I started digging into this while writing my book "Vandra Fjäderlätt" and was shown by Martin Nordesjö, who is a design engineer, how designers of products have built a structure that they use. This very structure turns out to be helpful also for us consumers. I have found that it really helps me to separate the wheat from the chaff when deciding what outdoor product to choose and why.
By Jörgen Johansson
A structure used by designers is to work with the following aspects:
- Main function
- Sub function
- Supporting function
SUB FUNCTIONS: These are functions that are necessary for the main function of the product. If a sub function is removed the product simply cannot execute its main function. It does not work. If you cannot close your rainjacket, for example by using a zipper, it cannot function as a waterproof garment. And if you cannot open it, for example by using a zipper, you cannot put it on, which also keeps it from doing its main job.
While the designers are developing a product these functions are often described in a very terse way, in order to help everybody to keep their eye on the ball. A combination of a verb and noun is used, according to what Martin tells me. For a rain jacket that would be something like:
- Main function: Drykeeping torso.
- Sub function: Enable wearing (zippers, buttons etc).
- Supporting function: Transporting perspiration (waterproof breathable a k a "MexTex"), drykeeping head (hood), facilitating storage (pockets) etc, etc.
It is very difficult for me as a consumer to keep my focus on the main function, since it tends to be sort of self evident. This tempts me to focus on other things and the manufacturers ofte want me to focus on other things, because these other things is what sells the great majority of all rain jackets, once it has become established that it does in fact will keep the torso dry.In the example rain jacket any number of pockets, different colors or whatever is not going to keep my torso one bit drier. The fact that it has been to Everest, has a particular brand or is supported by a well known climber will not keep out a smidgeon of rain by itself. But it will sell an awful lot of jackets.
So in a mature market the number of supporting functions tend to increase, once the main functions/sub functions are in place. However this does not mean that supporting functions do not have a place and should all be scrapped. But it is very useful to be aware that they often add both weight and cost. So when I look at a product or listen to someone raving about a product I have started to question the sub functions. Are the main advantages being promoted really subfunctions that that are important and useful to me? If yes, what do they weigh? Is it worth the weight? What does it cost? Is it worth the cost?Brian Doble, Triple Crowner, who I have written about before. He says that he prefers a non breathable rain jacket because it is lighter. His main objective is not to stay comfortably un-sweaty at all times but to be able to stay warm enough when a rain storm hits.
Personally, I prefer the extra comfort of a light breathable rain jacket, but the important point here is that both Brian and myself make informed decisions although we value certain things differently. And that is really the point I want to make here: Everybody makes their own decisions, but in order to make wise decisions you need information. You need to be aware how things work and what is important and what is not important to you.
Another example: Do I really need a hood that will fit outside a climbers helmet when I (or 98% of the people buying these shells) never use a helmet? I realise that the extra fabric weighs very little but it is unnecessary for me, and I also suspect that this is one of those things that costs the manufacturer 50 cents to add, but makes it possible to charge $50. This simply because it can be marketed as a 'climbers jacket' to people who are not climbers themselves but thinks it is 'cool'.
In the end only you can decide what supporting functions are valuable for your particular needs, and if the price and weight are worth it. Or if you can use a generic rain jacket that is waterproof, breathes slightly less, but is lighter and a tenth of the price of "the shell that has been to Everest", has pit-zips or a cell phone pocket on the arm or is colored 'tangerine mauve'. And I am not saying that this is all crap. I mean, next season when 'tangerine mauve' is completely out, I might be able to buy that jacket for 25% of the price from its hey day.
I hope this structure will help you make informed decisions when looking at water bottles, gloves, stoves or whatever. I know it has helped me cut through some snake oil sales pitches.
(This text was sent to my mailing list earlier this year in a slightly different form. I do make some mailings irregularly to registrred readers of Smarter Backpacking and others. If you want to opt-in to this list just send an e-mail to email@example.com)