Parkwood Leisure: reducing barriers to health and fitness

A person swimming in a pool
Parkwood Leisure face some complex challenges. They run over 70 leisure centres around the country on behalf of local authorities and are responsible for each centre’s commercial sustainability.

But it’s not always easy to attract new customers. Most people assume their leisure centre is run by the local council and expect it to be a bit rundown. Meanwhile, there’s a health and fitness boom and commercial gyms are hoovering up customers with big advertising budgets and flashy websites. On top of this, the pandemic forced leisure centres to close for the better part of a year. People’s work/life balance changed and home fitness took off. 

This was the situation facing Parkwood when they approached us. They knew they could do a better job of attracting new customers, and helping them manage their health and fitness. But they didn’t know how, and they didn’t know where to focus effort.

In the past, they’d have guessed at the best solutions and run with them. But this time they wanted to follow the GDS service standard and commissioned us to run a programme of discovery and alpha so they could make decisions based on evidence.

Building understanding through discovery

We first ran four discovery sprints, focussing on different aspects of the process of becoming a leisure centre member and members’ health behaviours. Our discovery research sprints take us from sprint kick-off, to research, to analysis and feedback in the space of two weeks.

The team at Parkwood really valued the pace of our work. It meant we could form hypotheses on a Monday, and be making evidence-based decisions inside 10 working days.

Turning insight into output with an alpha

The insights from our discovery covered the end-to-end service experience, exploring use of leisure centre websites, the leisure centre app, home workouts, digital communication, and the in-person leisure centre experience. The next step was to prototype solutions to some of the problems we uncovered during a design-led alpha.

We again worked in two-week sprints. We moved from pen and paper sketches to a tested wireframe prototype for leisure centre homepages. We developed and tested user journeys, and prioritised requirements.

We went on to create detailed user interface designs as part of the leisure centre beta.

Evidence-based insights

Our research and analysis uncovered hundreds of insights, including:

  • Problems are also opportunities. Parkwood introduced the ability to book a gym time in advance due to social distancing requirements. We learned that it was one of their customers’ favourite features at the time - it made fitting healthy activity into people’s lives far easier
  • Finding the most important things and doing them really, really well trumps fancy new features. Online galleries and video tours are good. Being able to easily join up, find out when the gym is busy, or book a swim session at a time that suits is great
  • Apps are important. At the start of the project we discussed whether maintaining an app as well as a website was worth the effort. We couldn’t have been more wrong. People we spoke to talked about how useful it is to have a unique place where they can manage their health and fitness

Valuable results - fast

Our work took Parkwood from not knowing what to focus on, to a position of real clarity on where to spend their time and effort. By the end of the process we had:

  • Deeply understood user needs
  • Prioritised them in collaboration with the Parkwood team
  • Prototyped an improved website
  • Tested it with Parkwood’s audiences

A seismic shift in the business

Tom Davies, Marketing Director at Parkwood Leisure, says:

“We needed a detailed understanding of our customers and how we could support them, so we commissioned Mace & Menter to run a discovery and alpha. 

“Their understanding of our business, the pace of work, the clarity, the communication, the attention to detail and the team ethos - were all brilliant. The brutal simplicity of the approach and the clarity with which complex problems were addressed was superb.

“We now have absolute clarity about how we take forward our digital infrastructure and what impact this will have on us and our customers. I can't envisage a business or situation where Mace & Menter wouldn't add significant value. Their work has created a seismic shift in the business.”