Treadmill interfaces: The Good, the Bad, and the Slightly Less Bad
In January 2023, full of beans and New Year’s resolutions I stepped on a treadmill for the first time in 10 years.
As I stepped on and started fiddling with the treadmill’s interface, I was quickly overwhelmed by the screens I was presented with. I mean, why are these things so confusing? Mysterious symbols, tiny buttons that require precision tapping plus dashboards that seem to be in a language of their own.
Curious to see if I was the only one feeling this way, I went on a quest to find others who shared my pain. I did a quick search of Google and Twitter for complaints, but to my surprise, there were none — surely I can’t be the only one who is perplexed by some of these designs.
Now, as a complete beginner, I understand that I’m probably not the target market for using a treadmill, nor am I the only user group that matters. But if I had to write my own user story, it would go something like this: As a complete beginner, I need treadmills to be simple to operate in order to reduce the barriers to my participation.
The gym group I joined have different machines in each location so, here’s my light-hearted critique of the interfaces I encountered — because let’s face it, as designer, being a user (who can therefore do no wrong) is the epitome of fun.
For the sake of brevity, I won’t dive into every menu and sub-option. Instead, I’ll focus on the default surface-level interface you get when you select ‘quick start’ or its equivalent.
Starting with the best going through to the worst:
1. The one with the squares
This interface was a great all rounder, clear and simple to understand, I only encountered minor frustrations.
- Prioritises key stats with good hierarchy in each square, the entertainment options (which don’t work as its not connected to internet) are kept out of the way.
- The physical sliders allow you to adjust the speed and gradient without using the touchscreen.
- There is no default time frame; it counts up rather than down which was useful when I was starting out and seeing how long I could go, without feeling like I’d failed to meet an arbitrary pre-set target.
- Good visual contrast, making it easy to read even in poor lighting conditions.
Room for improvement
- I had no idea what ‘moves’ are (middle square) — I had to google it.
- The speed and gradient buttons have small tap targets, but the good physical controls make up for this.
2. The one with the circles
I found this one quite friendly and it had the bonus of overlooking a park, which is a great for people watching and feeling like you are almost outside.
- Buttons are decent-sized and easy to click, even when running. Most of them use icons and descriptors, so I know what they do.
- Elements have a clear hierarchy, it’s clear what you should be focusing on. You can also make the central pane full screen — further reducing distractions, though the buttons for this are not clearly labelled.
- Navigating between views doesn’t interfere with the core elements along the top and bottom of the screen.
Room for improvement:
- In the view shown above, clicking the track, mountain, steps icons changes the view to some contextless diagram that means nothing to me.
- Starts with a 1-hour countdown by default. Is this really the most common time frame? As a beginner, I could barely manage 10 minutes without collapsing into a puddle of sweat. Counting down from such a high number felt a little demoralising.
- I liked having shortcuts to the most common functions on a separate interface, but unfortunately the physical control buttons were not very responsive, meaning you have to use the touchscreen. However, the touchscreen is also not very responsive, making it frustrating and hard to use when running.
3. The fancy new one
This was by far the newest and most responsive to touch machine I that used, but the hardest to take in visually. The design had potential but most of the time I didn’t know what I was supposed to be focusing on.
- Good, responsive physical controls.
- Overall quite slick design, easy to start and navigate to this screen.
Room for improvement:
- The low contrast between the sections and the background means that the grouping of elements is lost, making it harder to skim visually.
- Some interface elements are very small and would be difficult for some users to read. When going at speed, all the little numbers blurred into one.
- It doesn’t tell me what the percentages on the left mean. Additionally, there are two methods of selecting the speed/gradient; steppers at the bottom and set increments laid out on the left and right. While I understand what they are trying to do, it adds even more unnecessary visual complexity.
4. The old school one
Occasionally sat in the corner, there is a solitary machine without a touchscreen. I had high expectations that it would cut through the complexity of the modern touchscreens, but found myself disappointed.
- The machine has a built-in fan that can blow cold air on your face; interestingly, none of the newer machines have this feature.
- It counts time elapsed rather than counting down.
- The manual buttons and controls are very tactile and responsive, easy to use whilst running.
Room for improvement:
- The green semicircle illuminated and constantly fluctuated between 60% and 100%. At another point, it got stuck between 20% and 40%. I have no idea what this means.
- There are vague buttons labelled “Test”, “Custom”, “Weight loss”, and one with just bars on it, would require a manual to do anything advanced.
- Rolling information on the dot display was difficult to take in whilst running.
5. The wtf one
The worst offender by far, it felt more ‘designed’ than it’s counterparts but a total pain to use:
- Nice picture of a river in the background, somewhat calming...
- Physical controls were responsive and easy to use.
Room for improvement:
- Contextless buttons: one which just hides the stats, and two on the left which both take you back to the main menu, and the option to see some other graphs.
- The default view shows you an unlabelled graph that depicts speed. The part that changes is set to 1/4 of the way across the screen, meaning that after a minute or so at the same speed, the graph is just a straight line.
- All the treadmills in this gym faced a large mirrored wall — the last thing I want to look at for 30 minutes is myself covered in sweat.
What did I learn from all this?
What I learned from this exercise is that it’s interesting to see the variety of ways designers have tackled the same problem. It’s easy to point fingers a criticise but ultimately we don’t know the challenges the designer faced, or the tradeoffs they had to make.
- Once you use some of these designs a few times, they aren’t as bad as my first impression may suggest. At first, I was scared to click anything, worried it would reset my progress, but as time went on I explored more options, and learned the capability of each machine.
- It highlights how more accessible interfaces are of benefit to all users. Poor lighting conditions and glare are common in gyms, highlighting the need for clear hierarchy and good contrast. Using whilst in motion highlights the need for large tap points and information that can be read at a glance.
- Outside of the UI, slow load times, unresponsive screens, poor error messages, and slow responsiveness to physical controls were all factors that contributed to a bad user experience on the machine.
Some gyms were too hot or noisy, or made you face a mirror. These factors arguably impacted the experience more than the interfaces in question, highlighting the importance of focusing on the user experience as a whole, rather than just the digital touchpoint!