• By Everett McKay on March 8th, 2010
  • Getting from good UX to great UX

NBC Olympic Coverage and Courageous Design

Know your users, design for your users… right?

I loved the 2010 Olympic Winter Games. Vancouver did a fantastic job. CTV did a fantastic job too. And NBC? Well, let’s say they did OK.

Living near the Canadian border, I’ve long had access to Canadian broadcasting and greatly prefer their coverage over ours. Apparently, I’m not the only one. I took a short winter vacation at Stowe, VT and of the Olympic coverage that I saw displayed in public, the score was CTV 6, USA 1, NBC 0. Not one set showed NBC!

Before the games, I had two predictions about NBC’s coverage. First, I expected to see a lot of Michael Phelps as a cheap ratings ploy (sorry guys, wrong Olympics!) Second, I expected to not see any significant coverage for events that 1) are unpopular with Americans, 2) didn’t have any American medal contenders, and 3) don’t immediately appear exciting or dangerous. In other words, no cross-country skiing and for sure no curling. I nailed the first prediction but was pleasantly surprised to see NBC cover entire cross-country skiing events that had no American contenders. (Didn’t see any curling though).

As a user centered design challenge, this presents an interesting question: what’s wrong with giving people what they want? If most viewers aren’t interested in cross-country skiing, wouldn’t user centered design suggest that NBC would be right to not include it? (Let’s assume for a moment that user centered design is what NBC tried to do, as opposed to, say, maximizing advertising revenue.) NBC does extensive viewer research and their programming choices reflect their data, so we should love the results based on our own input. Why then did so many people prefer CTV’s coverage?

The answer, I believe, is that giving people what they ask for can lead to good design, but it doesn’t guarantee great design. You can be good by following your users, but to be great, you have to lead them. In short, great design often requires courage.

Following your users is safe design. It requires research, analysis, and process, but little more. By contrast, courageous design is risky. It requires insight, creativity, and boldness to go beyond the data. Courageous design requires saying “we’re going to give you something you didn’t ask for, but we believe you might like anyway.” This is hard to do well because you have to discover desires that people don’t even know that they have. And if you fail, you fail big. You might be leading your customers to some new, exciting place…or maybe somewhere they have no desire to go.

Why is this important? Well, nobody asked Apple for an iPhone. Nobody asked for Facebook. For sure nobody asked for Twitter. Revolutionary innovation requires courage. You can’t lead by following.

If you do only one thing: Do the best user research you can, but be willing to see beyond the data.

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