1. Innovation Sometimes Moves Backwards

    brian on 2009.06.13
    at 01:36 pm

    There’s a certain irony about CamelBak. Perhaps one of the most interesting innovations in sporting goods in the last 20 years was their invention of the “hydration system.” Essentially, it’s a rugged plastic bag with a hose and a bite valve that you drink water out of on the go. You keep it in a backpack. Since getting water from it is so much easier than stopping to access a bottle, you can suck down little bits much more often and stay hydrated more efficiently. And it holds a lot of water, and keeps it insulated for hours. It’s so effective that the U.S. military puts them on the back of every solider in the field. It’s a great product, and I’ve used one (I’m on my third) since their invention. The newest ones are really useful, sport-tailored bags, which increase their utility.

    So where’s the irony in that? There’s no irony in their outstanding product, which now has been copied by a hundred competitors. It’s in their web site. While their products have evolved to become more and more useful and innovative, their web site has gone in the opposite direction. I didn’t realize this until recently.

    If you don’t clean your drinking tube well, and dry it well, it will develop little black spots. Probably mold. You don’t want to drink out of that. The system is treated to resist these spots, but you still have to follow simple steps to avoid them. I have always been oblivious to these steps. Eventually, the spots caught up to me when I didn’t use my Camelbak for several months. I went to to find out what to do. This was a couple months ago, and the site was all Flash.

    I found extremely limited information on what to do about the problem. The site was full of non-standard scroll bars that were difficult to use and some content was actually partially off the screen, even though my browser window was much larger than was necessary to view the site. I simply shook my head. I see these sites all the time. They use Flash for no good reason, concentrate on flash (little “F”) and not content… and are basically useless. They don’t even take advantage of things Flash does well… at least I could have seen some great imagery of the products, or seen an interactive demo of how to clean my reservoir. No. All I learned is that they made a cleaning kit. I couldn’t get any information of what was in the kit or how to use it, but I could buy one. If I could find a shop that sold them, which the site was not interested in sharing with me. (What, they don’t know who they sell their products to?)

    I resolved to find a kit next time I was near a shop that I’ve seen their products in in the past. Of course, that never happened. Months rolled by and I was packing a water bottle on my rides. Something I’d resigned to never do again. This morning, I thought about a ride and my thoughts quickly shifted to the fact that I again would have to go without my beloved Camelbak. Then I had a thought… I bet someone somewhere had decided they didn’t want to buy a cleaning kit and had figured out an effective way to clean the reservoir and tube without one. Off to the Google I went.

    care for camelbak reservoir went into my Google search. I hit the jackpot on result number four. This site had pages of Camelbak info, lots of information on how to clean the parts, why they’re beneficial, I even found the history of the company! The site had clearly not been built recently. Text columns were all squished and the graphics were straight out of the 90s. But it didn’t matter, the site was readable, and most of all useful.

    On the company history page, I picked up on something I had sensed in the other, friendly, well-written pages. Ownership. The history page was in first person. “And, as our President Roger Fawcett says…” what? Our?

    Then it dawned on me: I was reading the original web site for CamelBak, before they achieved their worldwide acclaim. The graphics looked ’90s not because that’s what some CamelBak enthusiast thought looked cool… they looked ’90s-web because they were a relic of the ’90s web! (Same with the code… don’t look if imagemaps and font tags make you queasy!) I don’t know why the site was still on the web, but I was glad it was.

    This should really embarrass anyone involved in the web presence of CamelBak. Not the old site—that was state-of-the-art in its day. No, the fact that the new site that resides at doesn’t come up until the third page of search results! That’s pathetic. That’s moving backwards.

    Listen, Flash is great. I’m not going to sit here and tell you it’s 99% bad. It’s just a technology, and like guns, Flash doesn’t kill people, people kill people. (Guns and Flash just make it so much easier) Here’s a tip. Go look at Adobe’s web site. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

    Welcome back. What did you see? It’s not all Flash, is it? Flash is used extensively, for sure, but almost all of the content is available in HTML text… the lingua franca of the web (and what Google reads!). Adobe, mind you, is also the folks behind PDFs, which are also prevalent on the web. But all their critical information is out in the open in standard HTML. They use both Flash and PDFs as tools that compliment, not replace their standard web presence. If you’re using these technologies more than their creators do, that may be the first indicator that you should reassess your strategy.

    Coming back to CamelBak, I revisited their site after deciding to write this piece. They’ve redesigned again recently. The good news is they have begun to use some HTML for their text, but the underlying non-technological problem remains… spartan content. Why was their site so content rich 10 years ago, but not today? Easy… before they had all this fancy technology to distract them, all they had was text and content!

    Why do they have a site, what’s its purpose? Looking at the primary navigation, you can see they call out market segments as the very first thing on every page: “Sports-Recreation, Government-Military” Who are they talking to? Look on their About Us page: a whole lot of talking about themselves in the third person… they state their company name 10 times in three paragraphs. The About Us page on the old site (called “Bio” back then) told a much more interesting story of the inventor’s need for an effective hydration solution for a 100 mile bike race through the Texas summer heat. The old site had personality.

    Let’s get to the point here. Your site needs an identity and you need to decide who your audience is. You need to create a content strategy first, then create content, and then you can decide on technology to deliver that content. Don’t fear new technology but make sure you understand how it will help you… don’t just use it because it’s new or fancy.

    And lastly, if someone is so interested in your product that they’ll come to your site to look for ways to use it better… nothing bad will come from helping them.

    Posted in: Design · Technology · Web


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