The Future of Golf Business strategy & interaction prototypes

whiteboard scribblings
A colleague and I interview a team of high school golfers about their experience engaging with our experience prototype.

An interdisciplinary team of dreamers...

...came together on a 45-hole golf course in Connecticut to envision new directions for the course and clubhouse. This one-week rapid design sprint brought together a group of designers, musicians, and entrepreneurs to imagine possible futures for the business and the game by prototyping novel experiences and presenting our insights to the owners of the golf club.

Empathy-building exercise: learn how to golf!

The first activity that the team engaged in was a telling sign that the business needed to adapt to a new generation... one that can't golf. We spent several hours teeing off at the driving range and then playing a round of golf in order to get a sense of where things are now.

Reframing the space...

...by defining the golf course without using either 'golf' or 'course' in our definition. I led this exercise with my two teammates as we walked around the bucolic scenery in order to look for opportunities to take advantage of the unique properties golf courses have. This shift in perspective gave us a new definition of 'golf course' without suggesting specific use cases.

My quick sketch of how a quadcopter race might be set up on a golf course.

Brainstorming...

Using our definition from the day before, we started coming up with concrete ways to take advantage of the unique properties of the space. The long, narrow expanses of open air surrounded by an unbroken wall of pine trees suggested a race course for quadcopters - what's more, the tree-lined landscape of this particular resort would allow for a drone race to take place on one side of the cource without disturbing golfers on the other side of the course.

Golf carts are fun. Movies are fun. If you put the two together on a golf course you get the 'Drive-in Range'! This is another idea I helped shape that might appeal to local youth. On a weekend, you can imagine a screening of a golf classic like Caddy Shack or a summer blockbuster with lines of golf carts parked on the lawn. The open-air quality of the golf carts would inherently make it a social event.

Prototyping the essence of our ideas

The most exciting part of this project for me was using the resources at hand on or near the golf course to quickly construct examples of the ideas were going to pitch to our client (the golf club). Using balloons from a local floral shop to create "gates" for our race course, we borrowed the course's photography quadcopter to simulate a race that we capured on video.

https://i.imgur.com/23GLrTA.jpg

Using a couple whiteboard sheets and some construction materials on the golf course, we built a mini-projection screen and invited our clients to arrive on the lawn in golf carts for a screening of a short film with bluetooth speakers and an office projector.

These 'experience prototypes' weren't meant to be high fidelity; rather proof of concepts and boundary objects around which we could have more meaningful conversations with our client.

robotic ball rolls by
My accomplice calibrates the driving characteristics of our Sphero robo-ball on the putting green.

Reimagining an old sport with new technology...

...in order to bring more millenials onto the golf course.

gadgets required:

  • Sphero 2.0 robotic ball
  • iPhone
  • putting green

If kids these days are going to be inseparable from their phone screens even when we put them outside on a beautiful expanse of green grass, lined with trees, sand traps and water hazards, perhaps we can turn this to our advantage by incorporating technology into the game of golf.

This is what I attempted to do when I found myself on a golf course with a robotic ball in my pocket. The manicured fairways were free of holes or lumps that could spell disaster for a small self-propelled orb, however the grass was a little too thick for it to successfully roll. However the smooth, it was the closely-shorn turf of the putting greens where the robo-ball really could excel ...and accel(erate). Moreover, the hole on the putting green was just big enough to give a satisfying "plop - rattle, rattle" when I successfully sank a remote-controlled putt.

'Putting it' to the test (pun intended)...

...guerrilla style. I ran two separate experiments with members of the local high school's golf team, who happened to be training that day on the course. In the first test, I placed the app-controlled Sphero somewhere near the edge of the green (10-15 meters away from the hole) and handed the controls (my iPhone) to the testers. Each student took a turn attempting to "drive" the ball into the hole. After all of them had accomplished this task, I interviewed each of them about what was difficult and what they liked the most.

In the second test, I used a feature on the educational Sphero app that allows players to program a series of "moves" for the "orb-bot" to follow by drawing a path with their finger on the screen of their smartphone. This proved a lot more challenging for my group of testers than the previous task, but also offers the potential for gamified competition by scoring points based on the number of commands (or lines of code executed) it takes for each player to successfully sink a robo-putt.

Outcome

All of the members of the high school golf team who took a turn controlling the Sphero robotic ball found it to be a uniquely thrilling experience and seemed genuinely interested in acquiring a robotic ball themselves. Furthermore, the operation of the robot was intuitive enough that the testers needed very little instruction from me to successfully maneuver the ball. This is a testament to the team at Sphero who designed the interaction paradigms for their product. Testers were also very eager to share this experience with their friends via social media, using the experience as a chance to publish stories on Instagram and Snapchat. Finally, they responded positively when asked if they could imagine more young people becoming interested in golf using this device.

How many strokes is that: 2...6...10!?

Barriers and future challenges...

There were a few observations I made during this experiment of things that were getting in the way of it being an even better experience for the users. The most pressing of these was that often the first couple attempts at rolling the ball with the iPhone resulted in it moving in a direction other than the one intended by its operator. I attribute this to the difficulty in knowing the orientation of the sphere when it is still. The folks at Sphero have addressed this by adding indicator lights inside the orb that communicate the orientation of the ball, and a process for changing its orientation when you first start driving. In the direct sunlight of the outdoor space these lights were all but invisible, which made trial and error the only option for determining the orientation of the robo-ball.

One challenge faced by future iterations of this concept is how we might incorporate it more fully into a game of golf. As mentioned previously, the ball only rolls successfully on the putting green - hitting a ball that size with a golf club is out of the question - so how might this technology be incorporated at the tee or on the fairway?

Also once you get the hang of it, driving the ball from the edge of the green into the hole becomes quite a simple task: micro-adjustments with your thumb on the virtual joystick is all that is needed to guide your Sphero directly to the hole. Because of its self-propulsion system, it can overcome the subtle variatons in grade and slope that vex most itinerant golfers. How might we increase the difficulty so that pros are continually challenged and every hole requires a different combination of commands to sink a robo-putt?

Pitching to the business owners

The project culminated in a presentation to the owner and head staff members of the golf club. We demonstrated the experiences we prototyped during the week incuding the video of the quadcopter race, a golf cart drive-in screening of a short film, and even asked the resident golf pro to try making a 'robo-putt' with the Sphero ball. Through these demos we were able to move our client from skepticism to guarded optimism, and they plan to implement at least parts of our proposed solutions over the course of the next year.

Team Members

  • Shaun Burley
  • Reggie Raye
  • Jacob Thomas
  • Albert Tomasso