Outdoor Products Need to be Rooted in Both Science and Experience
Outdoor gear is complex.
There are so many brands playing in the space, and all claim to offer great performance.
And the customers are savvy. They are experienced shoppers surrounded by information and options. So, while a brand may claim its product offers great performance, if it doesn’t live up to expectations, customers will move on to something better (and they may not be quiet about it).
The potential impacts of poor product performance on brand identity have been top-of-mind for some of these brands for more than 100 years. In their efforts to validate performance, many have relied on their own proprietary recipe for product testing. But as the recent article “Why Field Testing Is Essential For Consumer Trust In Outdoor Product Innovation” in Forbes points out, this method is often solely conducted in a lab, which is only part of the product testing equation.
In the lab, we can scientifically measure and compare critical attributes like water resistance, breathability, abrasion resistance, etc. But while a higher waterproof rating may sound like it will keep you dry, what about the impact that material may have on the interior microclimate of your garment if the membrane traps your perspiration? And how will that situation impact the feeling of “dry”?
In this type of scenario, you may believe you’re heading in the product development direction of optimized weather protection and associated comfort – but without product testing in the field, you may be going down the wrong path.
A great example of this is a recent field test run by a trusted outdoor brand on a popular hiking pant. The product development team’s question was, “can we take these synthetic hiking pants, add a durable water repellent (DWR) and increase the performance?”
At first glance, the idea makes total sense. Take a solid pair of untreated hiking pants and make them more water resistant by adding a water-resistant finish.
The next step was to sew up a bunch of samples with the same material now treated with a DWR and compare the performance of the DWR-treated pants against the style already in the market.
The results were surprising.
Within 24 hours of test kickoff, testers across the country were out in the field, hiking in a range of conditions. When surveyed about water resistance, performance and comfort, the results stood in stark contrast to what was anticipated.
The product testing in the field had uncovered that the specific combination of the material and treatment initially used seemed to instead have had a negative impact on breathability, making the testing sample pants feel wet inside due to trapped perspiration. By the end of the field testing, the benefits from the performance improvements that were intended to keep testers dry proved to be minor, while the feeling of dampness from poor breathability was more prominent.
Sometimes, finding out your idea isn’t that great is a really great thing. And there are two critical steps to arriving at that result; lab testing and field testing. While water resistance and breathability ratings may tell one part of the story, the on-customer product experience may tell another. Through field testing, this particular brand was able to avoid disrupting the trusted performance of a key item.
For Complete Product Testing, Lab Testing Must be Combined with Field Testing
Lab testing is half of the equation when it comes to product testing. A really important half, but still only half. There are two key reasons for this rationale, but we’ll start with the one we like the best.
Field Testing Adds Invaluable Product Performance Feedback Data
Lab testing is highly effective for ensuring the physics behind the product are working. For outdoor gear, lab testing helps push new innovation to new limits. It validates that the product acts like it’s supposed to, and identifies weak areas or design flaws. However, nothing can take the place of real-world use. Clearly not limited to outdoor products, the value in field testing is immense.
Only in the field can a person experience an issue with a sleeping bag hood or draft-tube, letting out precious warmth on a cold night out.
Only in the field can a person realize that the power switch on their camping lantern is much more difficult to use cold fingers.
And only in the field can a person identify the need for a backpack pocket opening to be slightly larger because after they reached in for their bar, they couldn’t get their hand back out without a fight (admittedly, not as dire, but still a detracting design).
You Need to Speak the Customer’s Language
Now imagine that you’re browsing waterproof jackets.
The hangtag on the first one reads, “2.5-layer laminate construction with a PU membrane rated to 10,000mm hydrostatic head testing and a moisture vapor transmission rate of 10,000 g/m2.”
The other says, “Built to keep you dry in bad weather and high exertion during big days in the mountains.”
Our techy product development side loves the idea of microporous membranes preventing rain drops from entering a jacket while at the same time allowing for the transport of interior moisture off our skin, through our layers and through the jacket’s materials, for it to be dispersed and evaporate. And we love evaluating that lab data.
Meanwhile, most of our customers love the idea of a jacket that will keep the rain and sweat out when they’re hiking and get caught in an afternoon storm.
Lab testing is crucial for dialing in product performance, but it needs to be combined with field testing to ensure all aspects of the product’s performance can be validated and drive positioning and marketing.
Where the lab is filled with exciting tools and software all designed to help you build exceptional products, using a product testing platform like MESH01 allows you to not only get your product into the field, but into the hands of a community of relevant and reliable product testers, completing the product testing equation. And when those testers know what they want and need out of your product, their feedback is all the more valuable.
Whether you’re interested in connecting your lab testing with effective field testing or are looking to enhance your field testing with a purpose-built platform and community of real users, MESH01 can help. Contact us today.