Winter backpacking and product designFebruary 9, 2009
I went on a winter backpacking trip last weekend with an old friend. I’d been looking forward to some snow camping most of the year. It’s a great way to get away from the electronic ties I can’t seem to shed on my own. It’s also a great way to get away from the crowds, as not many other people are out camping when the weather is well below freezing, even in Colorado.
Backpacking in the winter involves a lot of extra gear, much of it heavy. So, I’d been training by running and lifting weights. I thought I’d be ready for the mountains, but I live at sea level, and I’d never camped above 4,000′ or so. I wasn’t prepared for the effect 10,400′ of elevation would have on my body even though I’d expected some weakness. I was moving at a very slow pace and fighting the symptoms of minor altitude sickness – headaches and slight nausea. There was just more factors to this adventure than I could consider without actually getting out there. With each trip, I learn something (many things) about staying comfortable in adverse conditions that no matter how long I plan, I just won’t anticipate them from home.
How many times have you (as a consumer) had trouble with a product and thought it seemed like the designers never used it themselves? They thought they had all the angles covered, but maybe they never took it “up to altitude” to really examine how it might behave under real-world conditions with real users. Sometimes it’s not easy to predict all conditions, especially when you don’t have the right perspective. As the design engineer, you understand what this button does and what that double-beep means, and you might even think it’s intuitive. However, you can’t be completely objective, but it’s not your fault. It IS your fault if you just stop there and don’t consider your options.
Give your prototype to user focus groups. Give it your coworkers. Give it to your family. Watch people interact with it and try to figure out how it works. If it’s an avalanche beacon, users will interact with it while wearing winter gloves and shaking from the fear that they have 15 minutes to find their friend or HE WILL DIE! Can they remember your 10 minute training session to follow the prescribed scanning procedure along the lines of magnetic flux? Can they hear the indicator beeps over the howling wind or their own heartbeat? Can they even get the device into Search Mode? A good designer must consider every possible use case. Don’t give up, yet. Even a highly specialized device can be intuitive when designed well.
I can understand if you don’t want to test drive your product on a winter camping trip, but you can find real users to provide perspective for almost any situation. (astronauts rarely design the spacecraft that they travel in, but they’re likely consulted on the design) No matter how much you ponder your users from behind a desk, there will always be something you forgot to consider. Get out there. Experience the world of your customers. You might just make a better product.