4 strategies to build products like a marathoner.

Prachi Nain

In the marathon, the first half is just a normal run. At 15 kilometers, 20 kilometers, everybody is still going to be there. Where the marathon starts is after 30 kilometers. That’s where you feel pain everywhere in your body. The muscles are really aching, and only the most prepared and well-organized athlete is going to do well after that.

— Eliud Kipchoge, marathon record holder with a time of 2:01:39 hours

Building a product is like running a marathon. Only the most prepared and well-organized keep going when the going gets tough. Let’s unpack some of the strategies that runners employ and use those to boost our product journey.

Runners focus on improving their personal bests. “My finish time is less than what I want. I’ll include more strength training and hill running to go faster.” In the process, they get faster than others but that’s not because they are trying to beat others. They are just trying to beat themselves.

If you are a bank and a rival bank launches a chatbot, you don’t have to follow suit.

Do what a runner would do — Reflect on where your product needs to improve.

For example, if bank customers are complaining about the unexpected charges, it’s a sign of distrust. Work on making all kinds of fee transparent and scrap it, where possible. If you are facing a 50% drop off while sign up, fix the form.

I know someone who decided to run a marathon in just 2 weeks. Her experience was excruciating and non-rewarding. That was the only race she ever ran. Runners realise that it takes planning and months of training to run a marathon. You just can’t wing it!

Random runs in product design include ‘jazzing’ things up, bringing in the ‘wow’ factor, basically anything that is more of a facade and doesn’t make any difference on how the customer uses the product.

Do what a runner would do — Plan for progress.

Instead of asking “how to improve the design of our product”, the right question is “how can our product help customers make the most progress?”

Carve out the most optimal linear path with milestones. At any point, they are aware of where they stand in their action plan and where they are headed. Design your product for the high-expectation customer to help them make the most progress.

Runners realise that they need to consistently push themselves a little bit harder each time they train. Push too little and you don’t progress. Push too much and you burn out. Interval training involves short bursts of high-intensity runs alternating with rest or low-intensity runs. It helps runners to work more in a shorter period of time. It’s more comfortable than an entire workout at a high intensity that leads to burn out.

I use a website to order dog food. It’s not the most efficient experience but it gets the job done. Few screens are redundant. Few inputs are confusing. They probably keep getting reviews from customers to improve their website. They end up going up for a design revamp every few months! There’s a new look and feel each time, which customers don’t care about. What matters is that the flow of finding the right item and placing the order changes each time. The new site brings new set of issues. It doesn’t always have to be an all out or nothing. Do what a runner would do — Try shorter bursts for faster results.

Instead of spending months on a complete design revamp, sometimes it’s wise to quickly fix the low-hanging fruits for instant results.

Fixing broken fields and links and getting rid of redundancies is a better deal for customers than a complete design revamp that brings its own set of problems each time.

I have been running for the past 5 years but I never ran with friends before. Recently, I joined a group of marathon pacers who are training themselves for upcoming runs. In case you don’t know, marathon pacers are the people in a race running with balloons marked with a finish time. They help other runners finish their run in specific times. Running in a group is so much easier and more fun.

Each group has runners of different age, sex, and experience. The one thing that binds them to a group is their pace. On their runs, one runner would be responsible for playing music, another keeps track of the route, another would make sure the team stays hydrated. Everyone has different roles but they are all aiming at the same finish time.

The entire journey from idea to market is full of hustle. The hustle becomes slightly easier and a lot more exciting if you are a team. A team with a mix of hard and soft skills — one person good at building, another good at selling. Someone with a lot of experience, another who’s a newbie. A team with varied skill sets but a common vision for the product.

A team with a common vision runs together, keeps each other pumped, and finishes strong. Whether you start as friends or not, you cross the finish line as friends.

Thanks for reading! I am Prachi, co-founder of Bayzil, a product strategy and design studio based in Singapore. We love to talk and hear about the latest and best in product strategy, design, and content. Would love to hear your thoughts in comments and claps ? if you liked what you read.


I can’t even remember when I last visited an art exhibition, so I was wondering if I can still enjoy abstract paintings and sculptures. It’s easy to see abstract art as its material presence (usually cheap materials) when you can’t assign meaning to it. So I went to an art museum today: the Hamburger Bahnhof.

It’s here in Berlin, a big former railway station from where the trains to Hamburg used to depart. It has a monumental entrance. And there’s a lot of abstract art on display.

Hamburger Bahnhof around 1850. Today there’s a huge departure hall behind the main building, now used for exhibitions

I’d been looking forward to the visit after having to postpone going there a few times. It was a hot day today, which made the trip on the S-Bahn feel long, so I treated myself with a cold drink at a cafe on the way there. I liked being a tourist in my hometown.

When I entered the first exhibition room, one of many big spaces, this triptych caught my attention:

Three blinds covering three windows

So yeah, for a second, I thought the blinds were part of the exhibition of wall-mounted sculptures. I created some more readymades:

A steel cube frame in the corner of a room
Soll Lewitt—OPEN CUBE/CORNER PIECE, 1965. Sorry Soll, I’m an idiot.

Confusion aside, I found the work at the museum amazing. Especially Jack Whitten’s work took me to another world. It made me appreciate abstract art in a whole new way. It would take a whole post to explain that part and this post is (going to be) about design.

The incident above made me realize that I’m
not aware of the beauty of my environment and that my activities preceding the visit and the context of the exhibition put me in a different state of mind:

  • Waiting in line for a ticket
  • Choosing one of the ticket options. They’re not very expensive, but not cheap either, making me wonder how much of the price goes to the costs of building maintenance and staff.
  • Hoping Apple pay will work (it did)
  • Showing the ticket to the grumpy doorkeeper (who asked my question whether I should go left or right first with ‘no’)
  • Walking through the big halls
  • Seeing other visitors (serious people watching the art in silence)
  • Reading information about the exhibition

I believe all those things preceding the visit opened my mind to art, because I’d been anticipating seeing something special. I believe that if I’d been on a waiting list for the one of the exhibitions, it would even have been

What that means for design

When designing a digital product to replace an offline experience, a common approach is:

  1. Analyze current user journey
  2. Redesign the user journey by getting rid of the existing issues
  3. Design the user interface based on that new user journey

In step 2 we usually remove all inefficiencies. Usually those cost time and money and often they’re frustrating. Removing them makes the product more competitive. Also, we usually maximize the amount of information captured while reducing the amount of information presented to the user to bare necessities.

In that approach there’s the risk that key parts of the experience get lost in the process. And although I’m yet to find an online art viewing experience that comes even near visiting an exhibition, the problem is not limited to that.

I believe all important organized events have essential inefficiencies:

  • Vacation; inefficient relaxation exercise
  • Wedding; inefficient marital status update
  • Funeral; you get the point

Social interactions aren’t just an exchange of explicit information. Bonding between people is key for our wellbeing. We need to build rapport for that. For millennia, that meant things like mirroring tiny body movements within a fraction of a second, breathing at the same rate and doing things like hugging. So a video call
hanging out with friends. Text messaging may not be a good substitute for visiting a therapist either. Sending an email is not always the best way to announce something.

In many online services, removing people from the their offline equivalent is a huge cost reduction. But at what costs to the user experience?

Sometimes just waiting for a thing makes it more exciting. I remember people talking about what the joy of anticipation after bringing film rolls to the photo shop and waiting for the prints to come back. You probably know someone who likes to listen to vinyl records. I’m sure it’s the time you need to physical pick a record and put it on the player that makes listening to vinyl more of an event than doing a quick Spotify search.

Next time I can make choices in where to optimize software performance, I’ll keep that in mind. In some cases, it may not be a problem when something takes a couple of seconds. If it’s important, users may actually appreciate some time to mentally process what happened.

Adding inefficiency to a design

So, not all important events in a digital experience have to be efficient. Of course I’m not saying you should keep your complicated signup flow like it is because signups are important to your organization. In fact, inefficiency doesn’t have to cost users time.

Even if you can’t get a priest to show up and do a ceremony for all situations, sometimes it can be beneficial to add some inefficiency to a UI. Illustrations and decoration can signal something out of the ordinary. For you minimalists: splurging on whitespace is a classic approach to emphasize an element of the design. You’ll find it easy to come up with more of those.

Do you know Freeletics? It’s an app with videos of bodyweight exercises. They organize those into training sets and I paid € 50 per year to do things like pushups and crunches. Very inefficient from my point of view as a user. Very effective too: it’s by far the most expensive app I have, so the icon on my home screen reminds me never to skip a session. A good deal for Freeletics too, as I’ve extended my subscription twice already.

Extensively customizable user interfaces are a often a form of inefficiency that give a products more meaning to users without functional benefit. Oh, the time I spent on organizing my music libraries, code editors and operating systems! That never weighed up to the time I saved making things easy to find and control. But it made me feel in control and caring for my things, enjoying my music more, making it more fun to use my computer.

What other examples do you know of inefficiencies that make digital products better?