Sunday, April 22, 2012

DESIGN BAGGED

 
 
 


It seemed a good idea to buy a carry bag for the laptop to make it easier to lug around. After all, the laptop is portable and a carry bag would protect it and make transporting this wonderful piece of equipment more convenient. So the options were reviewed. An Australian design was chosen, as it appeared to do everything one would want; and it looked attractive too. It was black with neat grey detailing and a subtle red graphic brand mark on the front flap. The attached blurb praised all the qualities of this carry bag, so it all looked good – just what one wanted. It offered sound protection for the laptop with soft inner surfaces and dense foam, and had convenient zipped pockets that could take the charger and other sundry items. A rear pocket could carry paperwork and other thin flat objects. So the bag was purchased.

The tag on the bag showed a commitment to the product and created confidence in it:
We work hard to make sure that you love your STM bag so much that you buy another, and another, and another, and then you tell all your friends about your amazing bag with brilliant features, convincing them to get one for themselves.
We love to hear your feedback and comments, they help us adapt the bags so that you get the features you need to make your life easier. You can contact us with your comments and questions using the form below or by email to info@stmbags.com.au. Please double-check the email address you provide. Our privacy policy outlines how we treat the information you share with us.

The laptop fitted well, the charger squeezed in, the telephone connection line fitted into a smaller pocket, and the A4 pages and folder slid neatly into the rear pocket. Everything seemed to be going fine. The bag was placed on the shoulder and adjusted for comfort. Computer travelling had started. It felt heavy and the bag moved around on the shoulder, but one assumed this was only a matter of getting used to the new bag – teething problems. The bag was taken overseas. After getting used to the annoying airport protocol of taking the laptop out at every security station for separate scanning, one soon also became familiar with the awkward load on the shoulder that still kept moving and grudgingly accepted both situations.

The bag had a bad habit of sliding off the shoulder, especially with hands full of other luggage when repeated subtle adjustments could not be made. It became a real frustration. It wasn’t until we were home when freer hands and time back in Australia allowed the opportunity to look more seriously at the slipping problem. A repeated experimental study showed that the rhythm of walking made the shoulder strap slip to one side within the loose, padded strap sleeve that had a non-slip grip on one side and a grey embroidered graphic in black nylon on the other. This shoulder pad was able to slide along the length of the strap so as to allow for easy adjustments for various lengths that people might prefer This device overcame the need for any extra clips on the bag and strap for required adjustments. The sleeve was not fixed to the strap in any way.

After repeated tests in different circumstances, it was finally observed that as the strap took the load of the bag, the strap slipped across the inside of the sleeve, to force its way to one side of this pad. The grip side of the sleeve held the pad in place on the shoulder until the strap load was at the extremity of the inner edge of the sleeve, at which time the sleeve rolled over on the shoulder, placing the load on the slippery side of the pad that was now facing down. This surface offered no resistance to the load that was still pulling to one side, and so the sleeve slipped along the shoulder until it was pulled back into position, to start the process all over again. Ironically, once the sleeve had rolled, the broader firmer, padded, non-slip side of the sleeve stopped it from rolling over again. Pausing to manually roll the grip side back into its correct location on the shoulder was useful for only a very short time. The tests showed that it took only twenty paces of brisk walking to have the whole slip, roll and slide completed.

Once the process had been understood, it became more and more frustrating. So photographs were taken of the problem in its various stages of slip, roll and slide, and sent off to the manufacturer – well, to the company distributing the bags in Australia, for, upon a closer inspection, in spite of the boasting of the Australian design, the bag had been made in China. During the photo session, it was discovered that a simple movement of the shoulder up and down gave the same result as walking. The photographs were e-mailed off with an explanatory note.

A response was received shortly after. It offered praise for this research. The company representative noted that it was only with such feedback that the product could be improved, and the company was always trying to do this. The company representative promised that the company would review the design and replace my bag with the new model that would be out in about three months. This seemed a long time to have to put up with the problem, so I experimented by cutting a piece of stiff vinyl and fitting it into the sleeve. The hope was that this might make the sleeve pad more resistant to turning. Well, it did work, but only improved the situation for about another fifty steps, at which time the whole sleeve jerked over and slipped down the shoulder.

Some many months later after hearing nothing and still suffering the shoulder problem, the company representative was contacted. The message was that the new model bag would be out shortly. It had a slight improvement made to the shoulder pad. My bag was to be sent back at my expense, and the new bag would be forwarded to me when it arrived. So the bag was packaged, posted and we waited.

Then, a little later, the new bag arrived. Still smart, but with an appearance not quite as suave as the previous bag, the new carry bag had extra pockets and a similar strap sleeve that looked a little larger. I packed the laptop and its accessories into the new bag and walked out to try it. Thirty steps down the road the sleeve rolled and the bag slipped. I was more frustrated than ever. So an email was sent off advising the company that the new design still had the same problem.

Seeing that the company appeared so interested in design feedback, I thought I might help it by pointing out a couple of other problems that had been experienced with the design. When the charger and cords were in the front pocket, the front flap was unable to reach the Velcro strip to close. This Velcro strip had been stitched to the lower front edge of the bag and picked up all of the fluff and fine trash from the floor when placed on it. Standing the bag up against a chair, a wall or a piece of furniture would almost always result in the bag sliding over. This was as frustrating as the shoulder problem. It just fell down time and time again. The underside of the bag was the same slippery nylon used for the top of the sleeve. The bag needed a non-slip lower surface to make it stable. These issues were carefully noted for the company to consider, as the previous information suggested that this Australian design team was interested in useful feedback. I felt pleased that I had purchased an Australian design. But . . .

The tune had changed. The response was blunt. There was nothing wrong with my first bag. What was I complaining about? It must be my shoulder. No one else had complained. Nothing more could or would be done. Go away. Try another manufacturer’s shoulder pad. The response was very disappointing. So I threaded the strip of vinyl onto this strap, wedged it into the sleeve and it is still there. At least it is a small improvement. The bag is still slipping on my shoulder and the floor, and has collected an amazing array of fluff that gives the Velcro the appearance of felt and diminishes its effectiveness. Maybe this is not so critical as it still does not do up over the charger. I remain frustrated. Now the zipper has broken!

I have decided never to carry this bag again when travelling. It is used just to protect the laptop as I cart in around in the car. It seems to do this well. I carry the strap rolled in my hand and hold the handle on top of the bag. Occasionally, when essential, I pop the sleeve onto my shoulder. I always have to check to see that nothing has fallen out and have to use a prop whenever I want the bag to stand up on the floor beside me. Australian design? Who cares? It seems to me that I was given the classic call centre PR brushing aside. Nothing has been changed with this new bag design and it seems clear that no one wants to know about any other issues either. The bag is still being made in China and is sold here at quality Australian-design prices. I know how much the Chinese sell bags for in Beijing.

Since this experience I have looked around at other carry bag designs. There is an American design that solves all of these problems. A stiff, broad shoulder pad is fixed firmly to the strap and does not slide or roll. It sits on the shoulder with a secure and certain confidence. The Velcro closure is stitched about seventy-five millimetres from the lower edge of the case and stays clean. The underside of the case has a textured non-slip surface so that it stands exactly where placed on the floor without the hint of any uncontrolled movement. The bag closes when full. I know that next time I will not judge the design by its appearance and promotional material but by its performance – and I know what particular performances one requires in a carry case now that I have experienced failure. It will be Belkin next, not STM. It was interesting to discover that the problems I had experienced were not a figment of my imagination or a problem with my body as I was prompted to believe, and that another designer was aware of these problems and had addressed them thoughtfully. They issues are real.

Maybe STM has learned. I know that my model bag has the problems that I have passed on to the company. Perhaps its newer models have responded to the feedback? I have not researched this. All I know is that good design is more than creative marketing. It engages the simplest of issues and addresses their needs so that one never has to consider their accommodation or make allowances for them. Only then can the design truly offer the admirable, unselfconscious usefulness that good work and wellbeing requires. It is always more than beauty and slick graphics. It cares too. Sadly, it just seems to take time to learn – for everyone.
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