Joe Broadhead, UK leader for Decathlon’s trekking brand Forclaz, explains the thinking and hard mileage that goes into creating perfect outdoor gear…
What’s involved in your role as Trekking Leader?
Essentially the role is to identify the needs and styles of long-distance walkers in the UK, then to use this information to curate a range of products that can satisfy those needs so that more people can get outdoors and, in particular, experience multi-day camping. The role involves working closely with our trekking brand, Forclaz, which is based near Chamonix in the French Alps and also with external brands when there is a gap we need to fill.
Tell us a bit about where you’ve trekked around the world.
I took a year off work a few years ago and travelled to many different places around Asia, Australia and New Zealand with plenty of trekking along the way. I’m also lucky enough to have travelled to many different locations with work on testing missions. My favourite was a prototype testing trip to the Atlas Mountains in Morocco, where we spent ten days rigorously testing and developing a great range of backpacks.
Has there ever been a moment where you were really glad of a piece of Decathlon kit?
Wild camping in the Lake District last year. We were hit with some very strong rain and wind during one of the nights, which resulted in my friend’s much more expensive tent breaking a pole and us having to hunker down inside my trusty Quickhiker Ultralight two-person tent. It stood up to the weather with ease and left me feeling rather smug about the quality of our products.
How do Decathlon’s design teams make use of your input?
As Decathlon is such a global company our design teams have a tough job to understand in detail the needs of each market. A trekker shopping in a Decathlon store in Thailand has quite different needs from a trekker here in the UK. Most of the input I give is to help our design teams to develop the correct products for our market. An example of this is our need in the UK for a good range of drybags due to our relatively wet conditions, something which a customer in Spain would have no need for. Here it’s a vital piece of equipment.
How has your input influenced the development of a particular product?
I spent two years working with our backpacks product manager and a team of trekking leaders from around the globe to develop our mid and top-end backpacks. We started by trekking for a week in the French Alps to test many different types of backpacks, to see which features were beneficial and which were not needed. We then spent a lot of time deciding the specifications, such as material, durability, weight, pockets and so on, before developing many different prototypes. We rigorously tested and refined each of them before testing the final prototypes in the Atlas
Mountains in North Africa. After the final prototypes were validated we then invited Decathlon trekking customers from around the world to our design centre to participate in a user test over one week, in order to get their feedback. I am proud to say that those packs are now in stores around the world and have received great user feedback.
What kind of testing process do Decathlon products go through?
A very rigorous and demanding one!
Testing is happening constantly whilst our design teams are developing new products. It can be as simple as testing the fabric durability in our test labs in Lille or it can be more complex, such as giving the prototypes to mountain guides in the Alps for them to test and give their feedback. We always have a good mix of lab tests and real user tests before the final product is validated for sale in store. An example of a validation test is the 500km test that we perform on our Forclaz trekking boots before we go to production. If the product fails then we keep improving it until it passes the test. Once released, we are also constantly reading customer reviews to see how we can keep improving our products.
You also work in Decathlon’s stores. How does your experience inform the advice you give to customers?
Having tested and used many products from many different brands, and contributed to the development of our products, I have a good idea as to what works and what doesn’t work, as well as what is needed and not needed. Mostly my advice consists of keeping your clothing and equipment simple, with a focus on taking nothing superfluous. I take a lot of time to explain to customers that they need much less equipment than they originally intended to take with them when trekking.
What impresses you most about the way that Decathlon researches and designs its products?
What was amazing to me when I first got involved in a Decathlon design project is the obsession with observing how people interact with certain products and how we can intuitively improve that interaction. We observed during a backpack test that people were struggling to put their water bottle back into the side pocket of their pack without either taking it off or asking a friend to help. We saw this and developed an angled bottle pocket that seamlessly allows the user to take out and put back their water bottle with ease while on the go. This is a simple design solution but it is a small thing that makes a huge difference when you’re out for many days in the mountains, and it’s also one of the most reviewed features on our packs. As we focus on observing people’s interactions with different products, it allows us to incorporate many useful features and so create really well-rounded products.
Finally, Decathlon talks about its commitment to environmental sensitivity. How does that manifest itself in the design process?
Environmentally friendly design is at the forefront of our creative process. We believe that by creating sustainable design solutions we will be able to preserve and protect the mountain playground long into the future. This is evident in many of our products that use recycled materials and environmentally friendly processes such as dope-dyeing, which reduces substantially the amount of water used in the fabric dyeing process. Our popular Trek 100 Insulated jackets make use of this process and are an environmentally friendly product that we are very proud of.