From minimally viable to amazing

Last year I made the trek from Seattle to New York City. A gym is one of the first things I look for when I move. In fact, it’s a criteria that I evaluate when deciding what neighborhood to live in. Fitness has been a big part of my life for 14 years now. A bad gym experience negatively affects my mood and motivation in general. So, it’s important for me to find a great gym that I’m excited to use.

Years ago I remember taking a friend with me to the gym. He couldn’t help but mock me for looking at myself in the mirror. During exercises and when I was resting. At first glance one might assume mirrors in gyms are for narcissists. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. They’re a valuable tool to watch what you’re doing and improve your form.

After touring many gyms in New York City I signed up for what appeared to be the best gym to fit my needs. I’ll admit it wasn’t perfect but it was the best I could find. But the best I could find left much to be desired. During my first workout it was obvious there were several problems with the mirrors. Here’s a picture I took recently, see if you can spot the problem:


There are gaps between the mirrors. Most of the gaps are at least 20% of the size of the mirrors. And it’s not just in one spot, these gaps are scattered across the gym:


You might think I could just take a step left or right. And that works fine if I have free weights like dumbbells. But there are many situations where that’s not possible. Take for example this machine:


This is the view when using this machine. In fact, I was sitting in the machine when I took this picture and you can’t even see me taking the picture.


Notice the machine has lots of plates loaded on it. You don’t just slide this machine left or right. There are a row of five of these machines and three of them are positioned in the gaps. Such that you cannot see yourself when you’re using the machine. Ironically, all three machines could be unloaded and moved about two feet each to fix the problem. But that’s something the staff would have to do and maintain.

The problem doesn’t stop there. That row of dumbbells, both ends are mirrorless:



That means you can’t check your form from the side. You have to turn during your workout. Or, turn for the duration of your workout and occlude an already limited space. Especially if you turn a bench sideways. Adding insult to injury, one of the ends has plenty of room for a mirror. The other end, someone thought it was a good idea to mount a rack of servers (computers) in the weight room. Instead of locating this on one of the other two floors in the building.

Cable crossover machines involve precise movements where isolation plays a big role in what you get out of an exercise. Watching your movement in a mirror is vital to avoid poor technique. Of course, the cable crossover machines are located in the middle of the gym. At a point furthest from any of the walls. Often with two rows of equipment between the cable crossover machine and a mirror. The typical view from a cable crossover machine looks like this:


Most of the time you can’t see yourself because of the gaps in the mirrors. And when you’re not in a gap there’s usually a machine partially or fully occluding the view.

There are over two dozen spots in the gym that suffer because of these problems. Mostly because of the gaps. And it’s not as if there aren’t spots without gaps. Take a look at the custom cut mirror to accommodate for the window: (and no gaps)


So why hasn’t anything been done about the gaps? Or about the placement of machines? Why does such a glaringly obvious problem exist in the first place?

I noticed something show up a few weeks after I joined that might explain why. One day messages showed up on the mirrors:


I don’t know why they were put up. They serve no purpose but they’re humorous so perhaps they’re meant to lighten the mood.

Take a moment and look at the placement. They’re right at eye level. There’s plenty of room to stick these clever little messages closer to the top of the mirror. Yet they wound up right at eye level.

Why do obviously poor customer experiences exist?

I suspect the gaps exist for the same reason the funny messages exist at eye level. There are only a few possible explanations. The design was either intentional or not. I would hope someone didn’t intentionally design a bad experience for members. It’s much more likely that the design was unintentional.

Somehow, in the chain of command, nobody considered the experience for members. That’s the only rational explanation for how such obvious problems can exist and persist. I’ve been working out at this gym for 6 months now and neither problem has been addressed.

The other possibility is that the people who are responsible for operating the gym have no idea what working out entails. They don’t know what mirrors are used for. And they think they’re simply there for aesthetic and/or narcissistic reasons. Either way, leadership has failed to identify a poor customer experience.

What can we do about poor customer experiences?

Any business can suffer from obvious problems like these. Here’s a step by step guide to finding and fixing the obvious gaps in your business. These don’t just apply to gyms. These apply to all business.

1. What results do your customers want?

What do your customers get out of doing business with you? In the case of a gym, members want to improve some aspect of their fitness. Perhaps lose weight, gain muscle, or improve cardiovascular health. These are the reasons why people pay for a gym membership. Why do your customers pay you?

It’s also important to segment the types of customers you have. Especially if you serve a large number of customers. That way you don’t inadvertently conclude everyone is out to accomplish the same thing. In the case of a gym, gaps between mirrors probably aren’t a problem for people that only want to use a treadmill to improve their cardiovascular health. But for bodybuilders mirrors are crucial.

Knowing what your customers want to accomplish helps you clear the path to their success.

2. Enumerate how customers use your services to achieve results.

Take the desired results of each customer segment and determine how your services align with providing those results. Look for what’s missing, the gaps between your mirrors. Look at what’s unnecessary so you can get rid of it and invest in something that’s missing. Look at what is working for customers and make sure it doesn’t deteriorate.

Your job is to make your customers successful. If you don’t help them be successful they’re going to leave.

3. Put yourself in your customer’s shoes, literally if possible.

Think about what it’s like for customers to use your services. In a gym, what it’s like to work out. If you run a gym, your staff should be using the gym and looking for ways to improve it.

It’s beyond me how the personal trainers at my gym haven’t figured this problem out. Every day they use the facilities and have to bump into these problems.

4. Don’t accept minimally viable.

Many businesses assume that the status quo is acceptable. A gym is a gym if it has equipment and lights. They don’t seek to create a different experience. They don’t seek to create an amazing experience.

There’s a huge difference between a minimally viable experience and an amazing experience. A minimally viable experience is expecting members to take a step to the left or right of the gap in the mirrors. An amazing experience would be eliminating the gaps. An amazing experience would be actively seeking out problems and fixing them. An amazing experience would be engaging customers to find out what can be improved.

5. Watch out for misaligned incentives.

Part of the reason why minimally viable experiences are so common is because the incentives that would lead to an amazing experience don’t exist. And the incentives that do exist lead to a minimally viable experience. In the case of a gym:

  • Sales staff are rewarded for signing up new members.
  • Front desk staff are rewarded for shaking people down at the door to show proper identification.
  • Personal trainers are rewarded for selling training sessions.

– Nobody is rewarded for finding problems like gaps between mirrors. Problems that negatively impact what members can accomplish.
– Nobody is rewarded for talking to members about their fitness and how the gym could help them be more successful.
– Nobody is rewarded for greeting members at the door.
– Nobody is rewarded for helping members achieve results.

Businesses that find ways to put the right incentives in place can create amazing experiences and amazing results for their customers. What incentives exist that lead to minimally viable experiences for your customers? What incentives would lead to an amazing experience?

6. Fix the simple things

When we find problems we should fix them when it makes sense. Especially the simple things. My gym could start by moving some machines until they can get the gaps filled in. Once the gaps are eliminated they should consider how to layout equipment to maximize the utility of mirrors.

7. Differentiate

Price isn’t the only means of differentiation. Competing on price is toxic for everyone. Competing on price is a race to the bottom in both price and value. It leads to everyone offering the same minimally viable experience.

Instead of competing on price, compete on value. Can you list the top three reasons why someone would use your service even if you cost substantially more? Can you list three things they can’t get anywhere else? Three things that directly relate to the success they will achieve?

I’ve never heard a gym advertise any of the following:
– Our members are twice as successful at losing weight and gaining muscle than any other gym in town.
– We have personal training programs with money back guarantees.
– Nobody will beat our selection of equipment. We actively solicit the input of members and every month we make at least three changes based on member feedback.
– You’ll always be greeted with a smile. We won’t harass you if you forget your identification.
– If you have a friend visiting you they’re welcome to workout with you. We won’t badger them for their first born child.
– We (the staff and trainers) work out here too so we know that the experience is amazing for you.

Instead I hear and see:
– Nobody will beat our price: $19.99. Hurry offer ends soon! (and will be repeated once it ends)
– Oh and we have a yearly this fee and a yearly that fee and a sign up fee and a two month deposit…
– The space is limited so we do our best (gyms on average have the same minimally viable set of equipment)
– Sign up for 10 personal training sessions and get one free. (trainers on average provide the same minimally viable training session that’s all about expending time and not about results).
– You’re in town for a week and need a guest pass? That’ll be $30 per visit.
– Sir, sir, sir… YOU DIDN’T SCAN YOUR ID. (even though the people working the desk are the same people day in and day out and can’t bother to learn the faces of members that show up at the same time five days a week)

Do you want to be minimally viable or amazing?