Does your product have a fatal flaw? Don't let expertise cause you to overlook the obvious.

Sometimes I think I went into manufacturing because of a general proclivity I have toward snobbery. I am constantly disappointed with the goods that I procure.

But my disappointment is rather specific. Maybe it's not snobbery. I have high expectations for myself, and I have high expectations for the world around me. Most of the time, I'd rather not own something than own what I consider to be a poor version of a thing. But often, even when I have saved up and spent good money to buy a quality item, I'm disappointed by what I consider to be a “fatal flaw.”

The fatal flaw in question today is in regards to a messenger bag--or frankly most messenger bags, messenger style briefcases, and messenger style laptop bags. I hate, absolutely HATE how most of these products have a small carry handle in a position on the top flap where you could pickup the bag, BUT only if the front flap is securely fastened.

Now here's the thing. And here's how I know I'm not a snob. I have a Timbuk2 brand messenger bag that I actually used when I worked as a bike messenger one summer. The top of the line bag to have was the Chrome brand bag and it was dramatically superior to the Timbuk2 in many ways, but it was also a $300 bag and that was a really huge investment for me at the time. I like quality, but I am most impressed with value. I don't think that qualifies as snobbery. It came to pass that an REI giftcard was bestowed on me, and I used it to purchase the Timbuk2 bag because REI did not sell Chrome brand at that time. 

The irony is this: I used the bag for about a whopping two weeks, whence I came to realize that I couldn't stand a shoulder strap bag while riding a bicycle and returned to using the backpack I had originally used. I did however like the messenger bag as a general purpose conveyance for personal effects. It was also a superior book-bag running between classes.

But here's the rub: I never really noticed the fatal flaw in the top handle on the Timbuk2 bag for 2 reasons: 1)  The handle is placed not so much “on the flap” as at the juncture where the flap becomes the back of the bag.  2) Timbuk2 put two large velcro strips inside the flap and on the front of the bag, so even when you don't snap the front closure straps...something is holding that flap. Thanks to these two considerations, the top handle on the Timbuk2 bag is not a fatal flaw.

Stick with me here. This isn't meant to be a critique on messenger bags.

We all know wood and wood products. We all know the standards we are expected to live up to, and yet sometimes even those standards fail to address the fatal flaw, because those standards are focused on construction--supposedly based in functionality, but not testing the end result.

Which brings me back to a Rothco brand laptop style messenger bag that I purchased for my wife when she took a few classes at our local community college. She liked it, used it, and when she was done with her classes, she gave it to me to find a use for. But the only use I could find for it was to keep the dust off of some objects in the garage. The positioning of the handle was such that even the empty bag could not be held without the flap pulling up and the bag falling open. 

It has since become the schoolbag of our 13 year old girl who managed to destroy her backpack 1 month before the end of the year. I was grateful that she found it and solved her own problem rather than simply asking for more money.

I don't think she notices the fatal flaw, or maybe it doesn't bother her. Maybe she doesn't use the top handle. What I do know is this: everything we build has some minor level of imperfection, but is it a fatal flaw? Sometimes we have to step outside of ourselves and our skills and industry expertise and ask some more simple and basic questions.

Sometimes the only way to really start thinking about that is by observing the products that we aren't experts about.  We are all end users, and as end users of wood products, we are horrible critics. Are we criticizing real flaws, or are we criticizing imperfections? Are we criticizing out of objectivity or jealousy? 

In our own work, perhaps the fatal flaw is in the process, not the product. It's a lot to consider but it could be the thing that makes your brand the kind of product that people rave about... not just use.

Have something to say? Share your thoughts with us in the comments below.