Tuesday, August 7, 2012

The Tyranny of Choice – A problem for snowboarding that’s waiting to be solved

Traditionally we consider choice to be a good thing, but is it really?

Over the years as snowboarding has developed it’s become an increasingly complicated sport, just take for example the snowboard and some of the possible variables that now exist: Snowboards can be freestyle, freeride, jib specific, or all-mountain, you can select your camber whether it’s traditional camber, rocker, no camber, camber with some rocker, flat with rocker, or any number of a plethora of camber combinations, they can have a swallowtail, a triple base, spoon technology, wavy bases, a sidecut, an asymmetric sidecut, wavy edges, or flat edges, you can have a tapered board, a wide board, or a split board, then there’s different flexes and different lengths and there’s a bunch of options we've not listed in this incredibly long and tedious sentence. It’s all complicated just a tad more because there’s no standard naming for any of those options and each manufacturer comes up with their own names to try and make their's sound a little bit more awesome, then you have to choose which of the hundreds of brands you identify with and finally you have to find one with a graphic you like.

More options than you can shake a shitty stick at.
Figuring out what you want is an exercise in madness, and when you eventually do go and throw your money at the problem, and it is a substantial amount of cash, you then spend all your time wondering if you bought the right one after all. It’s bad enough for experienced snowboarders who even after years of riding still won’t be totally aware of all the options, but imagine what all those options and jargon means to your average punter or more importantly to someone who wants to try the sport for the first time. 
Development is a good thing for the few people out there who really know what they are doing and what side of their bread is buttered, but sometimes choice can be a barrier and you've got to wonder whether this growth of complexity is starting to have an effect on the popularity of our sport.
Here are two charts from previous articles we’ve written; because trying to bring some sense to this complexity is something we strive to do on those odd weeks when we’re not just posting pictures of people taking their clothes off or when we're not so addicted to the Lympics that we get nothing achieved at all.
More and more complicated
We haven't even attempted to do something similar with snowboard technology, but for a couple of examples of the explosion of options, in the 2006 Transworld Snowboarding gear guide there wasn't a single snowboard with alternative camber, but by 2009 there were 170 of the things, and there's new ideas every year, just perusing the latest Onboard magazine product guide there were five new board technologies that we'd not heard of before.
Snowboarding participation has not increased since 2000 and it fell further in 2011 after we drew this chart.
We could have picked a few other things to illustrate the problem, but essentially as time has gone by things have rapidly become more complex, there is streets more technology, oodles of new jargon, thousands of brands and it's all resulted in a massive increase in choice, but there are no more snowboarders.

Per snowboarder this sport continues to become increasingly complicated.

So is there a solution? With the rise of complexity in other areas the solution has been the parallel development of the choice industry – people who try to simplify large amounts of information and try to help people make choices. Going back to the selecting a snowboard example, here are the people currently trying to help people select a snowboard and a look at how well are they doing.
The Current Options
Retailers. Traditionally this is where you go to get the best advice but there are limitations; retailers will only specialise in certain brands, not everyone lives near a good shop and the advice is only as good as the person who’s helping out, and unfortunately there’s always the chance that they are useless bastards like David Thorne experienced in this familiar episode.  
"I hope you break your fucking neck in a fall noob." - Anton Ganev, owner of Function 4 Sports 

Online Retailers. Taking things online allowed the retailers to hold a lot more stock and opened things up to more people, but they've been really unsuccessful at replacing the human expertise.  Huge Euro-store Blue Tomato, in a good example of the problem, have tried to produce an interactivebuyer guide to help people select the right snowboard, and it’s not very good. Selecting your favourite brand as a starting point is really not how you go about making this sort of decision.  

Manufacturer Guides. The brands themselves are keen to get into the action, but the key problem that makes these guides almost pointless is the lack of impartiality and options. That said Burton, who have the largest range of snowboards and need to have a good selector, have produced an excellent example of how these things can be done for the 2012/13 season.
If your answer to Blue Tomato's first question was Burton, then leave immediately and head straight to the Burton site.

Board Tests. Board test's are easily the best way to select a snowboard, but but depending on who is hosting it you might find your options are limited in the same way as the first three solutions. Unfortunately board tests are also an elusive beast and for most people it’s something they’ll never find when they need one.

Snowboard Magazine Gear Guides. The annual gear guide editions make up a good proportion of the revenue of the snowboard magazines as the manufacturers and retailers vie for advertising space. The magazines put together the best written overviews of how to choose a snowboard, but they have problems trying to review and describe each snowboard, Transworld Snowboarding don’t even try.
The thumbnail art gallery that is the Transworld Snowboarding Gear Guide. Pointless
There’s also a disturbing history of all that advertising money effecting the honesty of their reviews in certain US magazines which is a real concern.

Blogger Reviews. The lack of individual board reviews that the magazines are able to offer opened up a space for bloggers. Sites like Angry Snowboarder and Shayboarder filled the gap being able to provide more in-depth reviews of individual boards. The limitation of this approach is that they can only review a small number of boards and the blog format doesn’t make the initial search for a certain type of board easy to do.
Angry Snowboarder's kitchen, I suspect he is a single man, also a giant man.

Online Gear Guide/Reviews. Somewhere in the middle of the last two options is a site like Snowboard Review. They have a lot of snowboards, but they haven’t actually ridden many of them relying instead on churning out the manufacturer’s description. They do have a very basic selector tool and it’s something like this that is really important to make this process work online. The site shows that a better combination of volume, detail and usefulness is possible, but it doesn't make things easy and in the current format with the manufacturer descriptions it is very misleading. 
A snippet of their Board Selecta... Wordy
Online Price Comparison. Some guys in Russia are trying a slightly different approach to the same problem and they've been quietly building a snowboard price comparison site called SnowDB. We’ve been keeping an eye on these guys for a couple of years and this site is slowly evolving and getting better. At this point they concentrate on listing as many snowboards as possible and the prices available at different retailers. They do include the manufacturer’s description but they've not yet extended the idea to offer a buyer’s guide or board selection help. 
Search Engines. Another new site trying to find the solution is FindTheBest. They’re a search engine automatically trying to help people make decisions on what to buy and one of the first things they tried to simplify was snowboarding (there must be a keen snowboarder in their office). They have a great way of laying out and comparing all the board specs and they offer useful reviews by aggregating them from the US snowboard magazines. Unfortunately things fall down a bit because they have to use a one-size-fits-all approach to organising the results and a method that might work for other types of products doesn’t quite work for snowboards. The way the reviews are amalgamated is cleaver but the rating of each board is very crude with only three very basic sources of information to work from. The filters on the left let you try and isolate the right sort of snowboard but it isn’t the most natural way to do this and the written buyers guide is not good. It’s probably reasons like this which has meant that snowboarding is no longer on the homepage and it’s been replaced by amongst other things, online comparison gun shopping. They've also got crossbows...

A Future Solution?
Somewhere amongst those current options is a tantalising glimpse into what could be done to simplify the task of selecting a snowboard online. A site that:
  • Offers a simple and easy-to-use tool that helps people, from experienced riders to first-timers, select a short-list of snowboards. The Burton snowboard selector is an excellent example of how to do this and it would be possible to extended the idea across the other brands.
  • Provides quality reviews on those snowboards that are produced in a consistent way in the detail that the bloggers achieve. 
  • Enhances those reviews by adding other sources in the way that FindTheBest does, or adding reviews from your average punters like Amazon does.
  • Maybe offers the price comparison of SnowDB. It's a nice addition because it creates a site that can be funded by both advertising from the manufacturers and from a cut of each sale from the retailers, but it’s not the core problem that needs solving. 
Over time maybe one of the sites we've mentioned will end up producing a solution like this, or maybe someone new will come in and do it. The interesting thing is that there is still an opportunity to improve things and anything that can be done to reduce the complication would be a real benefit to the sport. Going back to the overall theme of the tyranny of choice, we've focused specifically on how to select a snowboard, but the same problem applies to many other areas of snowboarding and similar opportunities/solutions are possible. If the choices can be simplified it will be interesting to see what effects it will have on the take-up of the sport.

Anyway if you want our advice on what snowboard you should get, we’d probably recommend buying the one with the prettiest pictures on it.

You Might Also Like…
If you want to read about the tyranny of choice then this article on The Economist is worth a read 

Next week - lots more swear words


  1. What about www.thegoodride.com? They got many reviews done by a group of people with many days on snow. Reviews seem to be fair in that their impressions of stuff I have owned are the same as what I felt. Not trying to push them. They don't have an interactive "board finder" but they do have their "favorites" broken down by ability, type of riding, and cost.

  2. Perfect analysis. The site your proposin as future solution would already be there, since the concept ist done already since years. What your missing out on: This monster needs to be financed and maintained, and the market didn't offer sustainable models to get a decent return on investment.

  3. Hey anonymous,

    This is James from www.thegoodride.com. Next years site will be a lot closer to the "future solution". It will be way easier to filter/sort down to a board that fit's your riding style and specs. The design should be more like a board finder and less like a list of snowboards sorted by riding style. Ok back to work.


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