Three ways to build empathy to increase fan engagement in sports

The imaginary stadium is modelled and rendered.
April 12, 2018

Read time 6 min

We went to San Francisco to meet with the heads of the global sports industry. What we saw and heard was a lot of cutting-edge technology and big ambitious plans for fan engagement. Most companies seemed to genuinely want to understand and interact with their end users; to incorporate empathy into their design thinking. But no one was really listening to the fans.

It starts with the fans

Hi, I’m Phil, a designer at Reaktor. Earlier this year I gave a talk with my colleague John at the Sports Performance Data & Fan Engagement Summit in San Francisco. The two-day conference brought together hundreds of executives from the world’s largest sports organizations. And the question we threw at the room was this: How do you define engagement?

The industry heads mainly thought that looking at Google Analytics – and maybe inferring some additional insights from Facebook and Twitter stats – constituted as “consumer insights.” Data in their operations were being mined mainly to maximize sales. We wanted to broaden that perception. To look at defining engagement through the eyes of the consumer; to focus on how fans perceive these offerings.

There were outliers, of course: companies that were already doing this in brilliant fashion, like Nike, which showcased its inspirational quest to break the world record by having its athletes complete a marathon in less than 2 hours. But by and large – although the conference was about fans and about engaging them – the fans were nowhere to be seen. We witnessed it in showcase after showcase: No one was asking the fans what they think the future of sports should or could be.

What often sets Reaktor apart in the sports industry is that we believe building long-lasting products begins with getting really close to the person. That is also why we maintain that exceptional UX design and fan engagement means different things for different brands; that the approach must always be individually tailored to the fans in question.

The three steps to building more empathy

Over the years John and I have designed products for countless major global sports brands, including the International Olympic Committee, adidas, Under Armour, Arsenal F.C., and HBO Boxing. And I’ve learned that, in sports, it’s all about the fans. If we don’t understand them, or we don’t engage with them on a deeply personal level, we fail by default. As designers, we must learn to cultivate empathy: To relive the experiences of the fans and to make their moments with the brand even better.

There are three things to keep in mind when building empathy into UX design:

1. Quit outsourcing your learning

Too many sports organizations ignore the qualitative side of things: fan engagement is not as simple as quantitative data might suggest. It’s important to learn and understand the nuances of how fans interact with your team, the players, and the brand.

There are three easy ways of going about this:

a. User interviews. Use your marketing and customer support teams to reach out and recruit fans for interviews. Ask them targeted questions that get them to tell you what they would create/build. This is always a better approach than focus groups and surveys, where people rarely tell the truth.

b. Field studies. Use your marketing, customer support, and on-site sales teams to recruit users who would be willing to let you go and observe them in their environment. Attend a game with them. Go to their tailgate parties. Become one of the fans. You’ll learn more so much more than you ever could at the office.

c. Prototyping. Once you have started to build something, even on paper, bring in the real fans and have them use your prototype. They’ll happily tell you what they like and dislike (which will be gold). Iterate quickly on what you learn and do it again. Take your prototype into the field and test it there. It’s all about making a lot of small decisions based on real feedback.

2. Stop treating tech as the end result

High-tech stuff doesn’t matter to fans as much as legacy and realness do. Sports are fundamentally about epic human narratives: about triumph and failure, persistence and effort, and strength and speed. That’s what people come to these matches to witness. I’m from England, and there, the soccer is all about the history and the vibe you get from the old stadiums. Technology should enhance that experience, not take away from it.

The problem right now is that executives in boardrooms are figuring these things out without listening to the fans. No one’s really drawing on research. That’s why so many sports organizations are investing huge amounts of money in cutting-edge technologies even though their basic infrastructure is askew. They think VR and AR are what will make them appealing to fans. Yet many stadiums don’t even have WiFi yet.

The question is, can you actually build stuff? Do you have the technological infrastructure to support these new experiences? It’s pivotal to trust the product design process: to draw on the research, to do the prototyping with the fans, to learn from them, and to try, and then try again, reacting to things as you learn. And, most of all, to remember that it’s all about the sport and the experience of it; the fans and how they see it. Not how fancy the technology is.

3. Place fans at the core of everything you do

When you put fans at the center of your work, that changes everything. For a lot of organizations, it’s a big change. The culture needs to be realigned to match that fan-centric approach, and you need to consider the fans at every point of every process. That means that if you have a business need that doesn’t directly align with your fans’ needs you’ll need to rethink about whether to pursue it. Fans simply have to come first, always.

It’s ultimately an act of love

Everyone is talking about design thinking right now because they finally realize that it’s no longer enough to sell the best technology. What’s more important is the fandom: Why people love things and why they keep coming back. At Reaktor, we work hard to understand and maximize that affection by placing the fan at the heart of everything we do. We believe a product design approach to fan engagement is inherently fan-centric. That’s because engagement is ultimately an act of love, and it works both ways. To receive affection, we must give it in return.


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