Head to head testing in the free ride boards sports industry is perhaps more useful than where it's more traditionally used at the higher, performance end of sports. Paddleboarder and experienced sail designer Andy Sinclair shares his views on the value of testing for consumers, and explains how as a designer it offers him tremendous value...
As a sailmaker and sail designer the ultimate testing ground for our products is on the sailing boat race course. It is where proof of our design theories and practices come into action and are lined up against the rest of the market. In quite a short amount of time you can develop and evolve this, and drive towards a better product for the consumer. The issue with this (and this is reflected across all watersports) is that racing and competition is only a very small part of what most consumers are actually doing. And if we take too much development from racing products we can end up with equipment very focused on elite and experienced users.
(Image / Standard sail testing setup in yacht sail design – comparing designed shape to flying shape. This type of in depth testing sometimes is not possible with free ride equipment because the tools cost money and the analysis takes a lot of time.)
In all watersports, mass market participation such as ‘free surfing, sailboat cruising, intermediate racing or free riding’ is the biggest sector. But in development terms it often lags far behind when compared to race products. The reason for this is the fact that designers are not getting the level of feedback available to them compared to a performance or race product. The amount of real world testing against similar products is just so much smaller that it makes development in this sector much harder. It also means that often products can go on year by year with minimal update and brands might be at risk, or accused of just spinning the marketing machine to keep the product seem relevant. It might therefore not be the best recipe for continual improvements in design that the consumer can benefit from.
Back in October I was lucky enough to be asked by the SUPboarder team to be involved in a Wing Test. At the time I hadn’t even seen a wing, but the team wanted to ensure they were bringing in expertise from a sail design background to help with the first test of these products anywhere in the world. As a sailor, paddleboarder, sailmaker, sail designer and owner of my own sail loft these new products really fascinated me, presenting a strange mix of kite and sail design. Will from SUPboarder brought a few of the wings into my sail loft and we pored over them, looking at their differences. I couldn’t wait to try them out, as well as help the team develop their test methodology.
I had seen that over the summer of 2019 more and more wings from various brands started to hit social media and I became fascinated and surprised at how quickly some brands were able to bring products to market with the constraints I know exist to adequate testing. There were a few different spins and avenues people seemed to be taking but looking at them it seemed very much like there was a rush to get a product out there and get your name in the mix. A test seemed like a really good idea at this stage to help consumers understand what they were buying into.
This new side (or crossover discipline) of stand up paddleboarding, is so new that we are still working out how we use them.. from flat water non foiling to wave foiling the mixture of possibilities is huge. It looked from the early days that a lot of brands were focusing on foiling wave riding, which in total honesty, requires a reasonable skill level, and is actually a fairly expensive thing to get into. So it definitely felt like they might be missing out on the biggest sectors. One question I was keen to answer was – What did the mass market consumer need to be looking out for?
SUPboarder explained to me how they wanted to bring head to head testing to SUPboarder PRO – their subscription side to SUPboarder’s SUPboarder co-founder Will explained how “The SUPboarder team has always been extremely passionate about ensuring the information we provide is accurate and something readers can trust. Our reviews have always been 100% honest, providing both pros and cons, helping readers to make the right kit choices. However when it came to head to head testing (between multiple brands) to still achieve this honesty required a different approach. After all, every brand wants to be the winner not the loser right?! And therefore to ensure there were no outside influencing factors and the test results were ‘100% real’ it was essential to make sure there was no funding from brands in the tests, and that all brands had the opportunity to take part. SUPboarder PRO has allowed us to do this.”
I felt that their approach was sensible. It’s not only great for the consumer who gets to see real world testing, but also great for the brands as it highlights to them ideas and flaws that they might have missed in their own designs. For the brand designers, real head to head testing is so valuable, but sometimes getting it done in the ‘free ride’ areas of a sport is hard to achieve. A designer of these products will be limited in their ability to test head to head due to restrictions on resources as well as commercial reasons. At the end of the day, a designer is passionate about making great products… the more testing, the better.
The testing we conducted was really fascinating and enlightening. We found that as we tested each product it also challenged our pre conceptions of what we had thought was what we were going to be looking for eg. the inclusion of a window was really interesting. In our pre test discussions we hadn’t really thought of it, but when you go from a wing with a window to a wing without, straight away you notice the lack of visibility and that then becomes actually a point the test results must consider. Through the on and off the water testing, the test methodology and ways in which ratings would be used were tweaked and adjusted.
Being involved with this test set to me a new standard of what both the brands and consumer should be asking for the watersports media to be doing. Individual detailed product reviews that you see throughout SUPboarder and on many other publications still have their place. Reviews are very good at highlighting innovation and special features as well as allowing experts to challenge the brands claims about which consumer a product is right for. Head to Head Testing however, adds a different value as it allows experts to put products up against each other, giving you comparisons that are not possible in reviews. For brands, it increases the designers ability to learn and improve faster which filters down to again more benefit for the consumer.
When it comes to actually broadly looking at the cruising and free ride/surf sector moving forward, we have entered a new era. A lot of development happens on the race course, but this has its basic limitation that at the end of the day everyone is trying to win. So much is kept secret, where as with independent head to head testing we can have more focus and control with no secrets, allowing us to learn more about a range of products in a short period of time than you could on the race course. A day of testing with a core group of users all getting to try all the kit can bring about a huge amount of information in a very short period.
As a designer, I know I want to see more of this, because at the end of the day, I learn, which means I design and make a better product and somebody down the line has more fun on the water, which at the end of the day is what we are just looking to do!