Those things

The UX of Gym Clocks

Every so often I’m afflicted by a desire to lift heavy objects and then put them back down. It’s uncontrollable — one day I’m enjoying the early morning sounds of one child screaming at the other, and the next, I’m in a room full of large strangers with a barbell on my back, trying to decide if the next squat will kill me literally, in which case I should stop, or just figuratively, in which case I need to go ahead and do it.

This desire usually lasts about six months, at which point I get bored of my half-Pantera, half-Nas playlist, my burly acquaintances of the brief nod and the lack of eye contact, and I go back to playing Sharon Van Etten on my couch and letting my body rot in the usual brew of alcohol and refined sugar.

Now, I always look for the gym that has the smallest quantity of serious weightlifters. I like gyms that have their free weights tucked away in a corner, or ideally even in their own small room, like they are embarrassed they even have those Stone Age contraptions there. I like gyms with rows and rows of machines, with tons of programs and classes and yoga and healthful living, because I don’t do any of that. I take the tour, nod politely, then ask: “So where’s the squat rack?”

Because at 6 in the morning, with all the real weightlifters at other gyms, or god forbid, Crossfit, I can get in and out in like 30 minutes without having to talk to anyone.

But during this latest round of attempted enswollment at the local YMCA, something happened that made me think about UX, and how often we get it wrong, and how we can fix it.

To be specific, they fucked with the clocks.

When I started, the clocks were the ones I remember from my public school days. Two big, thick hands, one for hours, one for minutes.

You want seconds? Bring a stopwatch.

But then, they upgraded. Down with round clocks and their cumbersome analog ticks. Up with the new clocks — rectangular, digital, modern. These clocks had tons of information besides the time. They had thermometers showing the temperature, they had seconds flying away next to the hours and minutes, they had the date, they had the time, they had the day of the week. They even had little LED pictures to show you the weather outside.

All we’re missing is the phases of the moon.

There was only one small, slight, easy-to-overlook problem: They were unreadable from the actual gym floor.

You had to stand directly underneath these things, then take about five steps back, crane your neck back, and then, just barely, you could make out the LED numerals that would tell you what time it was.

The old analog clocks, you could spot those things from all the way across the room and in one glance know whether it was a good idea to load up the bar again and try something else or whether you were about to be late for your meeting. From any point in the gym, you could read at least 3 different clocks with ease. You could check the time through the window on your way in.

These new things? You had to stop what you were doing, walk all the way over, tilt your head back, and if the sun wasn’t hitting them in the wrong way, you could maybe get the only piece of information you really cared about.

And this is how we get UX wrong. We get clever, we add in cool things, we think of sweet new features, we take our app and throw in messaging, extra customization, an email client. And in the process, we forget why people need our product.

We forget the important problem that they have, that which we are trying to solve. We put more features, more functionality, more stuff. We let our desire to be smarter and think of more things take over for what’s really important, which is the value we bring to people.

So talk to users. Watch them use your design. Understand the context for when they come to you, for what they are trying to do, and for why it’s important to them. Know what their core needs are, and know that the things they say they want aren’t necessarily the things they will truly use.

I could make a focus group right now. I could ask a room full of people what they might want to know when they looked at a clock. And they would overachieve and give me a list of 50 random things a clock maybe could do. If I suspended practical judgement, I could write those up as features and get working.

But if I sat in a gym and watched, I’d see people looking up from the bench after their set, turning their head briefly on the treadmills before going back to CNN, glancing at the wall as they attempted downward-dog in their class. I’d see them look for a few seconds only, without moving anything but their head. I’d see them go back to what they were doing, satisfied. I’d ask why they did that, what they needed to know, why it was important.

And I’d learn that people at the gym don’t need 50 features on their clocks: They need one.

Check your assumptions. Don’t do something just because you think it’s cool, do it because it’s useful for the people you serve.

That’s how it’s fixable and — love my gym — they fixed it. They sent around a questionnaire about how people liked the gym, and on it, they had a question about the new clocks.

I got that questionnaire. I filled it out. Other people must have too.

Because two weeks later, the old clocks were back.