The Personal Disquiet of

Mark Boulton

The difference between a goldfish and a human

– February 16th, 2016 –

In the 2012 Olympics, the UK cycling team dominated the track. Winning 12 medals: 8 Golds, 2 Silvers, 2 Bronzes. They also broke 7 World Records and 9 Olympic Records.

The French cycling team director suggested that the UK team were using ‘magic’ wheels. That was until it was pointed out the wheels were designed and manufactured in France.

No, aside from the unbelievably hard work of the team, the superb conditions of the track and the humidity of the building, there was one person who was credited as the brains behind the performance; Sir Dave Brailsford. Sir Dave is also credited as instilling a culture of measurement, data, and, ultimately, well-being into the team. A key component of this was a philosophy of ‘Marginal Gains’.

“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 improve it by 1%, you get a significant increase when you put them all together.”

This is also something he applied to his job as manager of the Sky cycling team.

When Brailsford formed the commercial cycling team he had one goal: to win the Tour de France. Clean. Within five years. He did it in two. And then again. And again.

The challenge he had was this: cycling has long been a sport which uses performance enhancing drugs. In order to compete against teams using these drugs, Team Sky – and any other clean team – had to bridge a gap of about 16-19%, depending on which source you read. Regardless, that is an enormous distance in performance in any professional sport. And they did it through the aggregation on marginal gains. Looking at every aspect of an athlete’s life – their diet, weight, sleeping patterns, physiology, well-being, the pillow they use at night. Even how they wash their hands – they were able to bridge that gulf.

I’ve been a fan of professional cycling for a long time. Even before I owned a road bike and rode myself. But recently, I’ve become interested in how coaching has created this performance. How Team Sky’s, and before it Team GB, management team has created a culture for riders to succeed by the continued improvement of tiny, tiny little things. But, I’m also interested in the opposite.

Marginal Degredation

Here’s a few fun facts… - Gorillas share 98.4% of our DNA - Goldfish share 68% - Bananas share 50%

Bananas. Are 50% the same as us.

Well, you think about it, it kind of makes sense. We’re all made from the same elements. The same star dust. Just arranged in different ways. But, we’re very, very different to bananas.

Let’s talk about design for a second.

What happens if 1.6% of your brand is left unchecked? Or 1.6% of your user experience of your product. Doesn’t seem a lot, does it? How about 32% Again, for some, this is within acceptable margins. Especially if your brand or product is growing quickly, acquiring companies here, there and everywhere.

But, 32% is the difference between a human and a goldfish. Even just 1.6% – probably acceptable margins for almost every brand or product out there – is the difference between a gorilla and a human. Think about that for a second.

Your brand or design is supposed to be a human, but people perceive it as a gorilla. Or a banana.

Applying Marginal Gains to brand or product design

What can you do about this? How do you stop a distributed organisation degrading itself? Well, entropy happens and this is always the struggle with any branding or design work on an ongoing basis. Like any garden, it needs tending.

But, here are some of the things I do to stop the rot:

  • Keep talking. To everyone. My job is to help create the environment in which marginal degradation doesn’t happen. I do this by talking to everyone across an organisation - so they feel involved, empowered, excited, free to be creative. I did this before working at Monotype too, but with other companies.
  • ‘Show the mess’. Design work is not that scary. Expose people who are not designers to the design process. By doing this you get better buy-in, involvement, and culture.
  • Maintain a holistic view. It’s so easy to get dragged into the weeds. But sometimes, the weeds is exactly where some delightful little design problem exists. Who knows, maybe I end up doing some actual design work. You know, keeping my hand in. Well, no. Keep above the weeds.
  • Draw straight lines between design and KPIs. This is a big one. What design and brand do should be measurable. Not by some data Goloms like the Net Promotor Score, but by committing to understanding your customer’s behaviour. You can only make incremental tiny improvements on a foundation of understanding. Measuring against real-world indicators puts design in black and white numbers all levels of an organisation can understand.
  • Just be consistent. Even if you know it’s not ideal. It’s not something you’d do. Maybe you inherited a design system, or jumped on board half way through it’s creation. Maybe you just don’t like it anymore. That’s ok, you can take your time to get it changed, but in the meantime, be purposefully consistent.
  • If you do deviate, make sure you do it with a plan. If you plan on being a gorilla, and deviating that 1.6%, then do so with purpose, not just because you are lazy.

Plugging away at this tiny stuff is relentless. It’s the tiny details that, when viewed together, look big and insurmountable. But, taking one tiny improvement at a time, in the bigger scheme of things, you may be surprised at how quickly your product or brand starts perform. Not only that, but now you have a way to measure it.

Filed in: Design, Process.

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