What Free Solo teaches us about agile and user research

Sūryanāga Poyzer
2 min readMar 12, 2019

If you’ve not seen the Oscar-winning documentary Free Solo yet, go see it right now (at the time of writing, it’s probably doing its last week or so in the cinema).

The film documents the incredible Alex Honnold, who likes to climb ridiculously high cliff faces without any harness, as he scales the 3,000 ft El Capitan wall. It’s a truly inspiring story of how important it is to really dedicate ourselves in order to achieve big things and how different people’s minds are skilled in different ways. I was especially struck by Alex’s attitude to risk and consequence.

Alex says that when he free solos, the risk of falling is very low but the consequence of falling is very high. This is extremely humble of him as other climbers point out what he’s doing is incredibly difficult. (“It’s like an Olympic gold medal performance where if you make one mistake, you die”). The point is though, he works super hard to reduce that risk before he attempts the wall without a rope. Most of the film is Alex preparing, memorising the entire route and getting every move exactly right before the climactic final climb.

This is what we’re doing when we test prototypes, interview users, or deploy A/B tests. All of it is to reduce the risk of failure.

It’s important to point out though, that if Alex was climbing a 15ft wall with a crash mat below, he obviously wouldn’t bother with the same level of training as El Capitan. The potential consequence would be much lower, so there wouldn’t be as much need to derisk the situation. Will Myddelton makes this point in his excellent recent post about research heresies. He says a mature organisation will research only the things that really matter.

Another way to put this: mature organisations will understand both the risk and potential consequence of what they want to do, and will reduce the risk of negative consequence with the appropriate amount of research and experimentation.

By doing this, we can methodically work to create great things that have a big impact on people’s lives.

And if we don’t? Well, we might just fall off whilst trying.