Running is a very personal endeavor, yet teaches me the most about design and solving problems for others. The day-to-day challenges that I face in my training and understanding the nuances of the sport are constantly inspiring my work as a designer. I always say that running makes me a better UX designer. In this piece, I’m going to talk about how the lessons I’ve learned as a runner translate to the way I approach UX design.
1. The source of the problem isn’t where the direct pain is
Oftentimes, in running, the root of an injury isn’t actually where the pain comes from. For example, knee pain can be traced to IT band issues, caused by weak hips, core, and glutes (among other body parts). Similarly, in design, friction in the user experience and problems don’t necessarily come directly from where the pain points are. Problems can be caused by a variety of factors. Therefore, I learned the importance of taking a holistic approach to designing user experiences by contextualizing and researching the complexities of the problems I’m working with. Understanding and validating the problem is a huge part of design!
2. You can’t do everything – pick one thing and do it well
During marathon training, I attempted to set new personal records (PR) in the mile and 5K but couldn’t race as well as I had hoped. I used to think that if I’m training for a marathon, I could also do well in shorter distances but I was wrong. Differences in the distance (26.2 miles versus 1 mile) calls for different training programs. When working on design projects, I’m tempted to do everything because the insights I gather in the research phase presents many areas of opportunities for improvement. Rather than solve all the problems at once, I learned that it’s more effective to target a problem and work through it.
3. Trust the process because no efforts are wasted
When I trained for the United Airlines NYC Half and Popular Brooklyn Half earlier this year, I harbored a lot of doubt because my training program felt counter-intuitive. I did way more slow runs, compared to fast training runs, and they felt somewhat wasteful. Surprisingly, I raced extremely well and set new PRs at both! When I outline project timelines and go through the design process, there are parts that seem unnecessary and counter-intuitive. I learned, however, that not everything I work on will end up in the final design, but no effort is wasted. There is value in each step that has been taken to reach a certain target, even if causes doubt and the outcome isn’t immediately visible.
Related: How I learned to trust myself during marathon training
4. Slowing down helps you go faster
Since I do my easy runs slowly, people are often surprised to find that my race pace is nearly two minutes per mile faster. But I’m proof that running slowly helps me race competitively. Right now, the tech world is moving at a tremendously quick pace, with folks eager to be the next disruptive force in society. It’s easy to get lost in the momentum and crank out products, but it’s critical to slow down. Running fast all the time leads to burnout and injuries. Rapid product development leads to, among many, excluding major user groups, creating the “wrong” solution, and loss of profit. Resetting, reflecting, and getting alignment on problems is absolutely necessary in both endeavors to deliver astonishing results.
5. Progress isn’t always linear
My confidence as a runner is always being tested. When I race significantly slower than a personal best or have trouble getting out the door for a simple recovery run, I’m reminded that progress isn’t always linear. There have been countless occasions when I’ve returned to the drawing board mid-project because I didn’t have enough insights to back up my design decisions. Failing is an inevitable part of the process but the silver lining is that it can lead to great outcomes further down the road. Appreciating and embracing the non-linear progression requires courage, but makes me a stronger runner and designer.
I’d love to share a portion from a New York Times article, “Who Says Allie Kieffer Isn’t Thin Enough to Run Marathons?” In this piece, author Lindsay Crouse says, “By conventional standards, she [Allie Kieffer] is doing nearly everything wrong. But she’s beating a lot of the people who are still training the ‘right’ way, so perhaps her path shows there’s room for a more flexible definition of what the right way can be. This is probably true for more than just distance running.”
I’ve always believed that the lessons I learn in running can directly be applied to the challenges I face as a designer. At the end of the day, nothing in UX design is conventional. People’s needs are constantly changing and results that leave an impact must come from a place of innovation. Running teaches me the value of breaking habits, reevaluating my workflow, and having faith during the darkest moments can lead to significant breakthroughs. That is the epitome of solving problems and creating value in design.