Redesigning the youth swim program for YMCA USA

  • Project Type: Design Research and Service Design
  • Team: Erica Michie, Jason Lam
  • Contribution: Interviews, observations, participatory design workshop
  • Deliverable: 36 page toolkit


As part of the redesign for the national youth swim program, the Strategic Innovation department had begun to redesign the aquatic program to focus on simplifying the program offerings, integrate more activities, and streamline the instructor training process. They were interested in conducting an analysis of their service offerings and communication platform to determine whether there were opportunities to support youth and families involved in the redesign of their aquatic program.


  • How do parent motivations differ and what impacts their choices?
  • How to engage parents in the aquatic program and support drowning prevention best practices?



I started with conducting ethnographic research of aquatic center and swim lessons at 3 YMCA locations in Chicago. The goal was to gather context for the swim experience. The locations were selected based on the populations served and services provided. Observations included parent/child pairs, older students, aquatic instructor and aquatic director. In total, 12 observations sessions occurred across two weeks. During observations, extensive notes were taken and daily affinity walls were created to record key observations and identify themes.

While observing and talking with aquatic directors, we discovered that instructors were the essential part of the program. We discovered that the most effective instructors were the ones who were able to properly assess the student's ability and teach swimming related techniques through fun activities. Children who joined were often at various levels in swimming skills and water familiarity. During classes, the child with the worse swim abilities often dictated the pace of the class. Since classrooms were divided by skill level, swim classes often contained children of various development ages.

Although parents were often the main reason children joined, it was the child's participation level that usually dictated whether or not they continued. During observations, we noticed that older children often felt embarrassed if a younger child was better than them and skilled swimmers were often bored if they were the in the same class as weaker swimmers. This created an opportunity to improve the swim experience by offering more individualized lessons with fun and engaging activities.


After the observations, we wanted to learn more about parent's motivations for having their children join the class. Based on the analysis, we discovered parents were the main reason that children joined aquatic programs. Not only was swimming seen as a fun and healthy activity that developed important life saving skills, but swimming was seen as a foundation skill in water safety and acted as a gateway to water related activities. Young parents were often pleased by how swimming helped their child adopt more health related practices like conservation or bathing. Swim classes were seen as particularly important for parents of young children or parents who had weak swimming skills. One parent expresses their feeling about enrolled their child:

I don't know how to swim so I feel nervous when we go to the lake in summer. I didn't want [my child] to grow up with the same feeling

After talking with aquatic directors, swim teachers, and parents, I created a mind map to visualize their pain points. Parents often how swimming represented opportunities for their children. Some discussed how they hoped their child would be able to participate in more activities that they didn't get to enjoy when they were young, while others viewed it as a life long skill that could save their child's life. Most importantly, parents expressed a desire to support their children in developing water safety skills to allow for independent play near the water. As a result, a water safety toolkit was designed to help parents with young children use experiential learning to understand safety principles.


Afterward, I created a prototype toolkit to address their needs. In this phase, I conducted weekly feedback sessions with content experts and parents to ensure I was creating a useful product. I went through 8 iterations before I ended up with my final design – a 36 page card deck communicating the essential water safety guidelines.


The results of the ethnographic observations and interviews helped highlight the key pain points driving the redesign of the swim program. The rich stories helped illustrate how parents felt about the aquatic program helping to build support for the importance of simplifying the current programs and improving adoption rates. Drowning prevention became a key message as all parents want their children to be safe. The drowning prevention toolkit highlighted how to engage parents in the process and was made available for all YMCAs across the USA.


Drowning prevention remains an important part of the swim design program. The insights from the deep dive illustrated the importance of engaging young families in the program and retention for the program. The water safety toolkit serves as an example for how to include parents with the aquatic program.