Design isn’t about making things, it’s about making SENSE of things.

The past few years have seen an overwhelming amount of new technology. Many have made riding better for all it’s users (dropper posts). There are also many that are getting seriously technical and in-depth. Many mountain bikers likely do not understand the inner workings of a shock let alone want to deal with servicing one. For the most part, they just want to stick to keeping air in the tires and the chain lubed up. Where do we draw the line with the development of new technologies?

Many of us don't even take the time to lube our chain properly!
Many of us don’t even take the time to lube our chain properly!

Maybe bikes are as high-tech as they need to be, after all, for many of us, the reason we ride is to have fun, focus on the trail, not what’s going on underneath us. Normally, when we test products for reviews or group tests we focus on the performance, the weight, shifting, bump-eating, stopping etc… This time we will feature the design traits that often go unnoticed, the ergonomics and ease of use.

For example, shoes and pedals. When I got a set of proper riding shoes(flats), I could finally stop worrying about keeping my feet on the pedals. The additional support and pin gripping rubber compound kept my feet secure even through rough trail sections. Instead of evaluating my new investment, I forgot about it and that’s about the greatest testament I can give them.

Riding should be fluid and second nature, sometimes the best improvements are the ones we don’t notice.
Riding should be fluid and second nature, sometimes the best improvements are the ones we don’t notice.

Perhaps we should focus on making bikes more user centered as opposed to expert centered. This is a concept made popular by American design firm, IDEO. It refers to a design process in which the needs, wants, and limitations of the end users are given extensive attention at each stage.

“The chief difference from other product design philosophies is that user-centered design tries to optimize the product around how users can, want, or need to use the product, rather than forcing the users to change their behavior to accommodate the product.”

SCOTT Engineer Ruben Torenbeek and I spent some time examining the products during the Design & Innovation Award 2015 in South Tyrol. We both have a product design background, so conversation ergonomics and bike stuff came naturally. Here are few examples of products that are on the right track, and where bike design could improve in terms of usability:

Ergonomics:

The modern hydraulic brake, one of the greatest successes of mountain biking technology.
The modern hydraulic brake, one of the greatest successes of mountain biking technology.

Anyone who has been riding since early mechanical disk brakes or V-brakes knows how fortunate we are to have modern hydraulics. After all, what’s the point of having a fast bike if you can’t slow down enough for the next corner? The smooth, natural motion does not easily fatigue even with single finger use. The tool-free adjustments make customization and pad replacement simple. For the most part, they don’t require bleeding often and are quite simple to bleed.

Our thumbs naturally hook under the bars, so why is the lever located up here?
Our thumbs naturally hook under the bars, so why is the lever located up here?

Who else has nearly crashed while fumbling with the dropper post lever? Some bikes have them positioned just out of reach of your thumb while securely holding on. This forces you to change your hand position, which is inefficient and potentially dangerous. Additionally, they often require quite a bit of force to push which can be difficult at the end of a race or in the cold. At this point we should be past issues like this. The problem is, we tend to be very good at disguising and adapting inefficiencies in terms of ergonomics. Especially with cutting edge, top of the line products. If they have some sort of performance benefit, we are willing to put up with a trade off.

Perfectly shaped shifter levers.
The comfortable XTR Di2 levers are a definite improvement over most shifter levers.

The trick to being a good designer is seeing past what is accepted to find the potential to improve. XTR Di2 is changing mountain biking as we speak, it is a great example of evolution, and I don’t just mean electronics. The levers are refreshing change to what we are used to. They are smaller and closer to the handlebar so you don’t need to reach as far. They are covered in a grippy rubber and the far lever is sculpted to prevent us from slipping off. Electronics allowed designers to have the levers rotate concentrically around the bar so it doesn’t get further away through the stroke. Not show-stopping enhancements by any means, but they make it easier to make shifting subconscious while we ride.

Speaking of that, why do we use two levers to shift? Because that’s just the way it is… Right? One of the most detrimental terms a designer can think or say…

Thinking outside the "BOX"
Thinking outside the “BOX”

Box Components challenged this with a single-lever shifter. Press it forward to shift down, toward your stem to shift up. It’s so user friendly you’ll soon forget about the lack of a second lever.

Maintenance:

Usability and durability for the win!
Usability and durability for the win!

In order to effectively apply user centered design. One must study how the product gets used, sometimes, its completely unintended or leaves plenty of room for improvement. Fortunately, many (all?) of the designers in the mountain bike world are riders as well. Product use isn’t limited to time on the trail, it is important to consider the mechanics perspective whether they are the owner or not. Sometimes, even the best products fail and service needs to be considered during the design process. A great example of this is the Vecnum MoveLoc dropper post. It is designed to be serviceable and be operational even if the remote mechanism fails. That way you’re not stuck at one height if it breaks mid-race! For this reason we gave it a Gold Award!

When pushed, the pin near the main hinge takes tension off the chain.
When pushed, the pin near the main hinge takes tension off the chain.

Someone from SRAM must have gotten tired of derailleur or chain replacement being a three hand job or using a zip-tie. The lock mechanism is a ridiculously simple solution to a problem that we dealt with for far too long. A great example of design extending past just performance benefits to affecting things often overlooked but crucial to ease of use.

Simple sag Indicators have made it easier to set up our suspension.
Simple sag indicators have made it easier to set up our suspension.

On the other hand, how have seat post mounting systems not gotten better?! Aside from I beam, we are still using the same two bolt post that requires a brain surgeons precision and three hands to replace the saddle.

It can be hard to imagine room for improvement with the lastest bike technology, it has come a long way and is very impressive. In order to improve on the amazing bikes we ride now, companies need to deeply study the way we use the products from different perspectives. We need to keep in mind the average user, their knowledge level, toolset and time. Ultimately, we can just ride without concern about anything else. If we can make maintenance, adjustment, and use as simple as possible that fantasy may just become a reality.

Words: Tyler Malcomson Photos: Various