(Part 1 of 2) Whether we code, weld or stitch products together, everything we make for our users contains design problems to solve. How we solve these problems can, at the very least, minimise time-to-market and maximise innovation returns. What development techniques do designers use when designing and testing physical products? Can the design of textiles shine light on (systems? software?) development? Conflux spoke to one-person startup Sarah Giblin, founder of Kickstarter success RiutBag, to discover her unique and effective approach to product development. This article is part one of two. Read Part 2 on rapid prototyping and respecting reality.
Q1: Hi, Sarah. Could you describe your experience with RiutBag over the past few years?
Hi Matthew [Skelton]! Gladly. Five years ago I had never designed, funded, manufactured, freight shipped, warehoused or sold anything online before; I was an office employee and a backpack user. I had no experience with the RiutBag. In fact, it didn’t exist and neither did my company.
I was travelling for work in my old job when I spotted a problem: all urban backpacks are the wrong way round. Yes, the person behind you can open your backpack. This doesn’t feel right in a world where we commute and travel, often alone, in cities of millions of people with plenty of tech, data and value stashed in our bags. So, I removed all the zips from the outside of a backpack and instead positioned them neatly against our backs. In that moment, the RiutBag was born. Now every time you put your RiutBag on, it is automatically secure.
I sketched out the design on paper to see if I was wrong: have I made a mistake? Are backpacks really all the wrong way round? I left my job to make it happen, but I didn’t risk going straight into production. So I worked with a prototyping company to get my idea into 3D form. We went straight from my pencil drawings, to a paper first prototype and then into fabric. After 4 months and 3 prototypes I was looking at the very first secure backwards backpack, RiutBag. And it worked.
I had a complete and functioning prototype. Now I needed funding. I could have gone to a bank and asked for £60k, but even if they had granted the loan I would have been £60k in debt with no customers on the first viable day of my business. That didn’t feel right. Some investors had shown an interest but splitting my attention between making someone else money and making a good thing for the first time seemed like a bad plan. I turned to crowdfunding. I made a video, took photos of the prototype and went direct to my potential future customers about my idea on Kickstarter.
In the following 30 days 1,091 people pledged £63,743 to make this idea exist. They had no guarantees I’d be able to do it - neither did I. The Kickstarter backers grouped together to reach the minimum funding goal required to make one production, each risking between £40 and £100 to make it happen. In return, they wanted me to do my utmost to make the very first production of the RiutBag and send it to them. I took them on the journey, showing them everything I did to try and make it happen.
Secure travel era
Within 11 months of leaving my job with an idea and sketches of a secure laptop backpack built for modern travel, there were 1,000 of them being used in cities around the globe. I did it on time and they worked.
Five years on, I’m on my 13th production, I’ve released 16 RiutBag iterations, there are 20,000 RiutBags on the planet, I’m on my third Kickstarter campaign with a new secure travel laptop RiutBag, multiple companies have copied the design and 94% of my RiutBag users globally agree that they feel their valuables are now secure in busy urban spaces with my design.
Q2: That must have been an amazing journey. What techniques have you used to help you keep the development of RiutBag lean and nimble?
Making the RiutBag, and starting Riut, is the greatest and hardest thing I’ve ever done. I didn’t plan my company to be lean and nimble. If it is, it is by necessity. Everything I do is moulded around my skill set and the resource constraints of a one-person startup. Here’s how I design and develop my backpacks.
The first RiutBag had one job. It had to be like a normal backpack, but backwards and secure. That’s it. Yet, to complete the prototype I had to answer other much more basic questions like “how big should the laptop holder be?” and “what colour should this backpack be?” and “how wide should the straps be?” or “should it be light or heavier and more durable?” I knew how I would answer these questions for myself, but I wasn’t just making it for me. I was making the RiutBag for any, maybe all, city travellers out there. So I had to get this right.
I looked for statistics and reports online and found nothing relevant. So I made a free online survey and asked people in my social media circles to answer the survey questions and share them with other travellers. The first survey was answered by 50 people, the next 300, the next 1,000. I didn’t have all the information, but I had real current data from potential future RiutBag users. This was all built into my first RiutBag.
More user thinking
A year later, with production one complete and being used by my Kickstarter backers, I found myself with no stock. But I wasn’t just going to make the same RiutBag again, so I surveyed my first 1,000 customers. “Was it any good?” “which bits were awful?” “which bits were great?” I got the feedback - qualitative and quantitative - got over the pain of reading the problems with my design, puzzled over them, redesigned the RiutBag, sent my new designs to the factory and created two new secure backpack designs based directly on their feedback. I funded them in 28 days on Kickstarter this time raising £158,098. That was enough to start the company in earnest.
Revolution in user thinking
This is what I’ve done every production for 13 productions. I work directly with the thinking from my RiutBag users and build this into my new designs. So that I don’t wander off this path, I built my user based design philosophy into my company and product name. Riut - said “riot” - stands for Revolution in user thinking.
Making the (im)possible
If you look at the RiutBag today, there’s no way one amateur could have come up with all the features, functions and improvements since the first edition. The designs have come so far because thousands of users have helped to make them better over 4 years. The designs have developed far beyond what my imagination alone in 2014 could have dreamt up.
For example, I ask my users: “What impossible thing do you wish your RiutBag can do?” More than one person said something like: “I know it’s impossible, but I wish my backpack could be bigger when I need more space and smaller when it’s empty.” I smiled when I read it, and thought it was impossible too.
I was busy prototyping a much larger RiutBag for secure global travel. I was frustrated with this enormous prototype taking up my whole desk and just wanted to put it away. But it was so big! So I folded the top of it inside itself and slipped it down the side of my desk. After a second I thought “..wait a minute..” and the newest RiutBag X35 was born: a laptop backpack which folds and unfolds from 10 litres to 35 litres in seconds. I’ve just released this one on Kickstarter for frequent flyers and one-bag travellers who want to travel with peace of mind.
The most unexpected source of improvement each production comes from another type of user - just not the end user. The people at the factory who make the RiutBags. I’ve worked with the same textiles factory in China for all 13 productions. We learnt together how to make RiutBags to my standards. It’s a struggle and a fight every time.
100% quality control
Back in 2015 when the first production was complete, I naively expected each of the RiutBag to come out perfectly formed with no quality issues. I was wrong. I was shocked to learn that every RiutBag could potentially have endless, unique problems and it appeared to be no one’s job to get rid of them all. So I took the perhaps unlikely decision to quality check every RiutBag myself each production: seam by seam, zip by zip.
It might sound like a questionable decision, but there is nothing greater as a designer to see every part of every product you’ll ever send out into customers’ hands. I see in real time what percentage of the production has problems, which problems they are, which are one-off issues and those systemic to that production or design. I have a fully immersive, experiential data flow pouring direct into my mind from the RiutBags as I check and feel them, my quality assurance, my conversations with the production team and the fixes we can achieve. I also have data from my customers. We are all users, simply at different phases of the RiutBag’s life cycle. The difference between us and my end-user is that at the factory we can change things and my customers mostly can’t.
Production by production, design by design, I have a huge set of information to base my future designs on. My job is to design RiutBags that have all the functions, features, quality and comfort which urban end-users want/need without causing more problems at the manufacturing stage. As it happens, unnecessarily hard manufacturing processes dreamt up by me will most likely end in faults found by customers in the long run. That means more RiutBags need to be repaired, returned or replaced if I don’t find those problems and fix them before the customers get them. The problems will appear at some point; I just want to get to them before my customers.
Working with people
To be clear, being at the factory also has other great benefits: the production team really know I’m serious about the work they are doing on these RiutBags and it changes their mindset during the production if they know I will see each bag. They also know I take their feedback on the things that are particularly difficult to make at the machines. Every day we eat together, we can fix problems in real time if we realise there’s something small we can change and I can confirm that change for the rest of the production with the director. It’s worth 14 days of non-stop checking to get all these benefits.
I used to think the RiutBag was a concept. It isn’t a concept. It exists only in 20,000 individually handmade versions of it. Each customer will only know their RiutBag. Each one needs to reflect what I want it to be. I know my journey from backpack user to backpack designer has been accelerated beyond belief by hearing direct user feedback from real RiutBag users and experiencing, checking and fixing every problem on every one of my physical products in existence.
Thanks for inviting me to share an introduction to the Revolution in user thinking, the way I work at www.riutbag.com. This is how I design and work with my users to make thing to help them when they travel.
Come and be a part of this! Support my designs on Kickstarter, use my secure travel products, challenge me and work with me to develop them over time to meet real travel needs. If you want to talk more about the analogies between your industry and mine, hangout and chat with me on Twitter and Linkedin.
Watch the founder of RiutBag - Sarah Giblin - speak about her product design experiences at TEDx Brighton: