Ivana McConnell explains how she has learned the power of narrative through reading statistical analysis of sports
Ivana McConnell on how statistical sports analysis taught her the power of narrative
I’ve been an athlete for as long as I can remember. But there’s a particular layer to sport that has been unexpectedly helpful to my work as a designer: advanced analytics.
For most, sports statistics are straightforward: goals, wins, points. But advanced analytics goes deeper. Technology records every action on a field or court and its output is analysed. Specialised statistics are used to fuel debates about whether or not teams are dynasties, who the real MVP is and myriad other things. We can find a player’s value down to the win to their team, for example.
I became fascinated after reading ‘Stephen Curry is the Revolution’ on FiveThirtyEight. Using advanced stats, the piece is a deconstruction of the three-pointer, a contention that “Curry’s bad shots are better than others’ good shots.” The story, underpinned by data, makes a counterintuitive concept compelling. It is in the reading of these analyses that I learn how numbers provide a framework to fashion a memorable narrative.
To make a design decision, we need to gather and compare pieces of data that we might otherwise see as disparate, finding (hopefully) profound insight. But insight isn’t enough – it must then be communicated and that is one of the most important things I’ve learned from engaging in advanced analytics debates: the intersection of numbers and narrative.
In sport and design, not everything is as it seems: a high-scoring player might be taking shots away from better teammates, resulting in losses. Advanced stats tackle problems, asking questions of numbers and documenting the answers they give. The resulting story is used to articulate the insight to others. It’s not just about the conclusion but about how we get there. The whole is greater than the sum of each statistic.
Uncertainty and critique, too, are important. I always want to remove all doubt in a decision but the picture is never perfect. A dataset can be used to declare Player A is brilliant, while another set can expose the same player as an overpriced fraud. And both can be correct – it just depends on what we value. This is why critique is critical and the numbers allow us to set baselines to tell our stories and communicate those values to others – in sport, design and elsewhere.