorcycle. Because of these fundamental differences in business model — i.e. serving the end user (in B2C) and serving an organization (in B2E)— the orientation toward UX also differs in both these models.

If we classify it broadly, the below are key differences one would note:

  1. Targeted Users vs Broad User Base: The products which are B2E are targeted to a very niche user base whereas when you make B2C products you try to accommodate a large user base. For example, the USER of Facebook or Instagram is probably all and everyone, whereas the USER of a particular banking application — say Finacle — is a few users who work in specific banks. Even in the banks, only those users who work on a particular process would be using the application and not every bank employee.
  2. Purchases are rational vs emotional: When you go to buy a new cellphone, shirt or car for yourself, your first wish is, it should look good. It should have good brand name. It should elevate your status in the social circle. You may stretch your budget a bit to get the things which you want rather than the one you need. But for B2E purchase, you keep your emotions sideways. These will always be driven more by rational and pragmatic thought rather than emotions. If you have to buy a car which is going to be used as a taxi, you would always go for the one which delivers better fuel average, lower operating and maintenance cost or robust durability. Basically, you would buy a Toyota over a Volkswagen.
  3. Enterprise task are long and complex whereas consumer products tasks are simple and engaging: The tasks which user performs in enterprises are elaborate and detailed. For example, let’s take UBER. If you want to go from one place to another, you would just type ‘FROM’ Place and ‘TO’ Place and book it. But if I ask you to send a truck full of cargo to London from Frankfurt via Paris. It would not be that simple. Users need more details — whose material is it , where to deliver in London, what’s the value, what’s the weight and what permits do it need, how is this going to be taxed, what is my return on investment, how do I increase/enhance it, etc..
  4. Users have domain knowledge: Business users are experts in their domain. It’s difficult to build that knowledge unless you are part of that ecosystem. In fact, the people who make products for enterprises need to thoroughly research the user’s needs to come up with the solution. A lot of functional requirements have to be documented. But in case of consumer applications, you can try to imitate being a USER. For example, in order to make a new consumer application to book tickets, one can easily start with the own self as the user and ask few friends on how they book tickets and come up with fairly useful UI.
  5. Value instead of love: Lastly, when enterprises make applications, they think of creating long-term value because of their product life cycles being long. In case of consumer applications, companies really focus on building love and attractiveness of the application so that you remain engaged. The ERP software stays in company for more than 10–15 years but Orkut (erstwhile popular social networking site) did not survive for many years. In fact people are now bored with facebook also and moving to Instagram.

Because of these above mentioned differences, the model of innovation also is skewed.

Model of Innovation

This is a standard model innovation. To briefly explain:

Desirability — A desirable solution is one that your customer really needs. It should not just address the pain point but also be aim at giving pleasure {don’t think otherwise :)}.

Feasibility: A feasible solution, which is building on the strengths of your current operational capabilities. New development should aim to provide competitive advantage to the business.

Viability: New solution should focus on the entire value chain of your solution to ensure that it is viable now and in the future. If the customers see that they can earn from solution then, they will buy it.

Every enterprise, whether B2E or B2C, tries to ach­­ieve a sweet spot between desirability, feasibility and viability but because their priorities are different, their innovation focuses on few things and not all.

Innovation Model is skewed because of different priorities

Consumer application Vs Enterprise Application

Consumer Product Vs Enterprise Product

Tesla is prominent example of innovation in the B2C space in recent times. They are transforming the entire auto industry. The cars have a waiting period of over 2 years. But people are not buying it just because it saves money on fuel or because it’s sustainable — they buy it because its looks cool to own a Tesla. It represents technology which the owners would like to talk over lunch or create stories around. Also note, that it’s not cheap either — priced higher than BMW 5 series or Mercedes E class with no proven track record.

On the other hand, if you see a backhoe loader, it looks almost the same as it used to look 20 years back. The design hasn’t changed much. In fact, now companies are thinking about enhancing the user experience of the driver by thinking about reduced NVH levels and improving space inside the cabin. Till now the (manufacturers) focus has been on making the most reliable and durable loader which does its work properly and not worry about looks and experience.

SAP’s new design language. SAP Fiori

B2E enterprises are realizing that “Good Design is Good Business”. B2E software companies are working towards making software which are user friendly and looks good. They are on the path of embracing complexity while reducing complications. And designers play a huge role in this ecosystem. They will be the ones who will work towards providing delightful experiences and meaningful solutions.