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What User Experience Can Learn from the Oakland A’s

The comments of Paul DePodesta, titled, “The Genesis, Implementation, and Management of New Systems,” provide much good food for thought for those of us trying to “make the case” for user experience work.

While general manager Billy Beane gets all the glory for the Oakland A’s remarkable success while having one of the lowest team payrolls, it’s Paul DePodesta who did the math (and math and math) to figure out what actually makes a team successful, and found that it wasn’t what the conventional wisdom esteemed.

As DePodesta points out, he had an advantage over people immersed in baseball because he knew “absolutely nothing” about it. He could approach baseball with a fresh pair of eyes, and see that the way it was valued didn’t really make sense. (This actually ties with the reading I’ve been doing in an Information in Society course, where we discussed “paradigm shifts”, a la Thomas Kuhn, where it’s often an outsider who provides the perspective that the people within the culture can’t attain on their own. Think about a patent clerk upending physics with some notions on relativity.)

What I found most valuable about this talk was DePodesta’s revealing that at his first major league job, with the Cleveland Indians, he wasn’t able to make change because the team was successful. Such an environment made innovation impossible, because people don’t want to tinker with success. Even though a change could lead to remarkably more success, and stagnancy would likely lead to the competition surpassing you (which it did, a few years later, when Cleveland’s far greater payroll performed worse than the A’s.)

I think about this in the face of introducing thoughtful, robust, user experience processes and methods into organizations. One of the most annoying realities of a user experience professional’s life is eBay, because it seems to flout everything we stand for. The Web’s most popular ‘pure play’ sports a remarkably unwieldy and unattractive design. eBay is wary of changing it because, hey, we’re making money, right? Yet I wonder about the untold billions more eBay could reap if it tightened up its experience. Yes, initially there would be a lot of grousing, and probably loss of revenue, as people adjusted to the status quo. But overtime, the site’s ability for higher productivity on the part of its users would lead to greater activity, and more sales.

I don’t think I’m just eating sour grapes. I actually work with a client that suffers this syndrome, and whom I’m convinced could reap an additional 50% in revenue through making their current site more usable. In the current set-up, people are spending so long maintaining their accounts as they are, that they don’t have time to expand their accounts and their activity, which would in turn reap greater revenue for the company. (Sorry for the vagueness). But the company is profitable, so, “Hands off!” — though, unlike eBay, they’re starting to see their lunch get eaten by an innovative competitor.

Another interesting parallel to work I do is DePodesta’s discussion of information overkill. Baseball is renowned as a sport for stat-heads. Trading cards are covered with numbers. The problem is, there are too many stats, and many of the lauded ones just didn’t matter. Anyone who has seen a company grapple with their website’s log files knows what DePodesta is talking about. Early on in the Web, it became a joke how companies were obsessed with “hits” — because hits, really, are meaningless. Something with pageviews, time on page, and a whole slew of other metrics. It took a long time for companies to realize that the only numbers that matter are those that reflect results — leads, sales, forms submitted.

And in much the same way that baseball folks are still grappling with the stat problem, the website analysis problem is far from solved.

Anyway, lots of good food for thought in that piece, as well as the other “Thought Leader” essays.

  1. I agree that DePodesta is the unsung hero of Michael Lewis’ book Moneyball and the Oakland A’s front office. Now he’ll get his chance to show his stuff — he’s just been named general manager of the LA Dodgers.

    I predict he’ll be successful running his own shop — he’s got some material to work with (the Dodgers had the best pitching staff in baseball last season), but also some room for improvement (they also had the worst offense in baseball).

  2. DePodesta without a doubt will turn around Dodgers in the next 3 years.

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