Building a better bike involves analysis and understanding your consumers


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Michael Leighton-Trek Bikes- Speaks on Sustainability at Monona Terrace

I recently had the opportunity to attend a Monona Terrace Wright Series Lecture. Although traditionally the topics are on architecture and sustainable design, the subject was extended to include sustainable product design. Trek Bicycle’s Industrial Design and Product Manager, Michael Leighton, was the speaker covering the sustainability efforts in the design and production of their latest urban utility bike the “Belleville.” With my focus on product management, new product innovation and social media use in product development, I couldn’t resist. I also have a passion for biking and support the premise that more people biking for fun and transportation could in fact help us with a number of greater issues such as pollution and the drastically overweight population of the USA. My other purpose was to understand where and how Trek might have employed social media for research, product validation, product improvement, or product promotion in the launch of the Belleville.

Sustainability for our health

American Obesity Trends by CDC thru 2003New products are created every day in manufacturing. In the broader scope, not much is done with sustainability of our environment at heart. Bottom line profits are the driver. If we consider the benefits that a bike can bring to the environment, our personal health, and reduction of congestion in urban environments, much more attention should be paid to bicycles.

Just consider that over 3,500,000,000 gallons of gas are burned at idle by people in cars each day. From a health standpoint, obesity trends are staggering.

“You are not stuck in traffic, you are traffic.” Michael Leighton on Twitter

Greener product design

Greener product design means designing the whole product system from a life cycle perspective. Understanding what this means and how to design this way is the first step. In the presentation, Leighton had many charts and graphs to elaborate on the rather complex process of data tracking and information gathering as you compare product design iterations and the effect they have up and down the process. The key is to quantify and speed up the product decision process for environmental design and manufacturing decisions. Don’t expect this to be a fast process either.

Trek: beliefs and mission

Leighton expounded on Trek’s beliefs and missions. They are working to change the mindset of people by creating new cool products that can change the way people live and work. Trek is building more than just bikes, with products extending to clothing, accessories and components that build on the biking lifestyle. From children’s bikes and the worlds fastest bike – to urban utility bikes and an innovative bike related vending machine on a urban bike path, Trek and its passionate employees are focused on the entire experience. Leighton reiterated the mantra that is repeated within Trek, “for every decision or product, it needs to be a better solution.”

Can they get people out of cars?

The goals that were shared on the Belleville design effort centered around the following:

  • Are they able to get people to move and get out of cars?
  • Is it comfortable?
  • Is it built robust enough to last?
  • Is it inspiring to get on?
  • Is it easy to ride?

They also considered nostalgia. Can they remind people that biking is fun and that they could still do this activity.

Inspiration – French porters

In the 1920s and 30s, French porters were making a living on a bike. Crisscrossing urban environments, they could carry packages, deliver goods, messages and access jobs in better paying areas. Rural families could carry products to market. In the congestion of a city environment, bikes could get somewhere faster and more economically. Trek believes they need to endear this same concept on the Belleville bike design. Trek thought about the entire impact of the process from sourcing materials, manufacturing and getting this new bike to market.

Sustainability in design

I was surprised to hear that Trek had not really started the process of sustainable design on any other product or on their manufacturing process. So they consulted with expert, Professor Philip White, at the School of Sustainability, Department of Industrial Design, Arizona State University. They worked with “Okala” which is a lifecycle assessment methodology and education course, developed to help product design organizations, practitioners and students create, develop, and manufacture more ecologically sustainable products.

Life cycle assessment was done to make decisions and see the problems. The steps in the process are innovations, materials, manufacture, distribution, usage, life-cycle – how long will it work, end of life challenges (i.e., how do we get ride of it, when and where does this occur). Trek went though every single piece and part, and every process. Not surprisingly from their analysis, the highest impacting items were the tires, and inner tubes.

Several important manufacturing decisions were:

  • use harder tires – to reduce wear
  • use hollow crank arms to remove some weight
  • use certified sustainable rubber in the tires
  • use 90 % recycled content in packaging
  • use recycled material in tubes

But how did you get social?

During the presentation, Leighton didn’t share a lot of info on the consumer comments that drove the product or changes. So I went back and asked additional questions and share his answers here.

Wsoucie: With a thought to consumer research – focus groups, survey, personal stories, email request, etc, what social media tools did you use to validate your desire to build this bike in the first place?

[M.Leighton] Our decision to develop the Belleville was inspired by many things — current events, pollution, etc. But before any of the ECO story manifested, we were inspired by many of the emails and stories that we hear on a daily basis about how people use bicycles in the city for transportation and utility. At Trek, we spend a large portion of the product development process on ethnographic research and having an intimate understanding for how people truly use products and the experiences that those products deliver or shape. The idea for the Belleville as a city transportation/utility bike was inspired by what we learned about getting from A to B, but also the numerous values that the end user is looking for in type of bike and experience.

Even Michael was involved in getting this message out with some more personal videos on Youtube.

Social media in crowd sourcing and feedback

I was especially curious to hear more about Trek using social media to gather input. What were consumers saying they needed. Why a totally new bike, why not just “Eco” design one of the other urban bikes?

WSoucie: It is not enough to build it because Trek people wanted to have a cool commuter bike that was more eco-friendly. You stated, that Trek will build it if it solves a problem. What people (demographic) were you thinking of and what problem did they express that you attempted to solve? As the audience member pointed out when she asked how much it weighed – it obviously wasn’t built light enough for a 55+ woman to carry up stairs. So what was the Voice of the Client (VOC) in this case?

[M.Leighton] There is an enormous variety of “urban cyclists”, and each rider has different needs and reasons why they ride a bike for transportation or “urban” riding. I will say that the Belleville does not meet the needs of every urban cyclist. Trek did however focus on a specific rider and usage scenario when developing the Belleville, that being the urban dweller who parks their bike outside 24/7. In many cities, it is not permitted to bring bikes inside buildings, and in a large percentage of these users don’t have access to a garage. So they lock their bikes up all day, every day. This has great implications and challenges, but also offers opportunity to offer real solutions.

The first issue that we hear time and time again, and see every day, is the cost and perceived value of the bike. Based on the targeted user, environment and usage scenario, initial purchase cost and replacement cost is in the top 3 factors for not only getting someone on a bike, but keeping them riding a bike. Expensive bikes get stolen faster than a New York minute. Ask anyone who commutes in Chicago or New York City, and they will tell you that cheaper the bike, the chances of it not getting stolen are better. There are bike shops who will take a brand new bike, wrap the entire bike in electrical tape in order to make it look like junk, all at the buyers request and effort to detour theft. So when you take the target retail price the end user is willing to pay, and in this case it is very low, we were really limited to the amount of unique (outside standard bike production practices) features we could add to the bike. Also from an aspirational perspective, this target user wants just a “bike”. When thinking about of cycling or bike in their head, it is a simple machine with 2 wheels. That was our target.

So there were a number of insights that we learned from our research of the targeted user/rider. These insights impacted the final product at every level — rider geometry, frame material, accessories, even varying usage scenarios for the same targeted rider. For example they might use it as an A to B transportation vehicle in the morning, but on the way home from work, they have a need to carry some cargo such as groceries, etc. One of the key insights was the final one, of the targeted end users purchasing but also cultural value of “riding a bike because is good for the earth”. That was the seed for the whole ECO initiative.

WSoucie: Did you do any crowd sourcing using social media channels to gather intelligence to help?

[M.Leighton] Not on the Belleville project. Riding a bike is an action…and we learn much more when we watch and capture what people actually do, versus what they say or even think they do. Not to say we don’t speak with riders to get better insights as to who they are and their needs, but our research, especially for the Town category of bikes, is more heavily weighted to the observation/ethnographic research side.

That being said, we are continuing to look at all avenues of information gathering and using, and social media research is an extremely powerful tool.

Marketing with social media

Any consumer products has huge cost associated with the marketing of the product. Costs for advertising, printing, getting to the distributors, tradeshows, etc. I was interested to hear if Trek was using social media in targeted ways to let word of mouth and the “referral chain” also provide a sustainable earned media component.

WSoucie: Did you use social media channels to introduce the bike to market?

[M.Leighton] We did use readily accessible social media communities — Facebook, Twitter, etc. The one we relied on most in addition to our own website was YouTube. Again, watching somebody do something, seeing the proof, is much stronger that just reading some words, etc. So we put our efforts in telling the Belleville and ECO story through some short films.

WSoucie: Did you have a social media strategy in place for promotion?

[M.Leighton] It was really pretty simple, tell a compelling and relevant story…and tell it often. Social media networks are the perfect place for not only for us to tell our story, but more importantly let other people tell it for us.

WSoucie: Did you have a media effort with bloggers to ride and review product?

[M.Leighton] When the Belleville was released, we didn’t have a specific group aside from many of the mainstreaming cycling websites, which are hubs for bicycle and product review.

WSoucie: What is your strategy to monitor and provide feedback to the consumer audience?

[M.Leighton] Our first step is that we are open to ideas from anywhere and everywhere. We are constantly monitoring cycling and cultural blogs, as well as social media communities for review, thoughts, comments, rants, raves, anything that can help us deliver a better product, which ultimately will get more people riding bikes. We have our website setup for customer reviews, along with questions where our tech department answers many of the questions people have about our product.

In addition to the Trek in-house monitoring and information resources, we also rely on our dealers. We have an incredible network dealers who do an outstanding job taking care of our customers, and they are great listeners. We go to great efforts to make sure our dealers know the ins and outs of our products, features and the stories behind them so they can answer customer questions immediately. We are in constant communication with our dealers, so if there is a trend, concern or question, the product development team will have visibility on it.

In my opinon

After a quick search via Google for conversations on the Trek Belleville, I found comments on blogs that weren’t exactly complimentary from actual riders not just product review sites. Granted, you can usually find the less than complimentary comments quicker. In general the comments across several forums indicated that avid bike commuters just plain don’t like the seat and switch it out pretty quick. Hand grips head in that direction as well and seem to be noted as a replaceable item immediately. These are of interest since the seat and hand grips are made of a eco-friendly material, and were one of the sustainable design components as Michael Leighton noted in his presentation.

Leighton also mentioned that they had a customer review area on the Trek site. I didn’t easily find the review page from consumers on the site, only the expected complimentary posted product review comments.

Product Review Comments from Trek Bike Website

Several forums and commuter-focused bike blogs had several postings by people who had ridden or purchased the Belleville.

“Trek clearly skimped on the saddle and grips. These components are part of Trek’s “eco-friendly design,” but after only about 15 miles, I immediately wanted to replace them. Here in Philly, we have no recycling for #7 plastics, so in the trash they will go. In fact, the hard plastic, slippery grips got tossed at the bike shop this morning-they were just that bad. I replaced them with more comfortable rubber grips. The saddle is passable, but ugly and not all that comfortable. It is actually held together with plastic zip-ties for ease of deconstruction/disposal. So much for “eco-friendly design.” Trek would have been better off using high-quality grips and saddle that don’t end up in a landfill right away-hopefully they will take note in future redesigns.” Car Free Philly


“Changed the seat and added mountain bike clip peddles. Was getting a numb butt and feet on hour + rides.” Bikes For the Rest of Us – Allen

Sustainable design accomplished?

By the way, I think we could say that they were successful in this attempt at sustainable design and manufacturing. Trek was able to improve their score on the product from 16 to 50 points for sustainability. I guess there is always room for improvement.

Time will tell on how the consumer conversation goes on this bikes success as a commuter-friendly and/or utilitarian bike. I know that I am not the target audience. I live rural and have too many hills to make a 3 speed an immediate choice for me. I will stick with my Trek Pilot and a BOB trailer for traveling into town. In the meantime, I have several google alerts setup to monitor the ongoing conversation and see if they engage the audience more inclusively for this product.

By the way, its Bike to Work Month in May nationally, but Bike to Work week in Wisconsin is June 6-11, 2011. Don’t forget to get on your bike and ride.

Republished with author's permission from original post.

Wendy Soucie
Wendy Soucie provides clients a unique perspective on social business strategy across an organization. Wendy applies and follows specific social media strategy and methodologies for assessments, network growth, contribution, participation and execution. She is a certified social media strategist, Social Media Academy (Palo Alto, CA). She is an accomplished trainer and keynote personality speaker.


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