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7 UX Lessons from Leading Fitness Classes

October 19, 2015

Leading a fitness class is an enlightening experience. You see people at every level of energy, commitment, achievement, frustration, and a dozen other emotions. Good instructors quickly learn how to manage the room: challenge those who need some intensity, while making sure everyone can keep up. Keeping a fitness class running at peak performance requires an attentive instructor who’s constantly absorbing feedback and tweaking the regimen to deliver a great class.

Health and fitness classes share a lot in common with UX strategy, and my time as a fitness instructor has reinforced many of the insights that UX professionals often take for granted. In this article, I’ll share just a few of these insights with you.

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UX Golden Rule

The golden rule of User Experience: I am absolutely not my user. This is rarely so clear to me as when I’m standing in front of a fitness class. I grew up dancing and have been exercising consistently for two decades. But the people in my classes are often a mix of accomplished athletes, older adults rehabilitating injuries, and first-time exercisers—or just people trying a new class.

Just as for UX professionals, it’s all too easy for class leaders to try to guess what users want, typically based on their own preferences and experiences or what they know about one specific group of users. I constantly remind myself—just because everyone has shown up at the same place—that doesn’t mean they have the same goals or would behave in the same way. Some thrive on the push of an aggressive leader, some need reminders to take it easy, and still others just need enough information to get a sense of proper technique. I have to vary my music and choreography, the form cues, and even the tone of my voice to reach each different audience.

My class is not about me. Nor is it about just one type of person. Neither is the stuff I design at work. You must always seek to understand the nuances of your users and, whatever you’re doing, cater to the people who belong to your current target market.

The Power of Observation

While my classes definitely include regulars who show up week after week, there is always a rotating cast, so the mood of the room can change significantly from class to class. The best way to get a sense of the room and deliver a class that meets the needs the people who are there is just to observe them. What is the energy like when the class comes into the room? Who brought a friend? Are there faces I haven’t seen before? Does anyone seem to be nursing an injury? I can use this information to decide on the appropriate variations for the class.

Observation is also crucial during the course of the workout. I’m typically responsible for providing a safe, effective workout for nearly 50 participants. Even my classes’ most regular participants may need a form tweak or a push to get through the last set of a tough move.

Paying such careful attention to the people around me has sharpened my focus while conducting user research. While I’ve always known that people behave differently from what they say they will do, I’ve learned to pay much more attention to the context of people’s behavior, as well as to try to understand the nuances that might account for their changes in behavior over time.

Prepare for the Unexpected

A good fitness class is much like a well-run round of user research. It takes a huge amount of preparation for it to appear seamless. Like anything that requires meticulous planning, I often encounter a wrench in the works—the music might not sync properly, speakers may start screeching feedback, microphones may give out, or a participant might interrupt a class by taking a phone call. True story!

I’ve run into each of these issues and dozens of others, but none of them means I can just stop the class and regroup. The same is true when running user research or facilitating a design workshop—there’s no time to regroup. Sometimes Webcams stop working when a participant is mid-sentence. Prototypes may fail minutes before a planned test. Or a client may show up drunk to a morning meeting. This is also a true story!

Murphy’s law absolutely applies—not only may anything that could possibly go wrong actually go wrong, what might go wrong is impossible to predict. Beyond thinking through best- and worst-case scenarios and doing your best to have backup plans, improvisation and self-confidence are critical in the face of the unexpected. With the right attitude, you can make the best of any situation. Most people in the room will never know your plans have veered off course. More often than not, simply acting like you’re in control will help you to manage any situation.

Motivate with Why

Many of us in the field of UX know that storytelling is a vitally important skill to our professional success. We’re often responsible for delivering hard truths, while, at the same time, we must find a way to encourage buy-in for a user-centric strategy. A good story can pull together business partners and connect them to a compelling user experience.

In a fitness class, you have to find ways to motivate a diverse audience through an uncomfortable time that does not usually yield immediate results. You have to remind people of their ultimate goal, whatever that is, and demonstrate that they are making progress. It’s easy for people to ignore things—even those that are in their best interest—unless they can rally around a reason to be there. I often highlight how fit someone is looking or remind a person how good it feels not to get winded when walking up a flight of stairs.

Explore New Paths

Experimentation is an essential part of any UX process, yet many UX professionals fail to extend this philosophy to their careers. It’s no secret that it’s an amazing time to be in User Experience, but many UX professionals are afraid to truly put themselves out there. I’ve had an incredible—and serendipitous—career path. I chalk up much of my success to one crucial thing that fitness has taught me: doing the same thing over and over won’t necessarily get you the result you want.

The same is true of User Experience. It’s easy to stick to a standard research and testing regime. You’ll uncover some valuable insights that will help you to refine a UX design, but you might not get the golden nugget of information that uncovers the best opportunity or discover a way to expand your career that you had never considered before. Be ready to take a chance.

Continual Learning

When you’re leading a fitness class or a strategy session, you’re the expert. Everyone in the room depends on you to give them the insights, motivation, and energy to improve themselves or their work. If there’s one thing that every UX professional should know, it’s that there’s always something you can improve, and we’re rarely as expert as we think.

Once you become an expert, continual learning—especially outside the UX silo—is the only surefire way to remain an expert. As both a fitness teacher and a UX leader in my organization, I recognize that I always have something to learn. Whether it’s how a new front-end development technique can deliver an innovative experience or the latest trend our Marketing team has noticed, I realize that, while these things are outside my everyday routine, they could still have dramatic impact on the way I do my job.

Conclusion

As you grow in your UX career, it’s vital to understand that you can find UX lessons in almost any experience—no matter what side of the user fence you’re on. I’ve found that some of my most effective user insights have come from analyzing the interactions I have outside the daily grind of User Experience. Taking a new perspective can often be the key to becoming—and staying—successful in UX. 

President and Principal Consultant, Stockwell Strategy

Raleigh-Durham, North Carolina, USA

Amanda StockwellAmanda is an experienced user experience research and strategy consultant. For the last decade, she has focused on finding innovative ways to understand users and embedding that knowledge in the design process and business strategy. Working for companies large and small, she has led teams that provided research, design, and UX strategy services. Now, she is running her own consulting practice. Amanda frequently writes and speaks about her work experience and loves helping others craft their UX career. She has a human-factors background and an engineering degree from Tufts University.  Read More

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