The excepts below are from Fan Centric Design, a book coming soon to Amazon.
Using the ‘Blinkist’ approach, the entire book has been summarised in a short 10-15 minute read, to allow readers to get a snapshot of key concepts and ideas. The full book also includes various first hand experiences and practical advice, alongside industry case studies and football anecdotes that help to paint a fuller picture about by designing for, and with, the fans is so important for modern football.
What is Fan Centric Design?
Terminology changes to fit trends, or to satisfy particular niches. The term ‘Fan-centric-design’ (FCD) quite simply means putting the fans at the centre of the design process. In other words, designing with the fans—for the fans.
This isn’t necessarily a new idea. In fact, human-centered design (HCD) is continuously being championed across multiple industries. There’s even arguments that the method was used in ancient Greece by Plato under the name ‘participatory methodology‘ or simply ‘community participation’. Once again, it’s simply asserting that the end-users (whether that be a football fan, or to be even more general, a human) should be the focus of the design. So, what does that look like, and how does it differ from the norm?
A new business might appear on the market with a shiny new product. Their team has worked hard to bring their idea to life, they’ve made all the supporting marketing materials… but no one buys the product. Why? In many cases, it’s because the business hasn’t fully understood their target market. They might have made something too expensive for their typical user, or perhaps they’re not actually solving a problem the user has. For instance, imagine someone tried to sell you a fancy sat-nav today, you’d simply point at your mobile phone and point out that you’ve got that service for free from Google. They may have wrongly assumed their standalone device was useful, without understanding your wants, needs, and daily habits and behaviours.
If businesses continually assume what their audience will want, and think, then they’re taking a big gamble. By adopting a human-centered approach (or rather Fan-Centric), they can find out exactly how their audience might react, and design their products and services accordingly.
Let’s use the example of a football club releasing a new football shirt.
The kit manufacturer, say Nike or Adidas, may have designed a bunch of shirt templates and allowed the club marketing manager or director to choose their favourite. Perhaps there was a small board involved in the decision. The opinions of these individuals might not reflect the fans, they could be too close to the business to understand the view of the general public—or worse, they might simply shun the general public opinion as they see themselves as the expert and don’t want to be influenced by those outside the industry.
The new kits launch, and fans don’t particularly like them… or don’t find them original enough… so not many kits are sold. It’s a failure that could have been avoided.
By using fan-centric design, the kit manufacturer and the club could involve the fans throughout a thorough FCD process—leading to a high degree of confidence that the end product (the shirt) will be loved and bought.
The Fan Centric Design Process
The FCD process follows 4 main stages. Many designers put their own spin on these stages, but one of the most famous processes is the 4 D’s: Discover; Define; Develop; Deliver. This is structured within a framework called the ‘Double Diamond Design Process’, a model popularised by the British Design Council in 2005, and adapted from the divergence-convergence model proposed in 1996 by Hungarian-American linguist Béla H. Bánáthy.
Prior to 2005, many of the world’s most successful brands and companies were already following this process, prior to the ‘double diamond’ name being coined. The process and framework is built around firstly taking the time to discover as much relevant information as possible; then defining what you need to do by researching with your target audience; next you can develop your ideas based on research findings, before then performing testing and iterating on potential solutions; and finally you’ll deliver on your chosen product, service, or feature.
The beauty of this process is that you’re able to ‘fail fast’, i.e. quickly learn which ideas are unlikely to resonate with your target market or solve their problems. By removing the undesirable ideas early, you’ll save a lot of time, money, and effort, and hopefully be left with only robust solutions.
To expand on this, designer Damien Newman lays claim to a famous scrawl known as ‘the design squiggle’. His story was that many organisations simply didn’t care about the work that was done before practical design work began—they only wanted the end result… and only wanted to pay for the end result! Tasked with explaining why the abstract, research, and concept work was important, in as little as thirty seconds, Damien drew a squiggle.
The squiggle started messy and tall, a large collection of overlapping lines and shapes. As the squiggle continues along the page it gets smaller, and tidier, until eventually it’s a straight line for the last half of the page.
This shape represents the double diamond process, and the importance of failing fast. The mess at the start symbolises all the noise, uncertainty, and mass of new patterns and insights to analyse. This is all the information we gather and work through in research and synthesis, to try and make sense of whatever problem we’re trying to solve. Next, things begin to become clearer as we produce meaningful concepts and prototypes of solutions, but there’s still some mess as we’ve no real idea whether our solutions will work.
As we begin testing solutions, gathering real human feedback from our target market, we can reshape our solutions and scrap unwanted ideas. This, in theory, leaves us with clarity. A straight line calmly moving forward as our solution enters the market and is met happily by our audience.
17 Triggers, a behaviour change innovation lab headquartered in Cambodia, expand on the design squiggle by starting with the same shape inverted. The argument is that most organisations still aren’t human-centric. Designers and companies spend too much time solving problems themselves, without external input and guidance. This leads to a nice smooth starting point, a straight line on a page… but as their prototype is developed things get messy. There might be unforeseen issues and errors. Finally, their solution hits the market and that’s when teams discover all the uncertainty, variables, and negative reactions from the unconsulted and misunderstood audience.
Applying the double diamond process for Fan Centric Design begins with the ‘Discover’ phase. To illustrate what this entails, it’s worth reflecting on the author’s experience designing the football kits for the Cambodian National Team.
As a Scotsman, his prior knowledge of Khmer (Cambodian) culture was low. His experiences watching the national team perform were limited. His exposure to average fans was extremely mild at best. Fortunately, the author resisted the urge to blindly impose his ideas on the nation. Instead, he pledged to immerse himself in the local context and get to grips with what the people loved about the sport, their team, and their country.
The Discover phase of the FCD process therefore involved desk research—i.e. Personal research into articles, books, past studies, public opinion pieces, and anything else available locally and globally that could inform the kit design process. Whilst the focus was obviously on Cambodia, widening the research to include ‘global best practices’ that would help inform various opportunities whilst avoiding common mistakes.
As it turned out, Cambodian football fans were extremely player-focused. Simply put, many fans watched teams to support particular superstars. The sea of Barcelona football shirts worn in Cambodia’s Capital, Phnom Penh, turned into a wave of PSG shirts the year that Messi changed clubs. Equally, Real Madrid shirts were swapped for Juventus, and then ‘upgraded’ to Manchester United shirts following Ronaldo’s career. To match this insight, it was noted that although the average Cambodian football fan may identify a Cambodian Premier League (CPL) domestic team as their own, there was often equal or much higher excitement for watching the top tier global superstars. Supporting this, it was observed that English Premier League, La Liga, Ligue 1, and Seria A shirts were exponentially more commonly spotted in the Cambodian capital—worn casually—than any of the big Phnom Penh teams such as Phnom Penh Crown FC or Nagaworld FC.
To further aid the Discover phase, expert interviews are a great way to digest as much key information in a short period of time as possible. These experts may be the die-hard ultra fans of domestic clubs, and the international team, or they may be industry professionals such as the marketing manager for the national team or board members of clubs around the world. An especially valuable expert for the author’s kit project was to speak with a key director in an internationally renowned garment factory responsible for the manufacturing of Nike, Adidas, and Puma kits for the major European leagues.
Armed with the learnings of various pricing considerations that design choices would ultimately alter, alongside key knowledge of the typical Cambodian salaries and expectations, the Discover phase set up the project with necessary information to inform intelligent decision-making.
Ultimately, the Discover phase is there to help identify the right problem to solve.
The author learned what fans wanted, expected, and what their barriers and motivators may be—emotionally and financially. This sets the stage for the Define phase, whereby initial learnings are built on with focused research.
We could describe the Discover phase as going broad with research, learning as much as possible to help inform the Define phase—which is to go narrow. In the Define phase, the aim is to hone in on ideal data for the specific problem that has been identified.
In this phase, two of the primary research types are quantitative and qualitative.
Quantitative research is based on close-ended questions. This is useful to get mass information and is often conducted via surveys and polls. It can be a great way to validate assumptions, and spot trends among large crowds. Examples of close-ended questions might allow the audience to respond with yes/no answers, from a selection of pre-determined answers, or from a scale such as 1-10 or strongly disagree to strongly agree.
Whilst the author values quantitative research, he argues that FCD flourishes most with qualitative research methods. This is because the audience is given the opportunity to give honest, unrestricted feedback and opinions. For example, rather than asking whether people prefer their national team or their domestic team, the audience will be allowed to talk at length about what each team means to them and any relationship that might exist between the two. Often, qualitative research leads to topics and information that the researcher hadn’t originally been cognisant of.
Qualitative research methods include in-depth interviews (IDIs) either as one-to-one or via focus group discussions (FGDs). A good approach is to have your interview guide ready, but be ready to explore tangents—knowing when to probe further on interesting answers. Another important consideration is to be aware that what the participant says is not the only thing to pay attention to. Body language, tone of voice, environment, and such variables as fashion, can inform further insights. Often there’s a lot being said before a word is uttered—things that indicate interests, attitudes, and choices made.
Other useful qualitative research methods include: Observations, such as watching how people interact with a product, a service, or a feature; and Journaling, which involves giving participants a diary to keep so that they can record particular information over a given time-set.
When speaking to fans and some of the management within the Cambodian National Football Team, the author uncovered a huge wealth of respect for Keisuke Honda (the Japanese manager that also was still a great active football player elsewhere in the world). Despite Cambodia’s team having a disappointing run of results under his leadership, the optimism, excitement, and respect raised and given to Honda was an interesting discovery. Furthermore, there was further praise of the Japanese national kit identity and the thinking behind it—it appeared that Honda’s presence also acted as an ambassador for his own home nation. This fondness for Japanese football via Honda was a curious connection for Cambodia worth exploring further in ideation.
The third phase of the FCD approach is often the true beginning of the practical creative work—with the only normal exception being some very quick and rough prototypes of ideas to use during research to spark conversations. Armed with learnings from Discover and Define stages, the creative is now ready to start developing concepts and ideas to solve the problem at hand.
Returning to the idea of ‘failing fast’, it’s often advisable to aim for low fidelity initial ideas and to focus on the quantity of ideas. A useful ideation method is the KJ Technique which has four simple steps. Firstly, brainstorm alone. If you’re working as a team, everyone works alone at first. Next, you present your ideas to the group or review them all with a quick summary if you’re by yourself. Thirdly, you group your ideas—for instance you might have similar ideas based around a pricing model, or some ideas based around a particular theme. Finally you vote on the best ideas to help figure out what is most feasible, viable, desirable, and impactful.
A great way to enhance this technique is to consider the ‘NAPS100+’ acronym. The N stands for ‘No judgement’. A is for ‘All ideas are welcome’. This serves as a reminder that literally any idea is worth mentioning as it may inspire others, or prompt useful discussions. P is for ‘Piggy-back off of others’; Often great ideas are improvements of existing products, services, features, or campaigns. There’s no shame taking inspiration from other great ideas to prompt your own work. S is for ‘Silly or crazy’, as thinking outside the box can be helpful. Even if your ideas aren’t feasible (yet), or probable, the most unexpected thinking is often what leads to best innovations and finding new ways to wow the market.
The 100+ suggests that ideators should aim to write down as many ideas as possible, as often the first 20 or 30 will be fairly normal… but by the time you’re pushing for idea 100 or 110, you’ll be going into some really abstract and exciting new ways of thinking.
By using this method, the author was able to create a large collection of concepts that might spark joy with Cambodian football fans. He then picked his best concepts and developed quick prototypes digitally of what the end-result might be. At this point, it’s important not to lose sight of the FCD process and ensure you don’t forget the fans. By testing your ideas with the fans, you’ll get honest feedback that can help shape the final product, service, or feature. In the author’s case, he discovered that using the Angkor Wat imagery in a clever pixelated manner impressed the fans and made them excited about the shirts.
At the end of the Develop stage, the designer should have narrowed down their ideas to either a single working solution, or a small set of solutions proven to be desirable-and likely effective-through the concept testing.
The final stage of the FCD process is to test and finalise the solution(s). By using all learnings from testing prototypes, changes can be made to improve the final work. After the design is finished, it is worth performing a final round of testing to be sure—as this insurance step will once again save time, money, and negative publicity, should you have made any mistakes. When the design has been iterated upon enough, the solution should be packaged up and delivered to the market/audience.
For the author, this involved final high resolution mock-ups of the football kits being approved by the national team and kit manufacturer. Then, he created the print-ready versions of each design for the factory. Finally, he signed off on the print samples and awaited the public launch by the kit manufacturers.
When the Cambodia kits launched live via a social media broadcast in June 2022, the FCD process was validated. Hundreds of comments of praise, admiration, support, and excitement poured in via the Cambodian Football Team’s live stream. The thought behind the design had gripped the fans, and made them buy into the aesthetics—regardless of what their previous opinions on ‘digital camouflage’ may have been.
This trial-and-error of prototyping and testing is such a key part of the process, once again aiming to ‘fail fast’ and remove the unwanted and build upon the ideal. However, there’s certainly another consideration from the author’s story. Despite the kits being loved, and oddly receiving zero criticism during the launch (except for a constructive criticism raised about adding the flag back to the back of the top), they weren’t perfect. There was one big flaw that had been uncovered at the beginning of the journey but ultimately ignored. The kits were too high quality.
The design work had been carried out by the author, but he was powerless in the selection of materials. The kit manufacturer opted for the best fabric, the global best practices for the cuffs, collar, and badges… and as such the kit was priced around 300% higher than the typical Khmer football fan was willing to spend. Another key finding in the research had been that fans wanted the same shirt as the players, so cheaper ‘fan quality’ versions would likely not be desirable. So, a week later when the kits went on sale there was mass confusion over the pricing.
The project doesn’t always end when the design work is finished. Often designs are ‘piloted’, to see if they’ll work. If they work, then production can be scaled and replicated elsewhere. The kits sold fairly well, but the cost was going to cause an early ceiling on sales—learning from this, the manufacturer decided to stagger a ‘fan version’ 4 months later… enough time to build the desire for the kit, and overlook the fact that it wasn’t the exact same as what the team wore. Despite initial research, it worked, and the production of kits scaled to cover a much wider market.
These blinks followed the author’s journey through designing football kits using Fan Centric Design-a core theme within the book.
To recap, the main difference between FCD and traditional design is that FCD is collaborative and involves much more touch-points with the target audience to gather info, input, and test designs. The traditional design process tends to be built from assumptions and often decisions are made with bias because of the education or job roles that designers, manufacturers, and football club staff have. Too often those that create something, are not the audience that their solution is meant to serve… which often leads to misalignment and poorer results than expected.
To easily illustrate the FCD process, which stems from mainstream ‘human-centred design’, the double diamond process is a great starting point. The two diamonds represent convergence and divergence, i.e. going broad then going narrow. The first diamond goes broad with desk-research, and gathering a rounded view of what the actual problem is to be solved—before it narrows with qualitative research pinpointing exactly what to focus on. The second diamond then goes broad with a mass of ideas, before narrowing down with validated concepts leading to tested prototypes. Finally, the process should end with a robust, developed solution that carries an air of confidence due to all the touch-points it has passed through.
A key takeaway was to embrace failing fast, as getting things that don’t work out of the way early will leave you with only solutions that should work. This will be a huge saving of time and resources, and ultimately decrease the odds of your project or service genuinely failing upon launch. Sometimes, you might actually discover that none of your solutions work, and that instead you’ve managed to avoid the ‘sunken cost bias’ whereby failing ventures will keep throwing money and resources at their so-called solution purely because they feel they’ve spent too much money and time to give up—a trap you want to avoid at all costs!
With five billion fans globally, football is a huge industry, and the future decision-making in clubs can definitely prosper by adopting a more favourable lens that takes into account the people that keep their clubs alive.