Thursday, October 23, 2014

User Interface: At The Gym

User interfaces are all around us, and sometimes are so ubiquitous that we don't notice them. (In general, it's my experience that you shouldn't notice a user interface if the designer has done their job right--you should have an intuitive experience that streamlines whatever data you need to input or get back.) So most people probably never even think about their treadmill or elliptical when they think about interfaces in their lives. Yet, there they are, keeping track of how far we've run, what our heart rates are at, how many calories we've burned, the works.

Generally I burn my time on the treadmill by listening to audiobooks--which is a great way to multitask your entertainment while still getting work or exercise or other needed tasks done. But I decided to focus on the user interface when my apartment building got brand new treadmills. The old interfaces had been pretty basic: LED screens indicating your incline, cycling through various datapoints. The new shiny interfaces practically begged me to go exploring.

First Impressions

When I first saw the shiny new interface, I was generally impressed with the simplicity of the start screen. There was no temptation to crowd it and use every last inch of the screen. Instead we had two main options to get started, as well as four smaller buttons regarding media options, language, and security. The groupings seemed a little odd at first, but the two media controls and the language option were grouped as User Settings, whereas the Security button in the upper right seems to more of an administrative level. In terms of use patterns, the least used options were in the upper right corner.

The big green Quick Start button was very attractive to me as a user because it seemed to simplify the basics of what could have been overwhelming options on my shiny new treadmill.

If I have one complaint about this screen, it's that the four smaller buttons look more like status icons than touchable buttons. I could see users mistaking their grayed flat forms for an ideogrammatic label (indicating connectivity or a static state) as opposed to a button that activates a menu. When active, the buttons turn orange, but until they do, the user is not necessarily aware that they are buttons as they do not have any additional styling that matches other buttons in this interface suite.

The Basics

This seemed to be the default screen. It contained a navigation panel at the bottom center, a tools flyout in the bottom right, a largish stop button, and a central area containing rotating data. (I have labelled many components to this screen, and you can view the larger version by clicking on the image.)

The Navigation Panel consisted of seven buttons: A) Ipod media controls B) TV media controls C) the Track view D) Workout view E) Basic Data View F) Virtual Trails view and G) Gym view. (Of these, the Gym view was the only view I didn't really delve into.) Each view would replace the large data panel in the middle. These, unlike the buttons from the previous screen, have distinct styling that indicates button-hood.

The large data panel in the middle rotated through various types of information, which could be determined manually by using the dropdown appended to the arrow in the upper left. Calories per hour, mets/joules, distance, time all alternated in the top centre spot, while Incline and Speed were displayed in the secondary spots. The size of the information made it easy to glance down--important because it can be hard to read smaller displays while running at faster speeds.

Up top, the "speedometer" (I) with its varying colour displays would actually show you what exercise zone you were in: Weight Loss (green), Aerobic (yellow), and Performance (red). I appreciated the use of the traditional colour coding which matched the expectations I had with the old LED style displays, but went one further in terms of colourblindness disability, as the new display was clearly delineated and readable without solely relying on red-green cues.

The Tools flyout (J) provided quick access to various options regarding incline and speed--although it should be noted that the treadmill itself had manual controls on the handles as well. For machines equipped with fans, it also allowed for fan control.

Finally, a large easy to find and colour-cued red STOP button (H) in the bottom left corner made it easy to end any exercise session. (Once again, there were manual stop buttons available on the front panel of the machine, and the safety over-ride clip would also stop the machine if pulled.)

The Track

Speaking from a user standpoint, I alternated between the Track and Basic Data view the most often. I particularly liked this screen because I could use it to time interval bursts on my own WITHOUT having to rely on a program which would not take my own level of fitness into account. I could choose to run straightaways or full laps. I could also view each segment as an achievement. When running, it has been my experience that I do best and can go longest when I view each data point as the next achievable "carrot". For example, if I've run for fifteen minutes and then take a look at the Track view and think, "Well, if I run to the end of this lap, I'll have an even ten laps," I am more likely to run that extra lap. Switching back to the Basic Data view, I might then realise that I am only 15 calories from a round number, so then I run to make that round number.

Basically I really liked having multiple forms of input and visualisation. It made making mental running goals easier, and made it easier for me to exercise.

You will note that in the Track view, the data we were viewing in the Basic Data screen switches to the top left and right corners. Again dropdown arrows appear, allowing the user control over which data they see when.

Virtual Tracks

Another appealing feature of this new interface was the virtual tracks. You could choose one of six virtual tracks in both urban and rougher terrains. While the actual visualisation felt a little dizzying to me personally (rather like the effect one gets while reading in a car or a bus), I can see how it would spice up the workout.

However, once I was in the virtual track screen, I was unaware that I could actually show the virtual track full screen. I felt like there could be more signposting visually on that score.

The TV Channel Controls

I feel like this is a clunky use of space. In places where a channel list could go on for hundreds of channels, this menuing requires possible finer control of swiping (which is awkward while running) and could be annoying to navigate if you miss the channel you wanted the first time round. Most people are likely to be aware of what their favourite channels are locally, so while I would have the up/down stepper to the left, I would likely replace the main panel with numbers so people could input channel numbers rather than go through a lengthy scrolling grid. This was the screen I was least favourably inclined towards, from both a user and UX vantage point.

Summary Screen

I enjoyed having this summary screen laid out, particularly the Touch For More Time feature. It had been my habit to try and screenshot my summaries on the old LED screens, but half the time, they would disappear before I could whip my camera out. (And annoyingly, if you weren't running, the old machines would replace my data with INCREASE SPEED. So you had to half-heartedly jog or ellipticize your way along while trying to take a screenshot. So frustrating.) Here I could simply press a button while leisurely documenting my workout. Instagramming heaven!

Exporting Workout Data

Finally, you could export your workout data if you also had the TrueFit app. (I don't--I rely on my old screenshots.) All you had to do was plug in your iPod and press Export Data and ZIP, there it went. As with the previous screen, the designers recognised that you might forget to attach your iPod and a handy button for more time was added.

Summing It Up

In general I felt this was an attractive interface, designed to dispense a lot of data, but fairly easy to navigate. Getting started was intuitive. Exercising was friendly to multiple types of folks, allowing for both visual and data driven runners. Generally things that were colour coded were also clearly labelled, making it a friendlier experience for the colour blind.

There was some consistency and styling issues between the menu and button types that I feel might have been a factor of design creep. The pop-ups and flyouts seemed to vary between screens, and as you can see the Data Exporting screen has a different look and feel than the Summary screen or the Basic Data screen. (Distracting to me: The radius on the upper right and lower left corners varies between those two panels as well. However, as functionality was not impaired, this is an aesthetics nitpick, and not a user experience nitpick.) Button styles varied from a chrome-and-gel look (very tangible) to utilitarian and boxy with faint gradients to a flat ideogrammatic style.

In general information was grouped and displayed in a manner congruent with Western reading patterns. Fonts were readable, even while running, text styles for labels varied but not to a distracting degree.

As a user, I felt that the overall interface contributed to an enjoyable workout experience and was a step up from the old LEDs.