You're the Designer: Outdoor Companies
Turn to Customers for New Product Ideas

G3's "Table Top" Ski
G3's "Table Top" Ski. (photo courtesy of G3)

As gear companies compete and innovate, the race is on to develop high-quality, unique equipment for outdoor adventures.

A few weeks ago, we wrote about the revival of custom gear, which enables each consumer to be the designer of a one-of-a-kind product. Customizing gear gives consumers the ultimate in personalization, but can take longer and costs more than mass production. The challenge for outdoor gear companies is how to bring customers' great ideas to market without the overhead of creating entirely custom products.

Some manufacturers are meeting this challenge head-on with a practice known as “crowdsourcing.” Loosely defined as "community based design," crowdsourcing uses the power of a community to bring unique ideas into the design process at a lower cost than “full custom” design. Here's how a few pioneering gear companies are using the wisdom of crowds to create unique products:

NEMO Equipment

When New Hampshire-based NEMO Equipment decided to launch a series of sleeping bags, the company had some tough questions to answer. While they wanted to make an absolutely unique product, NEMO had never made a sleeping bag before, so they sought customer feedback on their new designs.

NEMO Bag test.
A volunteer tester tries out a prototype sleeping bag. (photo courtesy of NEMO)

According to Director of Marketing & Public Relations Kate Ketschek, “We knew we could test in-house and go the usual route, but we felt that since this is such an innovative product we needed to reach out to a larger community. We're using an entirely new shape and some features that haven't been seen before, so it was very important to us to get feedback.” After a contest that involved submitting a written and video review, NEMO selected 13 community product testers who were assigned prototype sleeping bags to test.

Ketschek is still analyzing feedback from approximately 150 3-season bag tests, but the results are promising. For example, a waterproof-breathable foot box proved to be a hit among testers. Once the results are compiled, the designers will make changes to the product, which is scheduled to hit the shelves sometime in 2013.

 Liberty Bottle Works

Liberty Bottle Works Custom Bottle
Liberty Bottle Works Custom Bottle. (image courtesy of Liberty Bottle Works)

When Washington-based Liberty Bottle Works opened its doors in 2010, a participatory ethos was already built in. Liberty's unique approach to crowdsourcing empowers artists to submit designs to the company, which selects the best, prints them on bottles and shares the profit with the artist.

According to Liberty Bottleworks art director Ricky Pond, the program isn't just designed to produce unique-looking bottles. "People who don't have the opportunity to get their art out, we can help them get their art out," says Pond. "We've learned so much about different genres of art. We've worked with a woman who collects 100-year old magazines and makes collages. You're looking at 100-year old images that have been collaged to make a picture of a robot playing a guitar! We've worked with kids that have gotten in trouble for doing graffiti. Now, they can see something positive come out of their art, rather than going around tagging buildings. We want to give individuals with passion an opportunity!"

G3

Skis are deceptively simple to the uninitiated.  In reality, each edge and angle affects the ultimate performance of the product, so it isn't easy to crowdsource this aspect of the design. But four years ago, ski-maker G3 launched the "Skigraphiks" program as a way to engage skiers in designing the non-technical aspects of their skis.

"When Skigraphiks first started, the goal was just to get more input from customers," says G3 spokesperson Jamie Bond. "We wanted to refresh the design of the ski. While outsourcing the technical aspects wasn't feasible, we thought that the graphics aspect would be a great way to engage skiers."

The Skigraphiks program runs four times per year, in September, October, November and December. Aspiring ski designers upload designs in specific templates, which are then judged by a panel of experts. The winning designs go on to limited production runs and the winner receives a free pair of skis with their own design. Despite only crowdsourcing the visual aspect of their skis, G3 has still learned from their foray into participatory design.

"We've seen a lot of creative ideas and our designers are inspired to 'take it up a notch,'" says Bond. "This process has opened up G3's eyes a bit. Some of our skis had a very clean design, but the contest has really freed us up to design more creatively."

 

Crowdsourcing is an exciting trend that promises to give all of us a chance to participate in the design process.  Join the conversation about crowdsourced gear below or on Facebook.

Filed under: Gear News

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G3  |  Liberty Bottleworks  |  NEMO  |  Alpine Touring/Telemark Skis  |  Water Storage Containers  |  Sleeping Bags and Pads  |  Alpine Touring/Telemark Skis

Comments

whomeworry
102 reviewer rep
2,295 forum posts
December 13, 2011 at 7:40 p.m. (EST)

I am humored by this particular notion of grass roots driven customization.  The focus is mainly on styling, versus performance.  If one could distill my general lament over gear evolution, it is the emphasis on style, often at the cost of performance.  For example there are a plethora of packs on the market today that feature cool looking multi color, multi panel, styling accents.  It may look cool having a stripe run diagonally along the back panel, of the pack, but that seam introduces an unnecessary point of potential failure.  Likewise there are parkas that could use fewer seams, and pockets designed for use, not looks.

Even when design suggestions revolve around function, I am remiss.  For example the idea of a water proof foot box on a sleeping bag seems to solve a common problem, but does it?  The foot of my bag gets wet from contact with the tent wall.  Ergo the solution is designing a longer tent.   Duh!  Making the foot box water proof solves this problem, but also makes it less breathable.  If you feet sweat like mine, this will cause moisture to accumulate from within, and the user will have no resort to address this problem.

Lastly there is the whole notion that ten heads are better than one when it comes to problem solving.  This is often the case, especially when addressing refinements of a concept.  In fact we are undergoing a paradigm shift as a society, away from the designated resident expert to that of collaborative approaches to problem solving.  But over reliance on the minions to drive innovation is no substitute for visionary creativity.  And I am concerned we are muting the creative genius’s potential to impart change when we embed them in a group where everyone’s vote is equal.  Visionaries are type cast because they see what others don’t.  Apple would not be where it is today if Steve Jobs was just one vote in a committee.  I know I am commenting well beyond the scope of this topic thread, but if we are endeavoring to create truly superior performing products my money is on relying on the experienced few who also have the design expertise.  That is how the great companies of the golden age of  trail gear got things done.

Ed

caryernst
63 reviewer rep
123 forum posts
December 13, 2011 at 10:38 p.m. (EST)

Agreed

gonzan
MODERATOR REVIEW CORPS
658 reviewer rep
2,149 forum posts
December 15, 2011 at 11:15 a.m. (EST)

Though crowdsourcing can reveal design flaws and or innovations, I think Ed has some very valid thoughts above. A company's PR is going to work hard to craft the positioning of the concept in the public'd mind to be an almost philanthropic gesture, i.e.- "We care about our customers SO MUCH, we want to give you the chance to have the gear YOU want the way you WANT it (and after all, you are smarter than most, and more beautiful, ans talented, etc, etc, etc.)" In reality, the motivation for crowdsourcing is entirely driven by reducing development costs. Prime example was the GAP clothing company logo debacle. The company is losing market share, and is fast waning as the trendy, forward, popular company that it once was. Their solution to reposition? Was it to reevaluate their trend pulse and focus? Nope, it was to turn over the branding ideation to their customers.  The result was a horrible logo that didn't help them gain market ground at all, and the new design was abandoned. 

Callahan
245 reviewer rep
1,469 forum posts
December 18, 2011 at 12:24 p.m. (EST)

What about attaching a survey (postage paid) card to gear, when purchasing, for review back to the manufacturer/designer ?

Tom D
MODERATOR
38 reviewer rep
1,757 forum posts
December 26, 2011 at 5:20 p.m. (EST)

If you have to ask your customers what's wrong with your product, you haven't spent enough time working out the design. One thing I learned from years of wearing scuba gear is that there often seemed to be a lack of awareness by designers of how the item was actually going to be used.

For example, I've seen pockets in the wrong place or placed at the wrong angle. How does this happen? Anyone, even a beginner who tried on the gear would notice that right away.

Another example, Scubapro came out with the first stabilizer jacket and I had one of the first ones sold in Hawaii. I loved it, but it had a serious design flaw-when fully inflated, you were pretty much immobilized because it inflated under your arms. After a few years, the newer designs didn't do that. I had quit diving by then, so don't know how well they work, but all of them now that I've seen look that way, so I presume that solved the problem.

The stab jacket was designed to solve a design flaw in the Scubapro back mounted BC-if you were unconscious, it would float you face down, not a good thing. It had advantages over the old horse collar, but that design problem was kind of obvious after a while.

Just like with anything else, sometimes, you don't notice the problem until you use whatever it is a few times. By that time you own it. The lesson, I suppose is get it from somewhere that will take it back-like REI.

Bill S
TOP 10 REVIEWER REVIEW CORPS
2,430 reviewer rep
5,311 forum posts
December 26, 2011 at 8:00 p.m. (EST)

Callahan said:

What about attaching a survey (postage paid) card to gear, when purchasing, for review back to the manufacturer/designer ?

 Many companies in various industries have been doing this for years. The surveys could be better designed in many cases. And filling it out and sending it in immediately, as most encourage you to do (sometimes with the offer of some wonderful goody) means instant reactions, not after someone has used it for a while.

A product I bought last summer sent me a follow-up about 2 months afterward asking how I liked the product, now that I had had a chance to use it for a while, plus a space to make comments not covered in the survey.

Tom D said:

If you have to ask your customers what's wrong with your product, you haven't spent enough time working out the design. One thing I learned from years of wearing scuba gear is that there often seemed to be a lack of awareness by designers of how the item was actually going to be used.

That's what beta testing by volunteer users is supposed to do. All too often, the beta testing is done by the designers themselves or, the other extreme, by the customers. Too many electronic devices, in particular, seem to be tested by the final consumers, both hardware and software. In computers in particular, I have yet to see a company that really did a thorough testing before selling the "final" product. I include Apple/NeXT/Pixar in this, as is pointed out in a number of cases in the Jobs biography by Isaacson - my iPad is an example, as were the Macs I used at work. Don't get me wrong - there are a lot of things I like about the iPad. But there are some really dumb things in the user interface that the user has to get used to, but still cause problems. Ed uses my neighbor Steve Jobs as an example of the visionary in his post above. Fair enough, and Jobs indeed did come up with some great ideas and had the talent to inspire (some would say "force") people to implement them, despite having strong reservations. One thing that is noted in the Isaacson biography that is contrary to Ed's comments - Jobs was very much into the appearance of the product, from the Apple II, through the Mac, through the iMac (with its transparent case), through the later iPods with their variety of colors (the original iPod was only white), through the ad I got today pushing "customize the color of your iPad/iPod/iPhone/Mac" (about a half dozen colors, mostly in cases for the device), and including the design of the Apple Stores. The Apple user interface was very much driven by Jobs' desire for a particular appearance, more than function (I get this from the direct quotes from Jobs included in the biography). As a Bauhaus fan myself, as Jobs was ("Form follows function"), I believe this is basically a good thing. Though function should not, I believe, be sacrificed to form.

If you look on the user forums for the major GPSR manufacturers, you will see a lot of glitches that should have been caught by thorough beta-testing. Tom's example of a stabilizer jacket is a rather shocking example, but far from unusual. I have participated in a number of beta field tests for a variety of products over the years. In too many cases, the beta was started after the product had already been announced and we testers were told to wrap everything up in a short time (2 weeks in one case), since the release date had already been announced. In one case, a number of us pointed out a serious glitch that was not remedied by "ship to market" (STM), and ended in a recall. In another case (a pack for bicycle commuters), a number of us pointed out that the pack was rather awkward to wear while riding the bicycle, even when empty, much less when loaded with your suit and dress shoes for work plus the work you took home to prepare that customer presentation. They also left off the reflector stripes several of us suggested as a safety feature for that late evening commute home during late fall through early spring in the dark.

Thing is, in the competitive environment that exists, you have to get the product out or lose out to the competition. Hopefully the company will learn, remedy the problem for the next version, and not make a new blunder.

Tom D
MODERATOR
38 reviewer rep
1,757 forum posts
December 26, 2011 at 8:15 p.m. (EST)

Bill, it wasn't so much that the stab jacket didn't work-it worked really well to float you essentially vertically in the water, which was the goal. But, trapping you in it once it inflated seemed an obvious problem, if for example you were working with students or trying to do something other than just float around in it.

Underwater, it was a different story,since it wasn't inflated all that much.

Sometimes with products, it is simple things like handles that aren't comfortable because they have sharp edges that make you wonder about how a product was tested.

There are plenty of books on great design. I always wanted to write one on bad design-not the kitschy stuff that is is plain ugly, but simple things that just don't work because of what should be an obvious design flaw. 

whomeworry
102 reviewer rep
2,295 forum posts
December 28, 2011 at 1:11 a.m. (EST)

Don't get me wrong about styling; Jobs was obsessed with styling, but his main contribution was paradigm shift in the way we went about out tasks. 

Regarding computer software, I quit a job on the spot when the management decided to launch a major software release without much more than a ritualistic gesture at an alpha test.  All to meet a schedule that the development staff knew was bogus.  Management was not about to let some propeller heads get in the way of their performance bonuses.  If things didn’t work they knew they could admonish the programmers into marathon sessions until the software allowed people to go about their jobs again.  I grew tired of this game, being made a scapegoat, and not being included in the incentive package that compelled them to fabricate such ridiculous schedules in the first place.  I was not about to spend the next three months pulling fourteen hour days while men with their neck ties cinched up too tight attempt to sweat more commitment from my butt, all for a straight salary.  Let them fix it themselves!  Soon thereafter I left the IT profession for good.  I had enough of such nonsense, working with senior management who stategic vision was so myopic they couldn’t find their personalized parking spaces, and working with analysts who were so inept they couldn’t identify their own butts in the dark using both hands, and working with programmers who could make more spaghetti code than the Olive Garden, and thought a program passed testing when it managed to run without crashing.  Dilbert and Office Spaces don’t begin to describe life behind the glass walls.

Ed

Louis-Alexis
171 reviewer rep
223 forum posts
December 29, 2011 at 9:49 p.m. (EST)

+1 for longer (and wider tents()tents.

Patman
REVIEW CORPS
770 reviewer rep
1,283 forum posts
December 30, 2011 at 7:59 a.m. (EST)

whomeworry said:

  Soon thereafter I left the IT profession for good.  I had enough of such nonsense, working with senior management who stategic vision was so myopic they couldn’t find their personalized parking spaces, and working with analysts who were so inept they couldn’t identify their own butts in the dark using both hands, and working with programmers who could make more spaghetti code than the Olive Garden, and thought a program passed testing when it managed to run without crashing.  Dilbert and Office Spaces don’t begin to describe life behind the glass walls.

Ed

I'm sitting behind an actual glass office wall as I read this this morning. I've worked in IT for all of my adult life. Currently not for a technology company, but I know of what you speak and you are spot on. My goal is to get out of the industry but it's proving to be a challenge in this economy.

Tipi Walter
225 reviewer rep
1,196 forum posts
December 30, 2011 at 9:51 a.m. (EST)

QUESTION:  Why is it that a company brings out a fantastic product like the North Face Westwind tent or the Mt Hardwear Muir Trail tent---and then dumps it like a bad open sore???  And yet Hilleberg designs a tent model (the Staika, the Akto, the beloved Keron) and KEEPS IT FOR THE NEXT 30 YEARS---adding improvements over time.  This I can't figure out.

It causes me to think that big company tent designers are purged every few years (waterboarded?) and their products black-listed.  This is about as good an explanation as any other. 

Here's a novel thought for North Face---Take the Westwind and upgrade it!  Go to DAC poles, use clips instead of sleeves, add vents, beef up the floor, go to silnylon, etc etc.  At least so far MSR has keep the Fury and upgraded it with pole clips instead of sleeves. I know, I know, the Westwind is still available in England I think but not here.

whomeworry
102 reviewer rep
2,295 forum posts
December 30, 2011 at 10:21 a.m. (EST)

Tipi Walter said:

QUESTION:  Why is it that a company brings out a fantastic product like the North Face Westwind tent or the Mt Hardwear Muir Trail tent---and then dumps it like a bad open sore... ..This I can't figure out...

Tipi:

Your wisdom betrays your age.

Ed

gonzan
MODERATOR REVIEW CORPS
658 reviewer rep
2,149 forum posts
December 30, 2011 at 10:30 a.m. (EST)

Patman said:

 My goal is to get out of the industry but it's proving to be a challenge in this economy.

 I don't know what area of IT/Programming you are in, but have you ventured into the android development arena at all? I have a friend ho worked for peanuts in IT for years; last year he quit his job, and is doing very well as an independent and freelance developer.

Seth Levy (Seth)
TRAILSPACE STAFF
410 reviewer rep
1,067 forum posts
January 2, 2012 at 1:17 p.m. (EST)

Tipi - I've seen this happen more times than I could count.  I have often wanted to set up formal petitions for companies to retain good products.  I'm personally not shy about sharing ideas for improvement, too.  I've gotten in touch with customer service staff at Osprey, for example, and made some carefully considered suggestions that have been accepted gracefully (but not implemented.) 

campingwithcharlie
0 reviewer rep
5 forum posts
January 8, 2012 at 10:29 a.m. (EST)

This is in responce to Tipi Walter.

Unfortunately manufacturers are into making a profit. They can have a good product but after a period of time consumers relate a design flaw to the product name. If an improvement is made and the improvement is great enough the manufacturer generally creates a new name for the item with the improvement. It is generally easier to make  new marketing for a new product then to repair an opinion of a past known product.

That is why products become discontinued, consumers will purchase the new improved product other than one they know has a flaw.

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