The Blue Jays Ballpark by Tim Gouw

Baseball is UX

Oct 3, 2016 · 10 min read

Autumn days are magical. Crisp air, beautiful sunsets, and morning fog so heavy you swear it could carry you away. Autumn days sure are magical. That’s not the only reason why these days fall among my favourites of the year. Fall days call for baseball, and a lot of it.

I must admit, I’m a late bloomer to the sport (and appreciation) of baseball. When I was a kid, living in New York City, I used to love the Yankees, not for their blockbuster players, but because I thought their logo was just so cool. Perhaps my love of Design began there, at age 4 sitting at a Yankees game, wholeheartedly ignoring the effort of the players while I studied the superimposed letters on every baseball cap. Or perhaps my love of Design began at the New York Mets stadium, when I realized that people’s energy is what carried the game, and every player on that field, forward. Either way, I always have New York to thank for that.

Despite my early introduction, I didn’t develop a love for the sport until my early 20’s. Looking back, one thing stood out to me: the better I became at Design, the more I loved baseball. The more patient I became with my own craft and practice, the longer I would be able to watch the sport. The more objective I became with my work, the better I got at calling pitches. The more I learned about my opportunities for success, the more I would be able to shake off the loss of a game, and begin a brand new day.

[…] the better I became at Design, the more I loved baseball.

You might not see the resemblance at first. They are, after all, so different. Until they’re not. One is able to carefully form a thread between the two practices. Realizing that baseball and Design carry such similarities has allowed me to learn from the game to impact my career.

This is some of what I’ve learned:

1. “Low and away for a strike”

Heat Map showing “Low and Away” pitch, by Ricardo Vazquez.

If you’ve watched a baseball game on TV, I’m almost certain you’ve heard the announcer call out this phrase. This occurs when the pitcher places the ball both low at the batter’s shin and away past their normal swing radius.

Now, this pitch really should be a called ball, not a strike. The strike occurs when the batter swings at the pitch, almost surely missing. The “low and away for a strike” call speaks to the mental game of baseball. The meeting at the plate is a clash of psychological fortitude between the pitcher and the batter. Whether it’s nerves, confusion, or an otherwise excellent cutter, the batter swings at a ball they are unlikely to make contact.

We can’t swing at the first opportunity we see. We must allow the work to speak back to us…

Designers have that very same psychological battle, except it’s between themselves and the work. This is where patience is a skill that benefits both the Designer as well as the work. Design must be thoughtful. We can’t swing at the first opportunity we see. We must allow the work to speak back to us; it needs to be a conversation.

There’s no better example of this concept in Design than the power of iteration. When I design, I often mutter words to myself. If you happen to sit beside me, sometimes you’ll hear me say “That’s low and away”. It’s a reminder to myself to keep pushing, and not settle for the first iteration. Design grows exponentially the more care you put into it.

What a difference a few iterations make, by Ricardo Vazquez.

2. The Grand Slam

The Women’s National Baseball Team of Japan celebrating their World Championship, by WBSC

The first time you witness a Grand Slam is electric. Chills run down your spine. Your voice goes hoarse. Your body numbs up. I can’t quite remember the first time I witnessed a Grand Slam in person, but the last time damn near killed me. I started jumping, unaware I was dangerously close to a steep corridor of bleacher stairs. Close call, but if you were there you would have lost yourself in the moment, too.

Grand Slams are perfect, but rare. They occur when a batter hits a home run, but every single base is occupied by a player! They score 4 runs instead of just 1. These types of plays are rare because they require so much coordination, so much strategy, perfect execution, laser focus, and yes, luck.

Grand Slam designs don’t involve a sole individual’s effort; they are the product of a team effort. Every single player, when called to bat, does their part to advance the design forward. Research, product, illustration, interaction, development, marketing, copywriting, everyone! When a focused effort from each aspect of design is being given, design can be transformative. Just in the same way I lost myself in the beauty and statistical anomaly of a Grand Slam, so can the people that use our products. Together, we can invite a person to love our product. Remember, we are here for people; we’re not in this for the glory. We are here for the millions of individuals that use our products every single day. Why would we give nothing less of a Grand Slam effort?

Grand Slam designs don’t involve a sole individual’s effort; they are the product of a team effort.

If you go at it alone, you might hit a home run. It might be a good design. But if you work with people, and each of you bring your focus, your strengths, and your value to the product, your work will quadruple into a Grand Slam. It will become perfect.

3. Tell me a story

Jackie Robinson, famous for stealing bases, steals home, by Sports Illustrated

I’m sure if I asked ten people to recount a Jackie Robinson moment, they would give me ten different stories. I’m sure if I asked my friends to recount the moment when the Toronto Blue Jays won the American League Division Series in 2015, I would be inundated with unique stories. I’ll tell you mine.

We arrived at the restaurant in the 5th inning, after walking around downtown Toronto looking for a place to sit. My girlfriend and I ordered some food. The restaurant had created a makeshift projector screen with what seemed to be a blanket, and was streaming the game from a laptop hooked up to a projector. We were all glued to that blanket. The food must have come sometime soon after, but we had more important things in our mind. The 7th inning came, score was tied, and boy what an inning that was. Jose Bautista, with 2 players on base, blasted a home run. There was perfect silence in those seconds, until the ball went over the wall, and the place turned into electricity. I will never forget that moment, or the stranger I exchanged glances with and hugged while awkwardly jumping up and down.

Design, like a defining baseball play, is remembered in many unique ways. This is because every single person brings their own context to the experience. We’re human, after all, aren’t we? Design is not meant to obfuscate a person’s story; design is meant to illuminate it. A narrative-driven design objective ensures that you, as a designer or maker of a product, are always mindful that people bring stories to the things you create, and this is perfectly okay. The design of any object must be transformative for it to be useful, it must take us somewhere.

Design is not meant to obfuscate a person’s story; design is meant to illuminate it.

If it hadn’t been for the game, I wouldn’t have shared excitement with a stranger. We wouldn’t have bonded, and maybe we would have never crossed paths. But now, we have each other in our stories. I hope they remember it as fondly as I do.

Yes, that home run. By, Rick Madonik for the Toronto Star

4. The angle matters

A player attempting to convert a double play, by Mark Scott

Baseball is a fast game. When a line drive is hit to 3rd base, the ball travels at over 90km/hr. When a 2nd base player tries to convert a double play, they have milliseconds to make the throw to 1st base.

Umpires have the ultimate power in the game. With a swift arm movement, they can call a strikeout, safe, out, balk, and many more obscure calls that can flip the game on its head. In spite of an umpire owning a base, it’s so hard to tell sometimes when the call is safe or out. If the ball reaches the base before the player does, the call is out. But we’re talking a difference in inches, less than most of the time.

There have been times where I swear the call is out, and so does the umpire. However, upon review, with the camera placed at a different angle, the replay can be surprising. A different angle reveals the player clearly reaching base before the ball, and the game completely changes.

This baseball occurrence depicts the idea of Near and Far states perfectly in Design. Let’s take an artist, for example, working away on a canvas. The artist’s interaction with the work is in a constant state of dynamic distance. While painting a mountain, they move in to inspect and create. However, they quickly move out to reframe the mountain in the context of the whole work of art. This has taught not to look too long at any one direction, lest I ignore the game-changing moment.

Design has angles all around us. Look around, and you’ll find a way to keep the game alive.

5. Get back out there

Bleachers, by David Straight

Few sports are more illustrative towards the perils of ego than baseball. As soon as you see a baseball player brag about their accomplishment, you know an error is coming their way. They have lost focus. They have lost sight of what’s important: the game and their team. Then again, there’s also few sports more humble towards giving players a second chance than baseball.

In Major League Baseball, a batter faces a pitcher an average of 3 to 4 times during the course of a game. If the batter strikes out, they walk back to the dugout. Now, here is where all could end. The batter could give up, and allow the last plate appearance to define their performance in the game. But they don’t. They get back out there and use the learning opportunity of their previous meeting at the plate to positively affect the following at-bat. The psychological fortitude needed to prevent the “low and away for a strike” strengthens, and the batter becomes untouchable. It’s magical when you see this. How do you think Doris Sams did it? She holds the world record for 12 home-runs in a single game, and is regarded as one of the best baseball players ever. Twelve… let that one sink in.

Design won’t be perfect; we won’t hit an average of 1.00. And that is what’s the best thing about it. It allows us to make mistakes.

You know, there’s a reason why a batting average of .300 is considered great (this number means that the batter got on base 3/10 times). Batting average of .350 you say? That player is on fire this season! And an average of .400 is unheard of nowadays. Now, why would baseball celebrate mathematically below-average statistics? Because professional baseball associations understand that hitting a ball traveling at 140 km/hr with a spin that shows in the last 200 milliseconds is a hard thing to do. They know hurling a ball to a target 60 feet away with expert precision 100 times over is something few people can achieve. Because fans know that near misses only make the next home run that much sweeter. And because players themselves know the number is just a number, it’s their attitude towards the sport that holds the real weight in the locker room.

Design won’t be perfect; we won’t hit an average of 1.00. And that is what’s the best thing about it. It allows us to make mistakes. As Product Designers, it is our job to create a product we can nurture. To celebrate its successes just as much as learn from its weaknesses. The near-misses will end up making the product that much more memorable to people using them: they will know we got back out there. We sat at the dugout, and we rehearsed the previous at-bat, we modified our approach, we changed our mechanics just a bit, we became self-aware. There’s nothing people love more.

I see Foursquare as a company with the courage needed to modify their mechanics and get back out there, each time stronger and wiser.

You don’t have to watch the game

If baseball is not your thing, that’s okay. Keep watching your favourite sport. If sports are not your thing, that is a-okay, too. Watch the greats throughout history instead. Great artists, great musicians, great poets, and great human beings. I’m going to go out on a limb here and state with good certainty that every single one of them, hopefully, ensured to disregard their ego. They focused on future achievements instead of lauding their past ones. I think that’s a strategy designers can adopt. Let’s focus on tomorrow, and get back out there with the wisdom needed to get our next Grand Slam.


Thanks for reading. I love talking to new friends about design and baseball. Get in touch @iamrvazquez & let’s talk!

Ricardo Vazquez

Written by

Senior Product Designer at Shopify. Teacher. Rower. Interested in culture, design, aesthetic, wit, reality, thought, and the happiness of pursuit.

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