Numbering teams in a physical competition: is there a point?

by msanford   Last Updated January 28, 2017 14:06 PM

Context

One of my "night jobs" is acting as an organizer of the Canadian Robotics Competition for high school students.

In short, students build a robot to play a game against other robots, as many as 5 on the field at the same time. Teams also submit a video, web site, and build a physical kiosk (akin to a trade show hall, but much more fun). The idea being that students with different talents and interests work together in cross-functional teams to participate in STEM (someone keen on video production with no experience in robotics still has to talk to the engineers, and vice versa).

Traditionally

Every year, we randomly assign numbers to teams, mostly out of habit. This number is common between the working groups (robot, video, etc) for a given school.

This has ended up causing more problems than it might have solved in the past. It's a piece of abstract, largely-irrelevant information for young people who forget it constantly.

This invariably causes students either to provide the wrong number for their school name, or to force them to look it up somewhere.

Chuck it?

The only place the team number is useful at all is to identify robots physically during a competition heat so that the spectators and referees can see it. Writing, for example, "Coll├Ęge de Bois-de-Boulogne" is simply too long physically.

Going one step further, I doubt people actually care. Experienced referees recognize robots after their first heat, and I suspect most spectators probably either:

  • Only care about their friends' or kids' robots, and would already be able to identify it, or
  • Are members of the general public and don't care who is who but just watch the action.

In this case, people who can't already identify it have to physically look it up in the printed booklet, something nobody does because they're focused on the action.

So...

Could we therefore do away with team numbers completely and use only the school name to identify them, or de-emphasize the number and use it only in context of the physical competition and not for the other components (such as the web site).

Robots tend to look dramatically different from each other, so a verbal "the one with the big arm" is enough to identify one between people speaking.

I wonder if having the number adds to the overall experience, since it seems to have detracted from it.

While this sounds open-ended and opinion-based, I do believe their is a convincing, correct answer from a UX perspective. I can think of no better community to ask than UX professionals. Furthermore, something like A/B is more or less impossible in this scenario.

Tags : physical signs


Answers 1


Organization loves numbers

Using numbers for organization is great. You can list them; order them; they're short enough to fill into limited space form, etc. In society we use numbers all the time to identify things: think car registration numbers; university student numbers; personal identification numbers. The problem with long random numbers is that you can't easily remember them.

Solution part 1

The solution is make numbers human-friendly by breaking them into meaningful chunks that are easy to recall on their own. Examples:

  • 2 digits denoting a year (17 for 2017)
  • 3 digits used as area dialing code (064 for New Zealand)
  • 2 letters indicating a country (CA for Canada)

Real world example

A college in my area uses the following structure to create student numbers:

  • 3 letters describing the city or suburb of the campus (eg. PTA)
  • 2 numbers stating the first year of registration (eg. 03 for 2003)
  • 3 incremental unique numbers for each registered student. With odd numbers for male and even numbers for female students.

14 years later and I can still remember my student number. Which brings me to the second part of the solution.

Solution part 2

Use the identification number wisely. As a student you are expected to write your student number on everything you hand in, be it attendance registry or assignments.

Repetition breeds familiarity

It was quite clear as a student that you're only a number in the system. But the system "stops" when human interaction is called for. In a class of 30 students we used names, even during competitive competitions the participants were called by their names.

Advice for your situation

My advice would be to structure the identification numbers and request it to be filled in on all forms. Combine the change with an information campaign teaching participants the parts that make out their identification number, while emphasizing how important the number is for your "system" to allocate perks to them (the participants).

During battles opt for an even simpler identification system like colors as used in various sports. The robots can be tagged by removable spray paint prior to each battle. This would make the announcer job much easier, eg. Blue is beating Green with its hammer, while Yellow is still on its side!

PS: Robot battles are awesome!

Phaze Phusion
Phaze Phusion
January 28, 2017 12:33 PM

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