How Storyboarding Saved Us Few Months of Work: Lessons from NFL and German Soccer

In my first 2 blogs of this series, I shared stories from my engagement with NFL and soccer teams demonstrating how observation techniques and persona development guided our product team on the right problems. In this chapter, I’ll recount the use of storyboards that helped us steer of developing software for scenarios that weren’t necessarily true despite the initial demands from the teams.

There was one scenario with an NFL team where the storyboard exposed fallacious assumptions. We were exploring how to leverage software and analytics to help the team with roster cuts in preparation for the upcoming season.

The “pre-season” for NFL teams start with training camp during the 3rd week of July, when they start with 90 players on their roster. In August, every team carries 90 players on its roster through the first two pre-season games. The team then cuts the roster to 75 players after the 3rd pre-season game and then further down to 53 players after the 4th pre-season game.

Teams are constantly evaluating their roster to make sure they are selecting the best players for the season. This includes both veterans and drafted rookies. They might even bring free agents to test them out. Some teams could be bringing in 8–10 players during the summer. They will look at other teams and try to predict the players they may waive based on their depth charts and other information; They are also “massaging” the status of the players on the injured list, putting them on PUP (players unable to perform). They also react to incidents at training camp.

The entire operations team including the GM, DPP, pro scouts, coaches and salary cap managers are all involved in the process. There are many considerations to consider and scouts could differ from the coaches in their preferred roster. At the same time, coaches want to bring in people for practice but the salary cap managers may push back for financial reasons.

The specific scenario we evaluated in detail was the interaction between the coaches and scouts during this period. Each group ranks and orders the players on its version of the depth chart on a daily basis. The GM and the head coach debate their respective preferences every morning. The roster discussions need to account for multiple factors, including contractual and salary cap considerations, injury risks, off-field incidents, probability of players being released from other teams among many others. It was a cumbersome process to aggregate and collate this information regularly.

With the input of the scouts, we envisioned a world where the entire team could effectively leverage software analytics and create simulations of the roster with new information entered. Both scouts and coaches could have their own simulated version of the depth chart and the software could underline the differences. During their daily discourse, the GM and coach could assess the implications of depth chart changes in real-time, for example, the consequent impact on their salary cap position. The scouts were enthusiastically optimistic about the prospects of such simulation, except there was just one problem.

We created a storyboard elaborating the new scenario (see the storyboard here). As we reviewed it with different groups, it were the coaching assistants who shed light on the technical proficiency of the cohort of coaches: of the 20 or so in the coaching team, only 3–4 interacted with any system on their own; otherwise they depended on the assistants to print out all sorts of documents. The coaches were reading and writing on paper or whiteboards, and it was rather implausible that they would be doing software-driven simulations any time soon. We could always make the software very simple but we needed to contend with ingrained habits. The storyboard helped us avoid developing software for an idea that wouldn’t work with one of key target persona.

I had experienced another situation with the German national soccer team in preparation for the World Cup 2014. In this case, the storyboard helped us prioritize our efforts on the right problem, one that we hadn’t initially considered. The national teams got to practice as a team only for a mere 50–60 days in total during the 10–12 months leading up to the World Cup. The players needed to fulfill their obligations to their European club teams, limiting their preparation time for the World Cup. However, the coaches endeavored to keep in regular touch with the players by flying into the respective cities for face-to-face meetings on a monthly basis. In the meantime, the scouts would prepare detailed analysis of their performance in the leagues, collating stats and videos, which the coaches then shared with the players during the visits. Their goal was to inculcate the “German philosophy” of playing soccer in the players, which could easily differ from the guidance from their respective club teams.

As we developed the storyboard, we inquired about the non-technical parts of the coach-to-player conversation. We explored how the GM and coaches interacted with the players remotely or how the players interacted with each other. It was astonishing to discover that a large proportion of the remote conversations among them were rather trivial, comprising of humor, anecdotes, PR, party stories, etc. The executives strived to instill a sense of camaraderie among the team, particularly between players. However, there was a problem. The emerging roster for the national team composed of veterans as well as new emerging players, which led to inevitable cliques since the players necessarily didn’t know each other well. Whatsapp was the primary channel for ad-hoc communication for the players, who avoided Facebook or emails, and the Whatsapp groups betrayed the cliques. It also appeared that the new players weren’t proactive enough to engage the experienced players. The continual effort by the GM and coaches to foster communication and bonds among the players underscored a core problem with the situation of remote players — the need to create a sense of strong team unity, a differentiating trait of German soccer. As we inset details to add color to the storyboard, we discerned a critical but implicit issue; however, the German executive team didn’t broach the topic, uncertain about the role of technology as a solution. Yet, the social features of the final solution, which even triggered behaviors we hadn’t considered, delivered the utmost benefits to the team.

Storyboards are an integral part of any design-thinking process. We leveraged them to:

  • Validate our assumptions and research synthesis and course-correcting accordingly
  • Uncover behaviors and habits initially overlooked
  • Identify new and, even more, urgent user needs by exploring the details in specific scenarios