How watching the Tour de France can make you better at UX

The Football Word Cup is the most watched sporting event in the world. Next is the Olympic games. What do you think is the third most watched sporting event in the world? Wimbledon? Nope. The Superbowl? Nope. The Champions League? Not even close. Given the title of this article, I suspect you’ve already worked it out by now. The third most watched sporting event in the world is none other than the biggest, and most prestigious bike race in the world — The Tour de France.

A staggering 10 to 12 million people watch the Tour de France by the side of the road (it helps of course that it’s free to watch a road cycling race) and millions more tune in to watch on TV. I’m one of them, having passionately followed le Tour (as aficionados call it) for over 20 years — from the lows of the Festina drugs scandal in 1998, and the later Armstrong EPO-fuelled years of domination, to the recent highs of seeing Chris Froome secure his forth Tour de France title.

I’m fascinated by professional cycling. Stripped down bike racing is simple — Get from A to B quicker than anyone else. But once you dig under the surface, boy is it a complex and fascinating sport, full of tactics, nuances and surprisingly learning that can be applied to UX. Don’t believe me? Well here are 10 surprising lessons I’ve picked up from watching the Tour de France, that I believe are equally applicable to the world of UX.

1. Great pros have served their apprenticeship

Being a great cyclist is more that just having the physical attributes, or ‘having good legs’ as they say in the sport (referring to strong riders, not aesthetically beautiful legs I should add). You not only have to have the legs, but the experience and know how as well. Unusually professional cyclist don’t peak until their late twenties, sometimes even early thirties, and that’s because there is so much to learn about the sport. How to ride in a peloton (the large group of cyclists that form the main field in a race), when to attack, when to use your teammates to help. Cycling even has it’s own term for new professionals in the peloton still learning the ropes -‘’Neo Pros’.

Having ‘good legs’ is obviously not important when it comes to UX, but serving your apprenticeship as a junior certainly is. I’ve previously discussed what makes for a good UX designer, and whilst technical ability is obviously very important, be it interaction design skills or prototyping skills, there’s no short cut when it comes to building the all important experience and know how necessary to be a great UX pro. Like the cycling ‘Neo pros’ it’s important that if you’re a relatively new UX professionals you serve their apprenticeship. Get exposure to lots of different aspects of UX, and learn as much as they can from more experienced pros.

2. Great pros have a T-shaped skill set

Cyclists are a varied bunch. Sure they are all super skinny and super fast on a bike, but within the peloton there are many different types of riders. There are climbers, who are usually tiny but can sprint up climbs like a mountain goat. There are time triallers who are great at riding as fast as possible against the clock. There are sprinters (the crazy ones) who go shoulder to shoulder at mind boggling speed during bunch sprints, and there are ‘Rouleurs’ who can do a bit of everything. The Tour de France even has different jerseys to reflect these different skill-sets. No doubt you will have heard of the famous ‘yellow jersey’ worn by the leader of the race, but did you know there is also a sprinter’s green jersey, a funky white and red polka dot jersey for the best climber and even a white jersey for the best young rider? Pro cyclists need a T-shaped skill set. They need to be able to everything on a bike well, and a few things really, really well.

I’ve spoken before about how great UXers should also have a T-shaped skill set. They should be a bit of a jack of all UX trades, and a master in some of those. This is becoming especially important as UX is becoming more and more specialised. It’s important to build a broad UX skill-set, to get a bit of exposure to user research, UX design, mobile design, service design and so on. Having build this strong foundation of UX knowledge you can then decide on what sort of a UXer you want to be. Do you want to specialise in user research? Perhaps mobile design or more strategic service design? Perhaps you want to become a ‘Rouleur’ UX generalist? Like a pro cyclist you should work to your strengths, and find the kind of UX role where you’ll be able to excel.

The green, yellow and polka dot jerseys at the Tour de France

3. Great pros are great teammates

Professional cycling is a team sport, masquerading as an individual sport. The Tour de France is won by only one rider, and yet the wearer of the hallowed yellow jersey can’t make it to Paris without the support of his team mates. Thanks to physics it is much easier to ride behind another rider (i.e. in their slipstream) and the leader of le Tour will usually be found riding behind one of his faithful team mates.

You can’t win the Tour de France on your own and the same is true of delivering great user experiences. I’ve written before about how UX design is a team sport because design is a collective and collaborative endeavour. Design simply can’t function in a vacuum and everyone should be able to contribute to the design process. Just as Chris Froome couldn’t have won this year’s Tour without the help of his Team Sky teammates, you can’t deliver a fantastic user experience without the help of engineers, product managers, researchers, designers, developers, testers, and all the other people that make up a typical project team.

4. Great pros continually hone their skills

If you watch the Tour de France you realise that pro cyclist are not only awesome athletes, but are amazing bike handlers as well. After all, it doesn’t matter how fast you can ride up a mountain, if you can’t then descend down the other side at breakneck speed (riders have been clocked at over 80 miles per hour on descents). The best pros are continually honing their skills, and of course working on their weak areas. For example, Chris Froome never used to be a particularly good descender but now, despite still being one of the least stylist peddlers on a bike, he is one of the best descenders in the peloton.

Likewise you should continually work on your UX skills, especially your weak areas. Presentations skills, visual design skills, prototyping skills, research skills, all the things you need to be a great UX pro.

5. Great pros have a plan, but are prepared to change it

At first glance cycling might seem a very simple sport. After all, how complicated can riding a bike be? Well, very as it turns out. The more you watch bike races like the Tour de France, the more you start to appreciate the deeply tactical nature of the sport. Every team and every rider will come to the start line with a clear plan, and as the race unfolds will adjust their plan accordingly. Perhaps the aim is to get in a breakaway. Perhaps it’s to catch a breakaway so as to ensure a sprint finish at the end. The important thing is that plans are fluid. It’s no good rigidly sticking to a plan if the circumstances dictate that it no longer makes sense to follow it.

Having a plan, but being prepared to change it is also a key lesson for UX pros. When you come to a project you should have a clear UX plan of action, even if that plan hasn’t necessarily been formally documented. For example, how will you ensure that a user-centred design approach is being taken? What UX activities are you planning to undertake? How will user feedback be incorporated into a design? As a project progresses periodically take a step back and evaluate the plan. Does it still make sense? Should you change your plan based on changes to the project, or perhaps a change in the ways of working? Plans need to be fluid and changeable, but don’t use that as an excuse for not having a plan in the first place.

6. Great pros look for marginal gains

What has washing your hands properly got to do with winning the Tour de France? Not much on the face of it, but ask Dave Brailsford, general manager of Team Sky, one of the top professional cycling teams in the world and he will tell you. You see a sick cyclist is very unlikely to win the Tour de France, and a cyclist that washes their hands properly is less likely to get sick, so washing your hands properly is a micro step towards winning the Tour de France. It’s a marginal gain.

“The whole principle came from the idea that if you broke down everything you could think of that goes into riding a bike, and then improved it by 1%, you will get a significant increase when you put them all together.”
Dave Brailsford

Marginal gains make a huge amount of sense in a professional sport such as road cycling, where any advantage that can be gained over a rival can be the difference between winning and losing. The stakes are not perhaps quite as high when it comes to the sorts of projects that you probably work on, but the power of marginal gains is equally applicable. Consider all the small 1% improvements that you could make to the user’s experience, and start to identify possible marginal gains. You can find out more about identifying, applying and tracking marginal gains in my article titled, The aggregation of marginal gains and what you can learn from Team Sky.

7. Great pros employ the latest technology

Road cycling isn’t quite in the same league as Formula 1 when it comes to applying the latest space age technology, but it isn’t far off. The modern road bike of today is nothing short of a technological wonder and is light years away from the heavy steel bikes of the past. Professional cycling teams are always the first to employ the latest technology. Whether it’s ultra light carbon fibre frames (which amazingly were first used by Once in the 1980s), electronic gearing mechanisms, or wireless power meters so that a rider knows exactly how much effort he’s putting in at any one time.

You should also be looking to employ the latest technology to enhance your work. Sure, don’t use new technology for the sake of it, but continually be on the look out for new tools, and new technology that might assist you. For example, apps such as Mocking Pad and SketchPad that allow you to quickly create wireframes on a tablet; collaboration tools, such as Slack; online prototyping tools that are purpose built for real time collaboration, such as Figma; and the latest prototyping tools, such as Adobe XD. Try out new tools and technology and if they aren’t more effective, you can always go back to what has worked for you in the past.

Riders like Bradley Wiggins always utilise the latest technology

8. Great pros keep a progress diary

Professional cyclists will have a detailed training plan, and will keep an equally detailed diary of their progress against this plan. Thanks to modern power meters (which continually measure the watts that a cyclist is putting out) and cycle computers, a lot of their data is now captured automatically. However, it’s still very important that they capture how they are feeling, how they are progressing, and generally how they are doing against their training plan.

Keeping a detailed diary of your work and progress isn’t just an important habit for pro cyclists, it’s an important one for UX pros as well. By keeping a log of your UX work and activities (and yes, this means more than just filling out timesheets) you can make it much easier to put together case studies and that all important portfolio that you’ll no doubt need when applying for new roles. It’s also extremely useful for tracking your progress against long term goals. Make sure that you keep track of all your design assets, UX activities and try to take photos where ever possible, such as during workshops. You can find out more about putting together great UX case studies by reading my article titled, How to bring your UX work to life with compelling case studies.

9. Great pros define their long term goals & tirelessly work towards them

In 1986 Greg Le Mond became the first American to win the Tour de France. He went on to win the race a further two more times. When Greg was still a 17 year old junior cyclist, he wrote down his long term career goals on a yellow pad of paper. They were as follows:

  1. Place well for experience in the 1978 junior world championships
  2. Win the 1979 junior world championships
  3. Win the 1980 Olympic road race in Moscow
  4. Win the world professional championships by the age of 22 or 23
  5. Win a first Tour de France by the age of 24 or 25

Remarkably Le Mond went on to achieve most of his goals, winning the Junior world championships in 1979, the world championships at 22 and his first Tour de France at 25. Le Mond was of course a very talented rider, but he was also very driven, and by defining his goals, and then working tirelessly towards them, he managed to achieve the vast majority of them.

It’s a hugely useful exercise to define your short, medium and long term career goals, just as Greg Le Mond did. Think about where you want to be in 1, 2 and 5 years time. What sort of projects would you like to work on? What sort of UX skills and experience will you need to work on? By defining your goals you can start to plan out what you need to do in order to get to where you want to be.

10. Great pros enjoy what they do

The Tour de France is a truly brutal event (although incidentally it’s probably not even the hardest of the grand 3 week tours — that particular accolade arguably goes to the Giro D’Italia). Over the 3 weeks of this year’s Tour the riders spent over 86 hours in the saddle, riding over 3,500 kms (about 2,200 miles) and traversing some of the highest mountains in Europe. To simply ride those sort of distances day in, day out is difficult, to race them is crazy!

Pro cyclists wouldn’t put themselves through that sort of pain and suffering if they didn’t love their job, and whilst the average UX role hopefully involves a good deal less pain and suffering (although I’ve experienced a few projects that might come close) a vital ingredient of being a UX professional is enjoying what you do. I’ll echo the sentiments of Mark Cavendish, ex-world champion, winner of 30 stages of the Tour de France and arguably the greatest sprinter of all time when he says:

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