Picture of figure skater Jeremy Abbott conveying the illusion of effortlessness

A Skater's Reflections on the Sport of Building Websites

Resident figure skater and Account Manager Allison Manley reflects on the parallels between the sport and career she loves so much. 

I’m a bit obsessed with the Winter Olympics, which officially commence today. As a figure skater and huge fan of the sport, I can’t wait to watch how the skaters step up to the plate every four years and perform in front of the world. One of the best things about figure skating that differentiates it from so many other athletic endeavors is how effortless the athletes make it look. In tennis, skiing, boxing, running, team sports of any type, and so many others, it’s acceptable to sweat, grunt, huff and puff, grimace, and even throw out a colorful expletive now and then. Not so with figure skating.

In addition to being a figure skater, I am a Project Manager and Strategist here at Palantir. Like many people do, I draw near constant parallels between what I learn and observe in my recreational pursuits and what I learn and observe in my career. With the Olympics upon us, I’ve been considering the parallels between the illusions of effortlessness demanded in both of these professions.

Both have to make really complicated stuff look easy

Skaters, on a regular basis, hurl themselves into the air at speeds up to 18 mph, spin around upwards of four times covering a distance of 15 feet and land on a blade just 3/16” thick. In about 0.7 seconds. They do it again several more times in one routine while mixing in spins and choreography. Oh, and there’s the added challenge of being synchronized to music to tell a seamless story from the starting position to the ending pose. The easier a skater makes this all look, the higher their score.

Web development is similarly complicated and involves parsing myriad tricky technical elements into a choreographed Agile process. There are numerous moving parts to consider: who is going to be visiting the site, who is going to be updating it, how best to integrate third party services, content migration, information architecture, functionality needs, acceptance criteria, approval processes, data analysis, and more. All of which needs to be seamlessly managed via a sprint schedule. Our team of designers, strategists, and developers handle these maneuvers every day, so they make all these complicated tasks seem simple.

Both require vast vocabularies and depth of training to compete

For skaters to reach a level where their performance looks sublime rather than labored, they spend countless hours, days, and years developing their vocabulary of skills. Before they can do a quadruple jump, they have to learn how to even stand up on skates and glide. But once a skater learns the basics of jumping, spinning, and manipulating their feet to create footwork, they can take those building blocks and iterate on them in a way that’s personal, and create new variations on the basics. Voila! Now we have an athlete with a personal style that differentiates them from their competitors.

People who work on websites—as strategists, designers or developers—don’t take a few courses and, bam, they’re experts. Like trained athletes, they invest countless hours developing core knowledge and insights to help them see, understand, and analyze at the highest level to become virtuosos in their craft. They’ve built modules, trained in best web practices and standards, iterated on what they’ve learned and created a library of technique from which they can build unique web experiences that perform. We never stop looking for ways to improve our skills. Our goal is to always improve our vocabulary of knowledge so we can be better, smarter, and faster for our clients.

Both take into consideration aesthetic and viewer experience

Let’s face it: of all the Olympic sports, skating is the most subjective. In addition to the athletic prowess required, there’s music, costuming, performance, mood . . . basically all the elements that make skating dramatic and fun to watch. Skaters invest a lot more energy than you’d think in finding the right music that will best accentuate their strengths while hiding weaknesses. They choose costumes that enhance their lines and accent the music. Everything down to the details of hair styles, and even how they enter their starting position, are taken into consideration in order to make the best presentation while still allowing for them to perform the jumps and spins required to win. The performances that best marry aesthetics with athleticism are the ones that are remembered.

The design of an interface is just as critical to winning over a tough panel of judges. There are decisions to be made regarding typefaces that are legible on all viewports, hierarchy of the page, simplicity of navigation and structure, colors that distinguish the brand and the information, spacing issues, and impactful uses of imagery. The easier the web interface, the better the user experience. Like skating judges, users prefer and give higher marks to websites that are effortless to use. Users give low marks to sites that make us struggle or give us frustration.

One thing we at Palantir never hear from clients is “I want a website that’s hard to use.” Designers spend hours thinking about the strategy behind the site and how to arrange the elements to make information accessible and relatable. Don’t think for a second that it isn’t skillful choreography … arranging all the design elements and marrying them to the functionality—and doing it well—takes mastery. And when the finished product functions effortlessly while presenting the message of the client in an appealing way, users will give it a standing ovation.

The “sport” of building a website

Is web building a sport? Well, not really … even if we might get the occasional carpel tunnel or pull a neck muscle now and then. But our disciplined team of Palantir athletes are always pushing the boundaries of our skills and expanding our vocabularies so we can create effortless, seamless web experiences for our clients that beat the competition. We make it look easy. One last thing … Jeremy Abbott for gold! 

Image courtesy of Leah Adams and http://figureskatersonline.com/jeremyabbott/site/