Illustration by Chantal Jahchan

Design’s preseason

Four ways that Bill Belichick’s late-summer strategy can inform your next design sprint.

Tommy Carroll
Jul 7, 2017 · 6 min read

The early phases of a design sprint have an outsized influence on a project’s direction, making it vital that designers and strategists leverage dry runs in advance. Here, I explore ways an organization can more effectively leverage dry runs (design’s preseason equivalent) to lay the foundation for successful design.

Background: The Coach

Bill Belichick, the head coach of the New England Patriots, found himself in a sea of confetti late on the evening of February 5th, 2017. He jogged to midfield boasting a rare smile, guarded by a wall of sheriff’s stiff arming camera crews, reporters, and giddy teammates. The canopy of mic booms and hollering teammates parted for a brief moment, allowing him to shake hands of the then visibly shaken opposing coach of the Atlanta Falcons, Dan Quinn.

The Patriots had just pulled off the most improbable comeback in Super Bowl history, overcoming a 25 point deficit late in the third quarter and scoring in overtime to win. While the outcome left my jaw on the floor, the victory felt commonplace, as if I had experienced deja vu. Bill Belichick’s Wikipedia page helped me understand why. The coach just does not lose. In fact, in the 17 years since becoming the head coach of the Patriots, Belichick has gone 201–74 in the regular season, winning 14 Division Titles, playing in seven Super Bowls, five of which he won.

“How can a coach be so great so consistently, but also so consistently average in August?”

But when it comes to the preseason, this record of success just isn’t there. Over the last decade, Bill Belichick’s Patriots have a .500 preseason record. They are pedestrian in the scrimmages leading up to opening week. So what gives? How can a coach be so great so consistently, but also so consistently average in August? Why might a perfectionist like Belichick be comfortable with losing early? And what ways can design teams learn from this philosophy as they prepare for demanding, long-scope, design projects?

The Strategy

Bill Belichick views the preseason as an opportunity to fail, learn, and adjust while developing rituals and habits that are essential to his team’s success in the regular season and beyond. There are four ways design teams can incorporate this practice into the early phases of their design process to ensure they are hitting their stride when it matters most.

1. Expand the playbook

Leverage dry runs to experiment with alternative interview and ideation activities.

We as designers often opt for activities that we’re comfortable administering — activities that have surfaced insights in the past, or those that are spearheaded internally by our respective organizations. In doing so, we overlook opportunities to engage with our defined audience in relevant ways, and in turn, fail to trigger conversations that uncover more powerful insights.

“If it doesn’t work or falls flat, it’s ok, scrap it. It’s the preseason.”

Use your interview dry run as the time to try out that interesting activity you read about, or test an activity you dreamt up yourself. If it doesn’t work or falls flat, it’s ok, scrap it. It’s the preseason. These are the games where you should be trying your new plays.

2. Hone your routine

Conduct your interview dry run as similarly to how you plan to conduct the actual interviews as possible.

Design teams who develop a consistent routine are more likely to conduct interviews with more fluidity and control, ensuring that essential insights surface. To hone your interview routine during dry runs, allocate a time block and hold your team accountable for staying within in it. Assigning a timekeeper goes a long way.

Additionally, bring all the materials and resources that you plan to use on interview day and practice setting up your space. Test your camera and mic, fine tune your note-taking template, and practice distributing materials in the most logical order.

Lastly, it helps to conduct dry runs in as similar a setting to that of the actual interview. If the interview will take place over Skype, be sure to conduct your dry run via Skype. If the interview will be held in a room with a whiteboard, conduct the dry run in a room with a whiteboard. After all, football players don’t play preseason games on a basketball court (but they have played on baseball fields).

3. Emphasize the fundamentals

Exercise interview best practices during the dry run.

Belichick is notorious for sitting players who fail to execute the basics. Blocking with the hands, wrapping your opponent, and hustling on and off the field during the preseason are prerequisite to getting playing time.

“Blocking with the hands, wrapping your opponent, and hustling on and off the field during the preseason are prerequisite to finding playing time.”

Designers who approach dry run interviews with a similar focus on fundamentals should be sharper come interview day. Do your best to interview someone who fits your defined audience segment. Write an organized and edited discussion guide to steer interview prompts. Draft research goals prior to the dry run. Avoid leading questions by asking open ended questions. Follow the conversation. Uncover the “why” behind a behavior and philosophy by asking follow up questions. You know the drill.

4. Develop hidden talent

View dry runs as an opportunity to offer less experienced team members a chance to hone their interview craft.

Illustration by Chantal Jahchan

In the first game of the 2008 season, future Hall of Famer and team captain, Tom Brady, left in the first quarter with a torn ACL and MCL. His backup, Matt Cassel, went on to win the game and ultimately lead the Patriots to an 11–5 record. At that point, the only snaps he had taken as an NFL quarterback were in the preseason.

Learning to conduct an interview takes practice and repetition. Dry runs allow designers to grow comfortable in the role within a low stakes environment and are, therefore, ideal for helping less experienced designers level up. Be sure to give them the chance.

Brick by brick

Bill Belichick’s record of success is remarkably consistent. Players have been traded, rules rewritten, divisions shifted, but one thing remains the same: the Patriots win. When asked about how he develops winning teams, Belichick replied that, “There are no shortcuts for building a team each season. You build the foundation brick by brick.”

Design teams embarking on a long design project can learn from this approach by doubling down the “preseason” of their design process, viewing it as the foundation to which insight generation, synthesis, and ideation rest.

In practice, remember to expand your interview playbook, hone your routine, emphasize the fundamentals, and give less experienced designers a chance to shine… or risk losing come game day. For in the end, it’s the learning that counts.

Each summer Moment creates a research project about an exciting topic we see on the horizon. In the past, our teams have researched self-driving cars, way-finding with Google Glass, consumer-facing media consumption, symptom and medication management for cancer patients, and in 2016, Virtual Reality in the classroom with Peer.

Thomas Carroll, Blue Cuevas, Chantal Jahchan, and Jason Kim are interns at Moment in New York. Thomas is pursuing an MDes in Experience Design at VCU Brandcenter, Blue is pursuing an MDes in Design Strategy at IIT Institute of Design, Chantal is an incoming senior at Washington University in St. Louis pursuing a BFA in Communication Design, and Jason Kim is a recent graduate of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute with a BS in Interdisciplinary Design. They’re currently exploring the intersection of voice user interface and first-time parents. You can follow the team’s progress this summer on Momentary Exploration.

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