The Digital Sports Fan — 7 Things I’ve Learnt As a UX Researcher at Pulselive
Twelve months and dozens of interviews with sports fans from all over the world.
I’m John, a UX Researcher based at Pulselive. I’ve been with the company just over a year, and throughout that time, I’ve run a lot of research sessions with fans from all over the world who are interested in a whole range of different sports.
Part of the research team’s job at Pulselive is to help our design and product teams make informed decisions based on solid research. Our research takes a variety of forms — from fieldwork at World Cups to season-by-season data analysis — but the goal remains the same regardless of how we get there: how can we provide the most engaging, most informative and most accessible fan experience?
Over the past 12 months (and dozens of interviews), here are some things I’ve picked up about sports fans and designing for sport.
1. Sports fans know their stuff 🧠
The user is the expert, they’ll teach you everything you need to know. This is a key mantra for most UX work, and it’s especially true in sports. For some people, their team or sport is what they live and breathe. Of course, we want to cater to all levels of ‘fandom’, but the ultra-fan is a valuable resource.
In one session, a fan insisted on showing us a website he built for him and his friends to study the data and track individual performance when playing Fantasy Premier League. Our minds were blown.
2. Their love for the game is unbreakable ❤️
Sometimes, it can be pretty hard to build the rapport you need as an interviewer. I’ve found this is rarely the case with sports fans. They love talking sports. If you weren’t in a research session with them, it’s pretty likely they’d be doing the same with their friends over WhatsApp.
Most often, the biggest challenge is to get fans to speak objectively: to give critical feedback while still expressing their love for the game.
3. Many of them are born as a fan 👶
Like learning a language, so many sports fans around the world have picked up sports just because it’s surrounded them their whole life. We often ask fans how they started supporting a particular club or sport. Whilst some fans find it hard to answer, responses generally go something like, “I’m from India, of course I love cricket”.
After a recent round of user interviews, one of our participants emailed us a picture of his newborn baby, still in the hospital, covered head to toe in their team’s gear. None the wiser, that baby was christened a Demons fan for life.
4. Following sports can consist of deeply embedded routines 🗓
Most sporting events around the world take place on the weekend (or a specific week night), for obvious reasons. Fans have lots of routines in place on game days, but what surprised us is how this routine can extend out of game days and into the week.
The AFL (Australian Football League) is a great example. We heard from hundreds of fans through surveys and interviews and managed to build a consistent picture of a day-by-day routine that fits most AFL fans. This spanned from reading post-match reports at the start of the week, looking at line ups at the moment they become available on a Thursday, all the way to pre-match routines ahead of the game on the weekend.
5. Not all sports fans want the same thing 👥
Whilst we can sometimes find consistencies in fan behaviour and routines, there are clear subsets of fans that have unique needs and seek out distinct experiences when following sports. Let’s think about what we might include in a match centre to allow a fan to follow a live game of rugby, for instance. At a minimum, we’ll probably need the teams involved, a score, and time elapsed. What else? Player line-ups… what about substitutions? Or why that substitute was made? Stats? How many stats? Wait, what should we show at half time?
A ‘rugby fan’ is not a homogenous mass. There are many levels and we’ve got to find a balance. Some sites cater to the stats-mad fan. Some cater for the total casual. This is part of the reason we conduct so much research — to help find that balance and get a picture of who our audience is.
6. Esports is real and it’s taking over 🎮
There are countless articles and opinion pieces claiming that esports is the next big thing. I’m here to say it already is the big thing. Global viewership, revenue, and prize pools per tournament are consistently increasing year over year. Goldman Sachs estimate that by 2022, the monthly viewership of esports will match that of the NFL’s today (276 million). It’s difficult to see when that rise will stop.
‘Traditional’ sports can learn a lot from esports. In my opinion, most of the focus should be on the broadcast experience and fan engagement that elite level esports offer. Esports is inherently positioned to offer the best in both of those components. When your source material is essentially code and data that can be manipulated or adjusted to suit your audience, it’s relatively straight forward to provide endless camera angles and customisable displays, for instance. It might be harder for traditional sports to provide this sort of experience, but there’s certainly an appetite for it.
7. You are not your user, even if you are 👨🏻💻
“You are not your user” is a key UX mantra that gets thrown around a lot. Except at Pulselive, a lot of us are (unsurprisingly) passionate sports fans.
It’s tempting, then, to jump to conclusions about what terminology might work or how best to display a line-up, because we know what we would want. But you’ll be constantly surprised at what you learn when you’re talking to users of your product. This is why we like to include designers, developers, product and project managers, and our clients, in live user research sessions. We find that this simple act of observation helps people step outside their own experience as a fan and into a position where all of us are better equipped to design and develop top-class digital experiences.