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I was really looking forward to seeing what was coming from all of the manufacturers regarding user interface on cardio equipment heading into the IHRSA conference back in March.
The industry has been focusing hard on user interface in the past few years so this show was a good litmus test. As I walked the floor and saw what other companies had to offer, it was obvious why the mainstream technology industry thinks fitness equipment has some of the worst user interfaces in the world.
State of the Industry for User Interface
It is easier to point out what was done right over what was wrong on most of the equipment at IHRSA, purely because so much of it was wrong. These interfaces have evolved into what is best described as a "dog's lunch"— a bunch of random features stuck onto a design from the 1990s with all the care and craftsmanship of a Ford Pinto.
Who really wants to update their Facebook status from a treadmill? I'm sure a few people do, but wasn't it really just added so there would be another check box filled in on the feature list? And do we really need another solitaire game? Just because you can do something, doesn't mean you should.
But I digress. Let's talk about what can be done right:
1. Simplicity. One of the most challenging parts of designing an interface for use in a club is keeping things simple. It needs to have all the advanced functionality that people expect these days, such as virtual running videos and media integration. At the same time, someone who has never seen the device has to be able to walk up to it and start using it immediately.
Some of interfaces solve this better than others. Unfortunately, the simpler interfaces are found on the simpler devices. It is probably lack of features that give those devices ease of use, not superior design.
2. Education. When someone approaches a device for the first time and immediately starts a manual workout, is that person given any hints that more is available? Does the device help the person discover additional functionality while in use? Does the device take that time to educate the person more about the features when the workout is finished?
Advanced functionality is not used many times simply because a person does not know it exists, or does not understand the benefit. Expecting the person to watch a video or read the manual is unrealistic. You need to understand how the person uses the device and then integrate education into its use.
3. Interaction. Just because the device has some snazzy new touchscreen does not mean all of the user's interactions should happen via the screen. Although a touchscreen is great at a walking speed, try jogging or running and see how frustrating these screens can become. This goes back to user experience, not user interface.
The industry has been experimenting with various ideas in this area: paddles, knobs and levers for changing speed and incline, physical keys for quick speeds, etc. By combining the best of both worlds, you can maintain a clean look and feel on the device but still carry forward the excellent user experience that physical controls can yield — especially when running.
Now that the industry has finally broken free of the shackles of LEDs, it's time to acknowledge there is no technical reason user interfaces on these devices cannot be just as cutting edge and innovative as the best ones out there. It means looking outside the industry for design cues and using the general design insights that are made on other kinds of devices. Ultimately, it means figuring out how they apply this to cardio equipment.
Mark Thompson, fitness futurist at SportsArt, is an insanely focused technologist who has applied innovative technologies to a myriad of industries. He has imagined possibilities from defense to video games; investment to internet infrastructure. His leading-edge ventures include, but are not limited to: commercial software development, embedded systems, audio process and real-time applications. His next tech endeavor is with SportsArt, redefining the way the industry looks at user interface. SportsArt focuses on eco-innovation, unique design and green manufacturing excellence. It is the only fitness equipment manufacturer able to harness human energy and convert it into utility-grade electricity. For more information, visit GoSportsArt.com.