Themes from the Castle

Since our last post about our project with Castle Hill Fitness, Jen and I have transcribed all the interviews we did, and added thousands of pieces of data to the walls of our workspace. This data consists of broken down utterances from participant interviews. From there we attempted to group similar data together based on connections that weren’t obvious or straight forward. These links were made from us inferring what the underlying meaning or behavior was behind each utterance. After working through all the data we chose a few themes that stood out to us as having an influence on a new member’s experience at Castle Hill Fitness.

When looking at the patterns we saw in the data we identified some themes that support the goals and values on which Castle Hill Fitness prides itself. For example, it seems like people are drawn to Castle Hill Fitness because it is doing its part to keep Austin weird.  What we mean by this is that the data points to people noticing aspects of the gym that they associate with things they like about Austin in general, and that they think make it unique. Participants like that Castle Hill is a local business as opposed to a corporate gym.

“It feels more laid-back. They don’t want the hoity-toityness of some gyms.”

Claire (line 11)

Being local they identified it as feeling more laid back, a business that supports a diverse group of staff and clientele, and has shared values with the larger Austin community.

“I look for inspiration anywhere… I feel like it’s bad because it’s from Equinox.”

Miles (line 32)

“We’re doing what Lifetime and all the other big box gyms can’t do and that’s making it a personal, kind of family experience.”

Cedric (line 32)

As shown in the quote above, being a local gym also allows Castle Hill Fitness to personalize their experience in ways that other corporate gyms may not be able or want to. This leads right into the next theme we saw as a pattern in the data which is that Castle Hill Fitness places an emphasis on providing a personalized experience for their members.

This begins right from the start when someone enters the building. The front desk prides itself on greeting members by name and building rapport. Castle Hill Fitness makes conscious efforts to build relationships between employees and members by keeping standard schedules so you always see the same people. They focus on promoting from within to reduce turnover so that those relationships can grow and the staff can continue to invest in members. Staff will even offer to go to classes with new members and introduce them to existing members to help them feel more comfortable and start creating relationships in the gym community.

Another way that Castle Hill Fitness emphasizes a personalized experience is through their new member emails. An employee will review the history of new members and email them personalized recommendations of things they might enjoy trying.  Lastly, we saw a pattern in the data that employees create personalized experiences for members based around specific health issues.

“He happened to have polio when he was a baby and so he came in… he was just ready to go and it was just fun creating that experience for him.”

Avery (lines 66-67)

In addition to finding themes in the data which give evidence to Castle Hill’s values and goals, we saw themes which reflect potential points of tension within the business. The first of these are that employees have a complicated relationship with new members. For example, some employees feel like working with new members is fun and exciting because they represent a new opportunity to share all of the services that Castle Hill offers.

“It’s exciting. I like working with new members… I’m excited for them to see something different.”

Angelica (line 129)

While some employees talked about how they were more comfortable working with existing members because they know how things work, and they’ve already built rapport. These differences in comfort level working with new and existing members could lead to an inconsistent delivery of services.

“I’m definitely more comfortable with existing members because I know them and they know me and we chit chat.”

Cedric (line 158)

Also in speaking to employees about their jobs at Castle Hill fitness we noticed a pattern in the data that employees have different interpretations of what their role is at Castle Hill Fitness. Because people view their roles differently they feel empowered to take different approaches with their jobs and with members which could make for a disjointed experience for new members.  

For example, one participant when talking about how they handle certain situations said “I don’t know if that’s the right thing to do, but we feel justified in what we do.” Another mentioned that they have a lot of flexibility in their role to handle things in different ways because “we don’t have huge rules.”

This theme was really interesting when we looked at the different ways that employees with similar jobs thought about their roles. One manager said, “I mean, technically I’m called the [department] manager, but I definitely don’t manage people.” While another manager said, “A lot of what I do is really just being a messenger for all the other departments.” While a third manager said, “I’m responsible for making sure this club operates the way it’s supposed to.” As you can see these are all very different interpretations of the role a manager fills at Castle Hill Fitness. While these may all be effective styles that work for the managers and their teams the lack of standardization could lead to varying outcomes.

Finally, the last theme we found in the data that reflects a point of tension was very central to our focus on the new member onboarding process. We found that employees have no clear definition of when a member is fully onboarded. Some said it was time based and after a certain amount of time they would consider a member onboarded. Others said it was when someone was coming into the gym consistently, or using more than one service. Still others felt like a new member wasn’t fully onboarded until they found a connection such as to a person or routine. With no clear definition or goal for what a fully on-boarded member looks like it seems unlikely that a clear system or procedure can be used to accomplish this.


Working through the data to create themes was a brand new process for us and really gave us an appreciation for how important the first step of research and data collection is to the process. When we reflected on our experience up to this point in the project here are a few things we’ve learned about what worked and didn’t work.

If we were doing this research again we would try to get a better understanding of the member’s perspective of being fully on-boarded. We ended up with a good understanding of how the employee participants feel about the onboarding process, but don’t have the same understanding from the member perspective. In hindsight, this would have been interesting to learn. Ideas we had would be to ask them about when they felt like they were fully part of the Castle Hill Fitness community and what that meant to them, or even more broadly how and when they felt like they were a part of any organization or community.

If we were doing this over again, we also would have broken our transcriptions up into shorter utterances initially. We realized our utterances were far too large a good while into the time when we should have been focused on themeing and had to review, reformat, print, cut, and add the shortened data back on the walls.

Once we began working on themes, we got off to a slow start because we we’d never done it before, and kept worrying about if we were doing it correctly. Next time I think we will just jump in and do it. We realized we just need to see what we get and then can always re-adjust from there.

When we were in the thick of looking for themes in the data we found that time boxing to create intervals in how we approached the data helped. For example, we’d spend 30 minutes looking through unthemed data to create new themes and then switch to breaking apart themes that had gotten too large for the next 30 minutes. This helped keep us moving quickly through the process.

Some of our themes which we found to be most interesting centered around areas of disparity in the data. We struggled working with these sometimes, because what we found to be the significant connection between them was that they were so different. We’re interested to find out more around this type of data grouping going forward.

Lastly, when we realized we needed to stop theming and work on our presentation we found it helped to flip the boards (walls) over. This newly created blank workspace on our walls gave us space, mentally and physically, to focus on specific themes that we wanted to present.

Here's an image one of our classmates captured of us enjoying our newly expanded wall space for themes.
Here’s an image one of our classmates captured of us enjoying our newly expanded wall space for themes.