What UX designers can learn from roller derby

You can develop your business skills by taking cues from unlikely places, says coach Megan O'Neill.

Megan coaches the Santa Cruz Derby Girls (Image courtesy of Mark Nockleby)

Roller derby is often described as a cross between football and rugby, but on roller skates. It may seem chaotic, but it is a very strategic and team-oriented sport. It's actually pretty similar to working on a lean UX design team ... but with more hip checks and bruises.

In 2006 I made two life-changing decisions: I started a career in user experience design and I joined a women's flat-track derby league. During the day I was creating wireframes and at night I was tearing up the track on eight wheels. Currently I am a lead UX designer at PayPal and the coach of the Santa Cruz Derby Girls. Over the years I have found some common themes that are relevant to both teams.

Collaboration is crucial for success (Image courtesy of Mark Nockleby)

Play as a team

The first is to do with collaboration. Being able to collaborate with a variety of talented individuals is the key to any successful team. Without the ability to prioritise and work towards a set of common goals, no team will be able to achieve impactful progress.

This task is easier said than done when working with individuals that have strong opinions, which is why it is essential to have a facilitator to help keep the team from straying from common goals.

Megan leads a focussed team (Image courtesy of Donalee Eir)

In the case of roller derby, my role as a coach is to drive consensus and keep everyone on task. The same role is played by my project manager at work. She keeps my team focused so everyone is working towards accomplishing our deliverables. In both cases, this means my teams can achieve more than we could as individuals.

Keep practicing

Another common thread is iteration. In lean UX and roller derby, my teams are frequently iterating on ideas. In roller derby, every game is an opportunity to develop offensive and defensive strategies. We hypothesise about what will be successful against a particular opponent, but we are not able to validate these theories until we face them.

Constant testing delivers results (Image courtesy of Donalee Eir)

Similarly, in lean UX we constantly test our designs to see if our proposed design solutions will create the desired user experience. Without formulating hypotheses and testing, my teams cannot identify why particular strategies do or do not work. This knowledge is key to building a resilient and adaptable team that can withstand challenges and setbacks.

I'm very thankful to have a hobby that allows me to continually grow skills that directly apply to becoming a better designer on a lean UX team. Although I'm still trying to figure out how I can wear my skates at work.

Words: Megan O'Neill

Megan O'Neill is a UX Designer at PayPal and the coach of the Santa Cruz Derby Girls. You can follow her on Twitter at @hellomeganw. This article first appeared in net magazine issue 266.

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