Everything is not equally important

When your are enthusiastic about a particular product it is very easy to make a long list of everything that you think is great about it. I have on occasion found myself sounding terrifyingly like someone selling the product. However, sooner or later it usually dawns on me that not everything on my long list of valuable features is equally important.

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:
  1. Main function
  2. Sub function
  3. Supporting function
So what does this mean and how does it help consumers of outdoor gear like you and me? Well, I find it has helped me an awful lot, because it helps me separate what I really need from what might be nice to have. Or what might be nice to have but weighs to much relative to the benefit it creates.

Since I am a lay man and not an engineer I will simply describe it the way I have tried to explain it to myself.
So, here we go:

MAIN FUNCTION: This is what the product is originally and basically designed for. Its reason for existing. If you take away the main function of a product it is not the same product at all anymore. A rain jacket that is not waterproof is basically not a rainjacket , even if all other features are unchanged.

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. 
SUPPORTING FUNCTIONS: These are functions that improve the main function or makes the product more attractive in different ways for different people without being necessary for the main function, like the sub functions are. A rain-jacket which will let some of your perspiration pass out but will not let rain pass in has a supporting function ("breathability") that some of us find pretty attractive indeed.

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:

  1. Main function: Drykeeping torso.
  2. Sub function: Enable wearing (zippers, buttons etc).
  3. Supporting function: Transporting perspiration (waterproof breathable a k a "MexTex"), drykeeping head (hood), facilitating storage (pockets) etc, etc.
Once there is garment that can be worn and that will keep my torso dry, the manufacturers will start adding any number of supporting functions that they can think of. This in order for their product to stand out among all other garments that also can keep my torso dry.

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?
For instance: Is a waterproof/breathable garment really that valuable for me? What if low weight is paramount to me and I do not care if I am sweaty as long as I am warm. Which is the case with my friend 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 info@smarterbackpacking.com)


Korpijaakko said...

This is a helpfull mindset but when buying new stuff it often comes down to wants and needs and then it's all about willpower... ;)

Joe Newton said...

I'm going to stick my head above the parapet here as I know this post was influenced by my post about water bottles! :)

While I agree with using this mind-set to help you keep your eyes on what is truly important when selecting gear (and often preventing you from being blinded by sales pitches) sometimes we stumble upon benefits of an item of gear that we hadn't even considered when we first used it, just as we often identify weaknesses or design flaws once we take that particular item out of the warm, flat, well-lit shop/web page and into the woods. Sure, when selecting a water bottle the main function of holding water can be done by far less complex, expensive and lighter options than the Nalgene that we originally discussed. But when I was selecting what water bottle to take on one of my first winter trips I had a choice of of my Platypus or a Nalgene, both of which I had owned for a while. I knew the Platypus would be more prone to freezing so I took the Nalgene. And on that first winter trip I discovered that other design elements really made the task of using the Nalgene easier than the Platypus. I still have the choice of taking either product on a winter trip but will always take the Nalgene because I find it more practical thanks to it's secondary and sub functions that I didn't even consider when I was first given it.

My original blog post wasn't telling everyone to run out and buy new Nalgene bottles, it was a counterpoint to a blog post that stated that people should get rid of them because they are not 'ultralight'. It offered the viewpoint that if you already have a Nalgene that they can be still be useful, as an effective winter drinking bottle (that has a lot of useful sub functions). You're right, everything is not equally important and we should be mindful to identify the primary function but we should be applying this to the Big Three before we all start falling out over who has the lightest water bottle. :)

Jörgen Johansson said...

If we do not stick our heads out our entire world will forever consist of the inside of our own shell, to quote the turtle :-)

As we both know, on our Finnmarksvidda winter trip this year I used a Platypus plus a couple of small 'free' bottles originally purchased for drinking yoghurt and you used Nalgene and we both functioned well and survived.

The important thing for me here is not the water bottle in itself, as you have pointed out by mentioning the Big Three. It is the fact that once we have bought something we tend do find uses for it, but also to defend our purchase.

One thing I think was obvious from the comments to your blog about the Nalgenes was that on the long list of pros that was collectively assembled, some tended to be tenous to say the least. I will not give examples since I do not want that discussion, it is unimportant.

What I am after is that most people (like Korpi writes)buy things more from wants than anything else. However, we often clothe these as needs in order to seem more of homo sapiens to ourselves and others.

So we see a bunch of lightweight enthusiasts that can come up with a list as long as my arm to defend their purchase or (in my case) non-purchase of a simple water bottle. Should it then surprise us that when we comment on how other hikers are using 2 kilo sleeping bags, 3 kilo tents and 4 kilo backpacks, they will come up with a long list of arguments defending their particular purchase.

So my blog entry simply aims to give everyone a tool that will help those who are so inclined to choose gear more from function and less from wants.

Anonymous said...

While we do want to adhere to the structure you presented, I also find a tendency on the market of manufacturers including supporting functions in all the products. There's plenty of cases where you can't find a simple, efficient, cheap product because the manufacturers would include all sorts of functions that we don't really need just to bump up the price. A simple example would be buying a phone: you can't get a decent cheap phone with a good screen, agenda, calendar without it having a camera or bluetooth which some of us don't really use.

Jörgen Johansson said...

I think it is almost impossible today do find products without supporting functions. In a mature market that is what differentiates your product from others.

But being aware that 'not everything is equally important' means that we can look critically at different supporting functions. Some we have no interest in, others increase the weight too much, some add more expense than function. Then we can select the combination of suporting functions that are most interesting to our particular needs and wants.
It also helps to be aware that something is a supporting function, since the marketing focus on them tends to give the impression that it is a main function.

Martin Rye said...

Agree 100.% Better thinking on why we need kit and what it will do is always good.

Amish Stories said...

Greetings from an Amish community in Pennsylvania, I'm just checking out different blogs and thought id leave a comment. Happy holidays to everyone as well. Richard from Amish Stories

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