Contributor:
Chris Collingridge
August 15th, 2016

Keep on Running: Why UX is like the Olympic 100m

All around the world – across industries, technologies, and in organisations of every size — user experience has never been more prominent. There are more people working in the field, more resources dedicated to understanding humans and designing for them, and more focus on how products and services are making people feel.

It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking we’re done. Maybe you’ve hired some dedicated user experience people; maybe you’re regularly usability testing; maybe you have a conversion rate optimization programme. But, as you settle down to watch the Olympic 100m men’s final, I’d like to invite you to consider how the race will run away from you if you are standing still.

Other people are always getting better

You may be doing a good job, and be excellent at what you do. But other people – in other organizations and companies – are always getting better. Let’s take a look at the winning times in Olympic 100m men’s finals, from 1896 to 2012.

Table1

While there were some big gains early on – as people started to focus on the competency of sprinting quickly – those gains haven’t stopped. The impact of more participants, more individual commitment, better knowledge, more investment, and improved methods has led to consistent improvement.

So, although running 100m in 10.5 seconds is a very good effort, it is no longer going to win the 100m final.

The whole field moves past you

The graph above shows only the winners. So it’s reasonable to imagine that although the winning performances are getting better, the times that were winning in the 1960s or 1970s might still be enough to keep you in contention today.

What happens in a competitive market though is that if the whole field around you improves a bit, your good performance suddenly becomes a poor one – an irrelevantly poor one.

Let’s take 1984. In an iconic moment, Carl Lewis wins the 100m men’s final in Los Angeles. Here are the times from that race.

Rank Name Nationality Time
1 Carl Lewis United States 9.99
2 Sam Graddy United States 10.19
3 Ben Johnson Canada 10.22
4 Ron Brown United States 10.26
5 Mike McFarlane Great Britain 10.27
6 Ray Stewart Jamaica 10.29
7 Donovan Reid Great Britain 10.33
8 Tony Sharpe Canada 10.35

Now, let’s compare that to the times from the last 100m men’s final in 2012.

Rank Name Nationality Time
1 Usain Bolt Jamaica 9.63
2 Yohan Blake Jamaica 9.75
3 Justin Gatlin United States 9.79
4 Ryan Bailey United States 9.88
5 Churandy Martina Netherlands 9.94
6 Richard Thompson Trinidad and Tobago 9.98
7 Asafa Powell Jamaica 11.99
DQ Tyson Gay United States 9.8

With the exception of Asafa Powell (who pulled up with a groin injury), Carl Lewis would have been dead last in the 2012 final. Sam Graddy – who clutched a silver medal in 1984 – wouldn’t have been in the final at all.

A great performance in the past – even the relatively recent past – could be completely insufficient sooner than you think.

Expectations change too

It’s not only the hard facts of performance that change over time: it’s also people’s perceptions of what a good performance looks like. As improvements are made, we adjust our expectations in line with the new reality.

If you asked people in 1984 whether 10.00 seconds was an exceptional time for a 100m, the likelihood is they would have all said it was. If you asked people in 2016, they’re likely to think it’s barely competitive at all.

And the reason for this is clear: prior to that 1984 final, there were only 7 occurrences in history when you could have seen a man run 100m in less than 10 seconds. Today, there have been 712 opportunities to see that happen.

Our exposure to better performances changes our baseline of what is normal, good, or exceptional. The more we come across good design, relevant services, well-structured processes, and improved usability, the more we come to expect them.

Standing still is going backwards

Just like the 100m, we need to continue to invest in making our experiences better – through investing in understanding people’s problems and capabilities; designing, testing, and iterating on our products and services to deliver better outcomes and more productive, happier people.

If you don’t, today’s leader will become tomorrow’s backmarker. You’ll be passed not only by the occasional upstart but by the whole field, and what your customers or citizens once thought was exceptional they will consider third-rate.

Constant improvement isn’t an option – it’s essential if you want to be in the race at all. On your marks…

References:

Winning times since 1896: http://www.topendsports.com/events/summer/sports/aths-100m.htm

Race times for 1984 and 2012: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Athletics_at_the_1984_Summer_Olympics_%E2%80%93_Men%27s_100_metres#Final & https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Athletics_at_the_2012_Summer_Olympics_%E2%80%93_Men%27s_100_metres#Final

All-time men’s best 100m: http://www.alltime-athletics.com/m_100ok.htm

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