What Sailing Taught Me About Working In UX


This weekend I took a sailing class with my brother and dad and it was a blast. Learning to operate a sailing vessel, being out on the water, learning a new skill, what more could you want? Naturally, when I have an experience like this, I always start thinking about what it can teach me about my work, and there are a few things I would say sailing taught me about UX and design.

Reading the wind

Sailing is all about using the wind to push your boat towards your destination (duh). The way you set your sails up to provide forward motion in the boat is all about the wind and where it’s blowing. Before we set out, we checked different apps to see what the wind was like, and we used real-time feedback from the wind while we were on the water. Our success came from how we read and reacted to the wind.

This is a lot like working with clients. In order for a project to move forward, it’s essential to get a read for the background that made the project needed as well as the business climate you’ll be working in. There may be a lot of wind to propel you, aka a lot of buy-in from the client and a lot of need for what you’re designing, or there might be a tepid wind, aka skepticism on the client’s part or only a marginal need for what you’re designing. But the better you know the “wind”, the better you’ll know how to propel your project forward.

Teamwork is key

On a sailboat, there are a lot of moving parts. All of the mechanics of the sail and rudder are operated manually, and it’s nearly impossible to sail on your own. Not to mention the set-up and break-down of the vessel before and after your trip, which are both labor-intensive and tiring. It was essential to have a ready and willing crew to help manage our trip. Not only that, but our crew also had to communicate effectively in order for us to be able to sail.

This is just like how teamwork is so crucial to great UX work. There are so many moving parts on a UX project, from research to project management, to visual design, it all takes a lot of work and coordination. Some people handle one aspect of a project, while others handle other aspects, and all the while, team coordination and communication is extremely important. Without your team backing you, it can be a huge challenge, maybe even an impossible one, to deliver a project on time and on budget. Teamwork is key, both on the sea and on a UX project.

The course isn’t always a straight line

As we established earlier, sailing is all about the wind, and in planning a course, there can be challenges regarding that wind. Sometimes you want to sail towards a destination directly upwind, but when you’re doing so, you can’t sail directly against the wind. So in order to reach that destination, sailors use a zig-zagging pattern called “tacking”, which gets them to their goal.

In doing UX work, the eventual destination of a project is never reached by means of a direct line. In fact, a project’s course is more often winding and zig-zagging and meandering, but eventually the goal is reached. It’s important for UX practitioners to know this and not fret when the project is taking turns or requiring changes in direction, that’s all natural. It’s all about keeping the goal in sight, and knowing that it’ll be reached eventually.

When I went sailing this weekend, not only did I have a great time on the water, but I also found that there were a lot of parallels relating to my work in UX. Being aware of the wind, valuing and relying on your team, and being comfortable with a meandering course were all valuable take-aways that helped me learn more about life and about design. I would recommend sailing to anybody interested, and would love to talk more about it!