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Dueling and Design

by Ben Self
6 min read
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In fencing, as in user experience design, a rounded and crystal-clear understanding of your objective is paramount.

The other day I was leaving the office and mentally switching gears from the design work I had been doing all day to the fencing class I was about to teach that night. During my commute, I thought to myself, “It’s time to stop thinking like the end user and start thinking like a fencer.”

Suddenly realizing the similarities between my job and my hobby, I found myself pondering the connections between fencing and UX Design further over the next few weeks. I discovered more parallels than I had expected, although the first thought I had was that the goals are almost completely opposite.

When I am fencing, I want to frustrate my opponent and keep him from accomplishing his goals. When I am designing an interface, I want to encourage the user and help them accomplish their goals. It occurred to me, however, that while the final results are polar opposites, many of the methods used for assessing how best to achieve those opposite ends are actually very similar.

Since most people are not very familiar with modern competition fencing, let’s start by taking a look at the sport. Modern fencing has its roots in swordplay, but the training and tactics employed are meant to win competitions, not duels. Bouts are fenced to a set number of points. Points are most often scored by making a valid touch on your opponent although points can also be awarded if a fencer retreats off the end of the strip or for certain rule violations. There is a director who judges the bout and enforces the rules.

Weapons and Tools

There are a great many fencing moves that have been invented over the years. Simple moves such as feints and parries, also known as fakes and blocks, can be combined to create points and there are an endless number of variations. Knowing a wide variety of moves and their strengths and weaknesses is key to becoming a successful fencer. Choosing which moves to use is a large part of any fencing bout, as every opponent you face will fence differently. If I can find a move that my opponent is only able to stop a third of the time or less, I am almost sure to win the bout. The more moves you are proficient with, the more likely you will be able to find one that works well against your opponent.

At this point, you’re probably asking: “What does this have to do with UX design?”

Well, to start, consider any usability forum where people are asking questions about usability and count how many responses start with the words “it depends.” There are countless ways of gathering usability information. Which method should be employed depends upon the situation, very similar to choosing which moves to employ in a fencing bout. Methods like remote testing, paper prototyping, and A/B testing all have their benefits and drawbacks. The more methods you know and are proficient in, the more likely you will be to get the best possible information given a particular set of restrictions. The deeper your understanding, the easier it is to make a quick, accurate decision.

Opponents and Users—Get Into their Heads

Fencing is sometimes called physical chess because success often comes down to assessing your opponent and adjusting your game to defeat him. The more you understand your opponent, the easier it will be to anticipate his moves and the better you can plan your strategy. Is he tired? Does he like to attack or is he more comfortable defending? What is his favorite attack? Is he right or left handed? As you gather information, you begin to build a mental model of your opponent. Each action, whether you get the point or lose it, gives you information to add to your mental model. If you learn that your opponent never makes low attacks, then you don’t have to worry about defending low.

The more robust your mental model, the better it will be at predicting your opponent’s behavior. UX Design is a chess match as well. With UX Design, the more you can understand your user, the better. Your user, although not your opponent, is on the other end of the ultimate outcome: the design. So it’s vital to know how the user will react and what their needs and desires are prior to engaging in UX Design.

Strategic concerns must be considered up-front and during the build. What are the user’s motivations for using a feature? What kind of physical environment are they in? Building a mental model of a user that can be used to predict and/or explain behavior is actually very similar to what I do when fencing. Being able to see potential design solutions as the user will see them is invaluable. For example, if you know the user is uncomfortable around computers, you can discard more complicated or technical options right from the start. Discarding untenable options ahead of time will save time and money in asset creation, testing, and rework.

Understanding “Why” Is Essential

I have been teaching fencing classes for at least a decade, and one thing I constantly tell my students is: “Ask why.” I don’t want them to just know what is correct, I want them to know why it is correct. There are several reasons for this. The first is that it tends to be easier to remember what’s correct if you have some reason behind it other than the arbitrary “that is what the instructor said.” The second and more important reason is that knowing why will help you make better decisions. Knowing that you don’t do a parry a particular way because it would allow your opponent to hit you means that when you see your opponent make that mistake, you know where you can hit.

Knowing why is also important in UX Design. If the results of a usability test show that something doesn’t work, it is good to know why so that you can avoid making a similar mistake in future designs. Furthermore, knowing a certain menu doesn’t work, doesn’t give a designer enough information to fix the problem. A UX Designer can go back and redesign the menu mechanism multiple times without any improvement in test results, because he or she doesn’t know that it is actually the wording of the menu items that is the problem. The same goes for user requests. Users will often tell you what control they want and where they want it instead of telling you what tools they need to accomplish their goal. If you find out why they need the control upfront, you can often find a better way to meet the need, or even several needs, with a different design than the one the user described.

Final Round

Why should you care about the similarities between fencing and UX Design? It’s always interesting to see how many correlations can be found between two seemingly disparate activities, and I believe that thinking about one activity in light of another has the potential to enhance understanding, spark new ideas, and improve results for both pursuits. While most people are probably not terribly familiar with fencing, I suspect that many of the parallels I’ve put forth for fencing and UX Design will ring true for most sports where individuals compete directly with each other, and against themselves.


Fencing image courtesy of Shutterstock


post authorBen Self

Ben Self, Ben Self is a UX Designer and Certified Usability Analyst at Asynchrony Solutions, where he conceptualizes and designs software for desktop, web, and mobile platforms. For more information, visit blog.asolutions.com.


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