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Tottenham Hotspur, Rochdale FC, and the VAR system: a very public UX failure

By March 2, 2018No Comments

Wednesday night’s match between Tottenham Hotspur and Rochdale was one of the most public examples of botched UX in recent memory. The introduction of the new Video Assisted Refereeing (VAR) system made for a disjointed game with long pauses, 2 goals disallowed without explanation, and mystified and angry fans and players.

What’s more, it all happened in front of an audience of millions. What went wrong – and how could it have been prevented?

When the soccer authorities initially researched the idea of using VAR to support referees’ decision making, it’s almost certain that they asked fans, players and officials the question “Do you think a system that helps to increase the accuracy of the decisions by match officials is a good idea?”. The answer would, of course, have been a resounding “Yes”. No one wants a less fair game. But the caveat that might – or at least should – have accompanied that response was “As long as it is not detrimental to the atmosphere, passion and energy of the match”.

Good UX design factors in these kinds of caveats at an early stage. When you ignore them, you end up with the kind of mess the current VAR system is in. Wednesday night’s game was a classic example of a process that functioned correctly, but still dissatisfied users – having a vastly detrimental impact on the experience for fans, players, commentators and officials alike.

Their feedback is damning – Tottenham manager Mauricio Pochettino commented “I think football is about emotion. If we are going to kill emotion, it’s not so happy what we have seen”, expert summariser Jermaine Jenas called it “comical” and that he was “sorry for the referee’”, while player Danny Rose raged that it was “complete nonsense” that he was left “waiting around and not knowing what is happening”.

During the match the new VAR team interrupted the game a number of times for several minutes each, with no explanation given to either the crowd or the players as to the reasons why. Worse, no reasons were given for why decisions originally made by the referee were over-ruled. The game’s flow was massively impacted as a result – and both players and fans were left feeling unimportant or irrelevant to proceedings.

VAR designers should now be asking themselves how they moved from universal agreement that the system was a good idea to universal vilification by its users.

Our belief is that simple UX research factored fully into the design at the earliest opportunity would have helped enormously in ensuring the VAR process both improved decision making and protected the things fans, players and officials love about the game.

By designing the system in closer collaboration with these stakeholders groups, it would have become clear that a system that interrupted the game for many minutes and did not communicate with fans and players was totally unacceptable. VAR is a clever system devised in an office by clever people, but it’s clear that its design process didn’t fully consider the needs of its users.

If they had started their design by looking at the barriers to adoption – asking stakeholders for their views and simulating potential processes – the system’s problems would have been identified long before Wednesday’s match, and it could have received very different feedback.

Simple, early UX research could’ve helped to avoid what will no doubt be a costly re-work of the system.  But this doesn’t just apply to the VAR project – many organisations are now waking up to the significant impact that early-stage UX research provides.

Making UX an integral part of your product design optimises the outcome and de-risks your project – talk to us about how we can help.

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