UX Design for NBA Team
The excitement and challenge I encountered as a designer rookie
UX Developer, Philadelphia 76ers
Being the only UX designer on the team is quite a challenging yet exciting experience for me. While designing for internal tools to present our data analytic and strategic results to GM, from the aspect of product design, I found the design mindset and the overall problem solving process are quite similar, but the design consideration for specific users and context is also unique. I share my experience and thoughts on UX planet Medium post "My first UX job ... in a NBA team!".
How I got into NBA as a UX Developer
I joined Philadelphia 76ers a month ago after I graduated from Georgia Tech M.S. Digital Media program. When people heard of my job, most of their first reactions were “Wow, that’s so cool!”, and instantly followed by “Wait, what are you doing on a professional basketball team?”. I couldn’t imagine how my experience as a designer would be before I joined the team either, but it is truly an exciting challenge and unique experience for a UX designer and a basketball lover so far!
It all started from an unexpected email I received from my current boss, Director of Analytics & Strategy department in 76ers. It was during my painful job-hunting process, when everyone was on spring break as I prepared for all kinds of interviews and design challenges. An email with the title “Internship Opportunity at Philadelphia 76ers” came in and suddenly ignited my passion and hope. This would not have happened if I didn’t take part in the first NBA Analytics Hackathon in 2016 Fall and have my resume submitted, for which I mainly contributed to the visual design part of data analytic results for my team. Thanks to my teammates who invited me to compete and spend several nights reading and discussing all the sports analytic materials together, it was since then I got introduced to sports analytics field and had chance to design for sports-related contents for the first time.
During my phone interview with Sergi, besides talking about various design projects I worked on, I was most passionate when I talked about my building women basketball club in undergrad and making a buzz-beater in a cross-college game. That feeling of competitiveness and eagerness to win as a team was so strong that even years later I could still feel my voice tremble out of excitement.
And that is why I got hired — persistent passion toward basketball and design!
Challenge of Design for a Basketball Team
My main tasks, apart from being motivated by watching professional players play almost everyday and following the dynamics of basketball news, are designing for internal managing and analytic tools. I found that there is not so much difference for UX design in terms of design method, iterative process and expected outcome, yet quite notable difference exists among target user group, design consideration and design context.
All we want from designing and developing a digital tool is to solve problems, solve more difficult problems and solve them faster/easier. By thoroughly understanding what problems the target users want to solve, what their use habits and goals are, and by designing through iterative process with improvement based on user feedback, the end goal of UX designers is to bring delightful user experience to the users. The expected outcome always remains the same no matter what projects we work on.
However, as designing for a basketball team, I learn quite a few important difference and valuable takeaways to keep in mind, which can be useful for internal and non consumer-facing product design. So far, my insights include- how to design for a specific user type, how to balance the quantity of desirable information and the smoothness of interaction, and the integration of digital resources and professional know-how.
Design for a specific user type and needs
When I worked on my first project of NBA draft tool, which is meant to assist the draft process for GM, just like every design project, I started from understanding the problems to be solved, the target users and their goals. The web-based app was already fully functional with sufficient information to show, and the goal was to design its visual and interaction to improve the usability as well as user experience of the tool. Being totally new to the sports industry, my first set of questions were
- What are the main purpose of the tool?
- Who’s going to use it? Why would they need it?
- What are the use case, and which is the most frequently used?
Here came the first main difference between my past design experience and design for the basketball team.
The user type is very specific and the needs have to be exactly satisfied.
Unlike designing for consumer-facing products with a wide range of users, where designers can usually interview different user categories to decide an ideal persona to design for, the type of design I am doing is targeting on very few users with specific needs — the app helps GM on NBA draft day and will be only used once a year.
A challenge I met instantly was that I couldn’t really conduct interview with the users and get direct insights — they are busy!
Instead, I talked to my team trying to get more information about what the use case would be, reading and researching on many of the NBA related materials, and finally brought the first iteration of design sketch to show our VPs. It was close, but when getting the feedback from VPs there was still quite a difference. Until then, I received closer insights about the actual context and could tailor the design to fulfill the exact need in the later iteration.
Bring clear questions and design options to the users and get feedback to improve.
Under this particular situation where I have limited access to the specific users, I learned to grab the limited time they have to directly discuss the design decision and conduct user research and user testing at once.
Balance the quantity of desirable information and the smoothness of interaction
Another notable difference is the type of the contents we deliver on the app. Imagine how many data there are for 30 teams in NBA league, more than 15 players per team (which also change every now and then), 82 games per season for several years, and lots of statistic and analytic results across multiple teams and players… well, I have never dealt with so many data and tables in my life before.
Thankfully, I didn’t have to deal with those complicated data either, since my task is just to simplify their complexity and bring intuitive interaction with the contents. We don’t want to squeeze all the data onto a 1920*1080 screen and make it difficult to see any figure, or require users to scroll all the way down and open up multiple windows at the same time; but there is certain amount of complexity we need to present for the users needs.
The challenge emerged when I needed to decide what information is important to highlight and what interaction would make sense to help simplify the most frequent actions. Because of not having any similar experience as a professional basketball team executive, a scout or a coach, it’s difficult to make the right assumption to start the design.
With no such common sense in mind, it is very important to ask the right questions and make the right design decision accordingly.
I wasn’t prepared to bring the questions to our executives in the beginning, but after I kept asking my teammate tons of unknown questions, like “What are the use case of the tools? Which is the most frequent? How many teams or players needed to be compared at the same time? Are the users going to need this feature?”, we refined the core questions and finally ask for direct answers from our users.
The answers to those questions are incredibly crucial to make right design decision and enabled me to simplify contents to create better user experience.
Although the uncertain and unfamiliar feeling toward the product made it difficult to start in the beginning, through discussing the priority of each information and use case, I felt more assured of my design decision and know better when and how to bring my questions to the table now.
Again, understanding the real user needs is key to a good design!
Integration of digital resources and professional know-how
Another notable difference is the achievement of user goal. For most apps or digital service products, like social media for sharing posts, messengers for making contacts, or medical reminder apps for taking the medicine, they all provide a clear solution to solve certain problems that can be tested, and thus make it easier to identify whether the goal is achieved or not. It is not the case for my design in a basketball team.
For example, to make user interaction more intuitive, it’s preferable to make information transparent and easy to access with clear labels and information architect. However, when the user group is very specific with all the professional knowledge already in mind, they have conventional ways to complete their tasks and are only looking for certain assistance from the digital tools. There is much hidden information in their mind that doesn’t need to be explicitly described but needed to be considered .
The tools in the basketball team are for assisting the process, not for providing the solution, and thus many hidden professional know-hows need to be integrated into design.
By understanding the user scenario, for instance, whether the tool is for coaches to evaluate different players performance, for scouts to find the potential fit in the team, or for the executives to use over trade negotiation, the contents and structure should be tailored to assist their particular tasks and thus maximize the user experience.
Based on this insight, when delivering the contents on our app, I found the most important thing to be clearly providing the exact contents users need, which might be different among coaches, scouts or executives, but are mostly similar information about list ranking, comparison and tables.
List ranking, comparison and tables are top three key elements in basketball analytic contents.
And that’s why I have collected a folder of design ideas for each of those categories. Many design conventions of the list view, tables and comparison format provide important reference for me.
“As far as the customer is concerned, the interface is the product.” — Jef Raskin
I wasn’t the kind of designers particularly focus on UI design, but after this first month working in the analytics team with huge amount of contents, I found this quote truly valuable. No matter how complicated the algorithm and the data behind all the analytic results are, the interface is what the end users interact with and evaluate the quality of the tools. And right now being the only UX person on the team, I have the responsibility to take full control of all UI, UX design, and part of front-end development, and that’s really astonishingly important.
The UX design for a basketball team is very unique and rarely heard of, and that’s why it gives me freedom but also challenges. As a designer rookie on team, I am very fortunate to have highly experienced data scientists and developers to work with and learn from, and it is really interesting how most of my learning and insights of design are from non designers!
“Tica, can you imagine yourself playing on NBA court when you built your basketball club in college?” My boss asked me in a delightful tone when our team played on 76ers court after work.
To me, it sounds like a fairy tale but it becomes a true story!