Saturday, January 20, 2007

Gear Testing

I've been doing a fair amount of that lately despite my injured elbow. I can still get out for a quick whack on the icicles, so I've been testing new tools, screws and some clothing also, good fun. It's fun to work on gear that I really care about, and sometimes make a real difference to future product. There are few things more satisfying than to be using a commercial product and see one of my little tweaks in action on it, whether it's a feature or a clean piece of material lacking a "feature." Probably the biggest battle in product testing for me was learning that what I want, what Joe and Jill consumer want, and what the designer wants just won't mesh all that well a lot of the time. We as consumers often have a tendency to look at a product and think, "Is this the best gear?" when the real questions are, "What was this product designed to do?" and "What do I do?" Clothing and climbing gear is slowly becoming more and more specialized; I was looking through an ancient catalog the other day and there were about three pieces in the "Jackets" section, and about four types of carabiners. You know what the average shop looks like now, and likely own a jacket for light aerobic activities, one for pure rain, one for dog walking, etc. The point of this is that we have to understand our own needs pretty well in order to buy anything appropriate. When I'm product testing I almost have to act--today I'll be a grade 4 ice climber with a swing based on climbing four days a year. Tomorrow I'll be a grade 6 ice climber with access to pro deals, the day after a novice looking for that one harness that will do everything well enough. The funny thing is that we as testers and manufacturers become so wrapped up in our line segmentation that we can forget that the consumer often isn't as educated as we are, or to put it another way, we're worrying about tenths of grams on an ice screw hanger when the consumer is thinking, "Ah, it costs a bit more and the teeth look pretty sharp." And, just as women bought men's boots for years because there was a perception that the women's footwear was detuned (it often was back in the day), no consumer wants to buy the "low end" gear even if it will work better for them as well as cost less. I often have novice ice climers coveting a tool like the Fusion or another high pick angle tool, which will be a nightmare for them to climb ice with. High pick-angle tools are great weapons for hard mixed climbs or in very experienced hands, but the Reactor will climb pure ice a hell of a let better, cost less and make the whole experience more fun for the vast majority of climbers. So somehow consumers have to figure out what the designer made the product to do, and match that with what the consumer will actually do with it. I think one of the greatest improvments in design and sales could come not from more advanced technology, but better educational information on the packaging. Computer manufacturers are the worst at this--the average Dell ad has about 20 numbers in it, when what's really needed is more information on what the XX375B7 graphics card does, and who might want to buy it. A gamer might need that power, but Stewart who writes emails and surfs for Brazilian Tree Frog photos likely won't... His graphics card money could be better spent on an extra inch of monitor space. Apple is currently doing well because they seem better at matching their products with what users actually do rather than focusing on the materials in the box (and they charge more for often less). In clothing we tend to focus on the ideal of the high end, but wrecking a $600 super-light alpine jacket while tree skiing in a resort is a waste of money and likely aggravating to the consumer who maxed his credit card to buy it. The over-built, heavier jacket would do a better job even though it costs less. But manufacturers keep selling the high end, and we as consumers keep lusting after it without understanding what the designer was thinking or what we actually need our gear to do. I read internet reviews of gear a lot (both outdoor and other categories), they can be useful, but when I read an epinions review of a Ford F 350 diesel truck where the new owner is pissed because it won't fit into his office job parking space so the truck "sucks" I feel a familiar flash of sympathy both for the owner and for the truck's designer. Any successful gear purchase, whether outdoor or computers, starts with understanding what the product was designed to do and then what the purchaser is actually going to do with it. If someone were to start a really good web site devoted to very intensive gear reviews based on education rather than purely how "performance" oriented the gear was I think it could be really successful.

Right, off to test some more protos, today I get to be a financially empowered individual who wants the "statement" equipment. But first I'm gonna chop some ice off my sidewalk with the BD proto ice tool and change my van's oil in the new Arc'teryx jacket, grin, gotta make sure the dirt bag with a pro deal form will like it too.

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