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It’s the start of a new year, so along with every other weak-willed mince-pie muncher in the western hemisphere, I’ve decided to haul my aching, broken body along to the gym for some much needed new year exercise.

But first, I need to find the best gym for me. You’d think lifting the weights would be the hard part... 

For the past year, I’ve been a Virgin Active member (mainly because it had a pool and was near my office), but we’ve recently moved to a new location and as my membership was up for renewal, I thought I’d review my options. 

I have a few simple criteria for my new gym.

I need somewhere fairly close, it needs to be the right price, with facilities that I’ll use regularly. I’m a running and free weights man, but it’s always good to have a few classes on offer for variety (and if there’s a pool, so much the better). 

Our location gave me a number of options, with GymBox, Fitness First, the YMCA and more all vying for my hard earned membership coin.

In order to narrow things down I took to the web, and discovered two very different options: EasyGym and Virgin Active.

Using the two sites, I noticed a number of points which reinforce the importance of UX in the buying cycle, even when selling an offline product or experience.  

Virgin Active

The big one. Virgin has one of the most extensive gym chains, and the home page is jam-packed with options.

In fact, there’s almost too many. With over 60 options to choose from in one dropdown menu alone, finding what you need can be a challenge:


The homepage itself is big and bold. There’s some very prominent branding with a January joining offer front and centre, and a central ‘find your local gym’ box.

The functionality is also straightforward, simply enter a postcode and gyms near you are displayed in a list along with information about distance, links to timetables and membership options.

With this in place, it seems surplus to requirements to also include a gym-finder dropdown box. It adds to an already cluttered page and leaves less real estate for the postcode box:


When designing pages, it’s important to choose one option and keep it consistent throughout the site. Doubling up can often confuse your navigation. 

These menus are joined by the ‘Active Matters’ tab, featuring events, the Active blog, charity initiatives and more.

Again, it’s prone to feature creep. While it’s a good idea to categorise blog posts, displaying both ‘articles’ and ‘blog’ in the same tab seems like overkill. It adds to the overly busy feel and again confuses navigation. 


Once you actually find a club (I’ve gone with The Strand branch) things get better. Clubs are clearly displayed with useful links, but once I click one I’m again faced with a mass of information:


At the top there are some nice images of the club interior so you know what to expect, but it’s not made clear which club these were taken in. Is it a specific club, or stock photography? This decreases the social proof value, and could be cured easily with a bit of clever labeling

There are also some random icons that don’t actually link to anything, and again, lots and lots of tabs:


I can certainly understand the desire and value in communicating news and updates, but it might be better to do this via email or social once a user has indicated a desire to know more.

Here it’s jammed in and takes the user away from the purchase path.  Similarly, the ‘inside our club’ tab gives us long lists of equipment, and classes, but they are poorly organised with too many links throughout. 

The checkout

Finally, let’s get on with it and take a look at memberships:

Firstly, price information is clearly displayed which is always a huge bonus (and one that many gyms seem to shy away from), but once you’ve chosen a package there is no ‘purchase’ option.

Instead, you’re asked to ‘enquire’, meaning you’ll need to wait for a call to arrange a tour of the facilities:


In this case, I sympathise. For the vast majority of gym members, the tour is an important part of the purchase decision.

However I’m a bit of an outcast here. I’d like to be able to buy directly online, or at the very least provide all my membership and payment details in advance so that I can avoid that awkward ten minutes hunched over a clipboard when I arrive.

When it comes to gyms, I just want to turn up and get on with it, with the option to actually interact with a real live human available, not forced on me. 

It’s important to consider whether you are providing choice and creating an experience here, or simply unnecessarily extending the purchase path. 

While it’s undoubtedly a good gym, there’s a lot of simplification that could be done here, with information provided in a more obvious and useful way. 


For contrast, let’s take a look at a very different approach to the same process from EasyGym. 

As to be expected from Stelios and co, there’s a big, brash homepage with that tell-tale rage inducing orange prominent as always, but this is offset by a simple grid structure with clearl options:


The carousel is important here, as it concentrates on answering major questions.

Given that it’s the low cost option, users are going to be concerned with price, but also want to know about equipment and classes. These are all clearly linked from the carousel, with some nice ‘Plain English’ copy to point users in the right direction. 

In lieu of booking a tour, there are well presented virtual tours of each location, as well as engaging, well produced videos with staff talking about the gym throughout (my only complaint here is that they are a bit too long, my attention began to drift after a couple of minutes. Also, why are those two people on the crossfit machines grinning at each other like that? It’s weird...) 


Finally, there is the option to join. Yep, join. Not ‘enquire’, not ‘book a tour’. Just sign up and get going. 

It’s a nice, simple checkout with clear pricing all the way, including add-on options. Simply choose a location (for the record, I can actually see the EasyGym from the window next to my desk, so it’s convenient if nothing else), type in your details and away you go. 


I’m not saying this is perfect, but for the time-poor city worker in need of a quick workout option, this kind of sign-up has huge benefits. While the upsell is an important part of any gym’s business model, by laying it all out clearly at the start I’m not left worried that I’ll end up paying three times as much once I actually get there. 

Overall the fitness sector is particularly difficult to get right online, but there are a few basic ecommerce and UX rules that work just as well here as they do everywhere else.

Transparent pricing, clear navigation and social proof all matter, even if you are trying to create an experience as personal as an ideal gym membership.


While it’s important to give consumers choice, you also need to consider how and when this is employed. Don’t force users to switch channels, even if it is for a multichannel transaction. 

As a final caveat, I’m aware that our own page suffers from some of these problems, but we have been working hard recently to refine topic pages, simplify registration and improve site search and load speeds, with more positive changes to come.

UX is an ongoing process, and Virgin Active’s site in particular shows the need to display only the most relevant information and remove clutter whenever possible. 

Matt Owen

Published 8 January, 2014 by Matt Owen

Matt Owen was formerly Head of Social at Econsultancy. You can follow him on Twitter or hook up on LinkedIn.

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