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Three things bike racing has taught me about digital product design


As everyone around the office knows, I’m a cycling addict. While I’ve been riding a road bike seriously for about five years, 2015 was my first season of amateur road racing and I learned a ton—especially how to heal up after crashes. What’s so valuable about learning new things is that you can use your newfound skill as a lens to view other aspects of your life with a fresh perspective, and my experience with bike racing has informed my thinking about digital design in a number of ways.

If you’re not moving forward, you’re moving backward.

If you’ve ever seen a bike race on TV, you may have seen a huge pack of riders clustered together riding in what’s called a peloton. It can oftentimes look unorganized but it’s far from it. There are riders strategically jockeying for position within the peloton constantly, and it’s easy to sit in a good position in the peloton and get comfortable only to realize too late that everyone is moving around you gaining a better position. Before you know it you’re at the back of the pack, or worse, left behind. To keep a good position, it’s essential to be moving forward and proactively retaining your position in the pack.

The same goes for digital product design. Last week I met with a client that we did some product design work for roughly three years ago. He’s interested in tuning up the design—the problem is though he’s already at the back of the pack because in the interim he hasn’t been “moving forward” consistently. As a result, it will take more work to get the product to a more contemporary state, and more significant changes that are expensive and challenging to roll out. A safer strategy would be to constantly work on improving product design and user experience, steadily moving forward to avoid losing ground to your competitors.

Drafting saves you 20% of your energy.

In bike racing, drafting is a critical technique for staying in a good position while conserving energy. It’s commonly known that when you’re right on another rider’s wheel you’re moving at the same speed but using nearly 20% less energy. This can be a critical strategy for maintaining a good positioning, running an efficient pace line through good teamwork, or chasing down an attack.

In product design, we don’t see nearly enough drafting. It’s 2016 and there are so many well established user interface patterns and product strategies that can be leveraged when making product decisions. However, we see product designers, to use a cycling phrase, “go into the wind by themselves,” which leads to wasted time and money. The key is to remember that we can make great progress with less effort if we’re willing to follow the lead of the pack in some cases. Going it alone at the wrong time doesn’t often lead to success.

When done well, it’s a team sport.

To the untrained spectator and often even the newbie road racer, bike racing can be confused for a solo sport. The truth is, the most successful racers out there have a strong team that has honed collaboration and teamwork to hold a good position and win a race.

Product design can often be confused for a solo endeavor as well. There are far too many individuals or small startup teams working in a vacuum. These teams often neglect to involve end users in the design process and don’t bring in enough collaborators to make a winning product. Teamwork is essential for product success. Involving customers, end users, colleagues and other expert agencies and consultants can give you the edge in the market. Steve Jobs didn’t do it on his own—you don’t need to either.

By the way, we sponsor a racing team—learn more about it on Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/Fell-Swoop-Racing-Team-155126361498026/.