Learn UX from Sumo Wrestling

A lot about UX can be learned from Sumo Wrestling. Everyone knows what they are, but no one understands what they do. No one understands the language they speak. However, their work is visceral and public. Their work is a combination of training and skill, but also an art form. The techniques and art form have a long history. Looking at those guys, you don’t realize how athletic and flexible they are. Because it appears fairly simple and easy in principle, everyone thinks they know all there is to it — not realizing they don’t know how complex and involved the work can be.

Anyone see a parallel yet?

No one understands the language

UX is as mysterious and misunderstood as it is visceral and ubiquitously known — like Sumo Wrestling. No one understands the language UX people speak: contextual inquiry, empathy maps, user journeys, ideation, affinity maps, longitudinal studies, card sorting, complexity analysis. For a long time, UX professionals themselves even couldn’t agree on what the profession itself should be called (Human Factors, User-Centered Design, User Experience, UX Design, XD, etc.). Most organizations don’t have an understanding of what elements contribute to usability and which are meaningless visuals. Just add some icons and the user experience will be better, right?

Most organizations have heard of UX, they’ve had customers complain about it, and they know they need UX people. But most organizations don’t know enough about the broad set of backgrounds and skills across the UX profession to know who specifically to hire and how many people they really need to improve the usability of their products. They’ve seen a presentation or read an article and now are convinced they know enough about UX to hire and manage it. In reality often they are as acquainted with UX as they are with Sumo.

The start of the Sumo match

At the initial start of a Sumo match, to an untrained eye it appears there is some kind of foreign slap-fest going on. What one might not realize is that there are 66 official holds allowed to take down an opponent, and all of those quick moves at the start of the match are really the wrestlers reading the opponent’s strategy and changing their own strategy dozens of times all within seconds. Eventually, once the wrestlers get a hold of each other, they will settle into a strategy to take down the opponent, though as they attempt a throw, they may still have to change their strategy as their opponent responds.

Flexible Sportsmanship in UX

In UX, it requires similar Sumo flexibility for each project.

Ideally, nearly every project would go something like this:

  1. Initially interview actual users to understand what their tasks and pain points really are.
  2. Analyze the tasks and define the steps involved, then generate multiple different ideas for a user experience that flows intuitively.
  3. Prototype several user experience proposals and test them with enough real users to settle on the best design and have confidence in that design.
  4. Implement that design, as designed.

But in reality…

> Some projects are new designs from the ground up with no users to interview initially or customers to get feedback from. It requires pulling from experience to get an initial design proposal together sans initial user input, then finding some representative users as soon as possible to validate it with.

> Some projects are for existing products with existing users to test with but are minor updates. For these personas and empathy maps exist and the tasks are already well-known. It may only require a bit of ideation on the new innovation, some interactive prototyping and user testing for validation of the design.

> Some projects are big but don’t have enough runway in the schedule to properly interview users, ideate on designs, walkthrough with users, refine to high-fidelity and test a functional prototype prior to implementation. You may have to ideate without all stakeholders present, or take it to higher fidelity before getting sufficient user feedback, then squeak in some user feedback just as a sanity check, rather than proper research. You try to get in all the right UX activities but they are lean and compressed.

> Some projects have developers coding away in parallel, making it a race against time to get any usability and design in. Then it’s a matter of either ‘Anything you can do is better than nothing’ or having to courage to stop development and buy some runway to do the design properly. Depends on the business strategy and value of that project to the company. Based on conditions at the time, you have to be able to change the UX strategy at the drop of a dime. Much like that slap-fest at the start of a Sumo match.

UX professionals have to change and adjust their strategy with the changing conditions of each project in an attempt to corral the project as near as possible to a properly-informed UX engagement — contextual inquiry, user journey mapping, ideation, prototyping, testing, etc. Much like that slap-fest at the start of a Sumo match.

Singing is not a Sumo Wrestler’s job

…but somehow it is still their duty. They serve in the Association of Sumo Wrestlers and whenever there are promotional events, the well-known higher-ranking wrestlers must appear and participate. They perform simulated wrestling for charity events. They visit schools to encourage kids to get into the sport. The even occasionally actually sing. There are a lot of things they have to do to educate and promote what they do, though none of it is what they do.

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There are a lot of things they have to do to educate and promote what they do, though none of it is what they do.

A career in UX feels strangely similar. In my career for example, easily half my time has been spent teaching what my job is, while the other half is doing what my job is. Presentations, leading education courses, company/team-wide training and individual classes. Explaining and re-explaining UX principles, best practices, guidelines, and always communicating the rationale for it all. Over and over and over again to each new developer, manager and executive. Might as well write a song about it.

Similarly, doing the actual code in the product is not a design problem for a UX person to solve, but many UX professionals find knowing code, sitting side-by-side with developers to troubleshoot it while attempting to replicate a design, doing production-ready code prototypes, and helping developers choose technology that will both work and satisfy the design - can be an imperative to successfully translate a design into actual released product. Almost in response, within the last few years a new role has been created for Front End Development, though most organizations still haven’t figured out under which management they would best sit under.

There are a number of activities outside the scope of designing the user experience that UX people find themselves needing to do, though it’s not really part of the job of UX. Sort of like a singing Sumo Wrestler.

Learn Sumo, Teach UX

Once I learned the language and understood the techniques, only then did I develop an appreciation for all the skill and training involved and the difficulty of the job of a Sumo Wrestler.

Along the same lines, I’m convinced that in order for UX professionals to be successful, a significant amount of energy needs to be devoted to educating others in the language of UX and the techniques used, to the point that product organizations are able to appreciate and support the work of UX.

Educating teams in UX is not an exercise in training people to do UX work, it’s an effort to inform people at an academic level sufficient that they give UX due respect and latitude to contribute their part to the overall product development process, and to work with UX to realize the best user experience possible.

A lot about UX can be learned from Sumo Wrestling. Everyone knows what they are, but no one understands what they do. No one understands the language they speak. Their work is a combination of training and skill, but also an art form. However, if sufficient effort can be devoted to teaching the language and the techniques, the various roles involved, wider product organizations will be able to appreciate and support the work of UX.

Now train hard, be nimble in strategy, learn to sing, and go out and promote your fellow Sumo association. I mean, UX team.