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Opinion: The auto industry gets it – test like buyers

Opinion: The auto industry gets it – test like buyers
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A friend sent me a link to a story about some unique market research taking place in the auto industry. The article was written by Kate McCloud and appeared in the East Bay Times. McCloud is also affiliated with GirlDriverUSA.

“Think of it as the woman’s revenge, or a great learning experience: General Motors had its male engineers run around the Milford Proving Grounds in skirts, heels, pocketbooks and fake fingernails,” the article starts. “No, they weren’t getting ready for a drag competition. They were learning what some women go through when they deal with automobiles.”

The story describes the event as the brainchild of Mary Sipes, one of several women who reached the upper levels of GM management. She came up with the idea a few years ago that transformed the way GM designs SUV.

“When these current SUVs were in development, Sipes took the future, full-line SUV team out to the proving grounds to do vehicle testing. They expected the usual driving exercises, but she had another idea. On the way she stopped at a shoe store to buy several pairs of size 12 high heels.

“The men were then required to go through what women do routinely every day. They had to put the baby in a car seat and buckle them in, fold up the stroller, pull up the liftgate and stow the stroller, put grocery bags in the back. They then had to walk around the vehicle and step into it not using the running board.

“Wearing the gloves with press-on nails they had to operate the key fob, adjust the radio and then figure out what to do with their purses — without breaking or losing a nail. Lost or broken fingernails or torn garbage bag skirts resulted in points against the final score.”

It was a brilliant strategy because now the vehicles are much better designed for use by women. And it worked. According to an AP story published Sept. 6, 41 percent of luxury vehicles sold so far this year were bought by women, up from 37 percent five years ago.

So, why doesn’t the RV industry do the same type of thing? It is a well-known joke that people who design RVs never use them.

Some may object to that statement — strenuously — but how else can you explain the stupidity of putting the bathroom at the top of the stairs of a fifth wheel, behind a door that can’t be opened when the slideout is in?

Or stapling instead of screwing the bottoms of pantry drawers so they can’t hold the weight of anything other than a bag of extra large marshmallows as the RV bounces down the road?

Or installing outlets intended to power gadgets laid on counters or tables, but won’t allow power cords to reach those gadgets when the slides are extended?

Or putting the water inlet connection an arm’s length inside a compartment that can only be reached by someone on his or her knees trying not to bump the opened compartment door overhead?

Experienced RVers go through new RVs at shows just scratching their heads wondering what blend of cannabis the designers were smoking when they dreamed up a layout that looked nice on paper, but in reality was full of quirks.

Over the years, I’ve heard of a few manufacturers brave enough to bring in an RVer to do a walk through on a new unit that just came off the assembly line in order to flag problems in usability. But, the RV makers discontinued the practice because the RVers were finding fault with too many things.

It’s a great idea, but the testing was done too late in the process. Rather than having sales managers walk through prototype units making suggestions based on what they think an RV owner would want to see in a motorhome or towable, that’s when RV manufacturers should bring in experienced RV owners to seek their input.

Another dirty little secret in the RV industry is that most marketing is targeted toward men, but it’s women who are the final decision makers as to where the family’s vacation dollars will be invested. So, yes, flashy bling works in attracting attention, but poor layout and features prevents families from raving about their RVs after they’ve used them.

It might be a good idea for RV manufacturers to really get inside the minds of RV owners by actually using RVs to learn for themselves what is truly a useful and appreciated feature, and what is simply wasteful bling.

Check out East Bay Times story “Today’s GM trucks are designed by men in skirts.”

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About Greg Gerber

Greg Gerber is the editor and founder of RV Daily Report. A native of Madison, Wis., he moved to Phoenix in 2009 to escape the endless winters and wicked humidity of the six-week "summer" season. He's a DODO -- Dad of Daughter's Only -- who would crawl across the desert on his hands and knees for an In-N-Out Double Double. He has visited every state except Hawaii and is anxiously waiting for some RV company to host a conference in the Aloha State.

11 comments

  1. This goes for the suppliers too! Thermostats that require a magnifying glass to read the temperature! Switches with unreadable labels.
    You get the idea… RV’s are being bought by Baby Boomers who have bad eyes, bad knees, sore backs, etc.

    They make cell phones with big buttons… hint, hint. It’s in the industries’ best interests to address these things.

  2. This is so “right on the money” that I could not help but comment. I personally own what is considered to be
    a “high-end” fifth wheel and I constantly wonder 1. Why are the water routing valves located under the floor
    and behind a cargo shield when I need to access them at least twice a year? 2. Why is the plastic they are
    made of such cheap material that I am afraid they will break just by rotating them 90 degrees? 3. Even though
    there are marble counters, why are the water fixtures so cheap that they wear out and leak just from a couple
    years of light use? 4. Why don’t the automatic rear stabilizer jacks actually stabilize anything. I had to buy
    manual screw jacks to place under the rear carriage to stop the wiggles. These are just a few things that
    we have noticed. Glad to see that others are speaking up. The retail price of one of these units is about
    par to a residential purchase. Would like to believe it would last longer considering the investment. Good
    work, and keep up the spot light. Who knows? It might just make a difference.

    • KJ your right , Greg is doing a great job , just wish there was something the end users can do. I have E Mailed CEO ‘s of three RV companies pleading with them to help some people I know regarding problems with their very high end motor homes only to never hear from them. They need to get out from the desk , go outside , pick out a unit in the color they like , drive it home , load it up with food ( if you can get to the fridge) , wife the kids and the dog and head out for a few days of Family Fun ! I’ll bet the first fifty miles the kids are bitch’n about the sofa being to narrow ,the wife’s unhappy because the floor slide out did not slide and her feet are hanging the dog is scared to death because it sounds like it’s going fall apart inside and the CEO is driving white knuckles because it’s wont go straight . Once there they find out the hot water does not work ,there’s no room to set down and take a crap , it’s now dark outside and the power shades don’t work ! And it’ only the first night. Maybe then the CEO will do something. I don’t think so . He just wont go out in one again .

      • Tom, You know what? I might just start a blog that addresses these issues exclusively.
        I would invite any and all comments and experiences that specifically target the way
        RVs are put together. Perhaps a daily focus and constant input from consumers could add
        some impact to the work already being done. For instance, In speaking with a friend about this last night, he shared some of his insights. He and his wife were quite inspired by our purchase of a 5th wheel, so they went out and made an acquisition of their own. After several weeks of shopping, they bought a 35′ pull- behind. How proud they were when they broughtit home and displayed it in their driveway. They rolled out the slides only to discover that the largest living room slide stuck in the out position and they had to have the service guy out to unstick it. After a week waiting for the guy to come out and fix it, they were finally ready for their “maiden cruise”. They got to a beautiful spot and were having a great time until they went to bed and discovered that their feet stuck out over the end of the “queen size bed” by about 3 inches. They are 5’9″ and 5’7″ respectively. Hmmmm. They continued their trip the next day to find that when the dark water tank approached being full, it simply broke the straps that hold it to the undercarriage and the whole thing (gunk and all) went crashing to the ground. Nice. Somehow they got home and went to get it repaired AGAIN. Next trip they turned a water valve the wrong way and sewage went all over their bedroom and bath. Maybe that one was not the mfg. fault, but still. Anyway the point is that these stories are all to common and perhaps a dedicated spotlight would help consumers and manufactures get together. What does anybody else think? Send replies to Kellystanton1@hotmail.com if you would like to participate or share a story.
        KJ

  3. I have been involved in several meetings with RV executives through FMCA, Monaco International, HR 419 rallies, etc. They always want to know what they should be doing to make their products better. At EVERY meeting the suggestion is made that the designers (engineers) should be required to live in their design for 6 months. They should also pack up and move every week. Taking an RV for a quick weekend with the family doesn’t offer enough time to really experience the RV lifestyle.

    So far I’m not aware of any company that does this.

    • Jean, that is EXACTLY what my wife and I think should happen. Any designer at an RV place should be given the keys to a RV of some sort (whatever they are supposed to design) and they must take the family, gear, dogs, and hit the road for 30 days. And yes, move every week to a new location a minimum of 300 miles away. I would wager you will find RVs with larger refrigerators, an actual pantry, linen cabinets, and much better floor plans than you see currently. We just purchased a fifth wheel to replace our 3 year old travel trailer; I developed a spread sheet with all of the “Must Haves” and then listed features which would be nice to have. It paid off when we found three that met our needs and made a deal for one last week. Also, RVs should come with a schematic showing where the water lines run, how the coach is wired for TV/Satellite (our Heartland had this one), and where the runs for the electrical are located. If you are in a state park and boon docking when a water starts dripping out of the bottom of the trailer, it would be nice to know where to start looking.

  4. RVDA founder

  5. Again Greg, you hit the nail on the head. It seems that you’ve been doing quite a bit of useful research for the executives of the RV industry lately, but the big question is, what are they doing about it? Having all managers spend at least a few days in their products seems to be a real no-brainer.

    Or possibly they simply take too much pride seeing all of those shiny boxes exiting the factory doors and are valuing quotas over customer satisfaction.

    One more suggestion…

    When a RV is being delivered from the factory to the dealership, each driver should have a checklist and report any irregularities to the receiving dealership so they can be repaired prior to delivering it to a customer. The RV should have water in the tanks and the valves need to be tested before and after the trip. Surely this would address issues such as a misaligned steering wheel or noticeable squeaks, creaks and leaks.

  6. Wow! Another great opinion piece, Greg. I couldn’t agree more.

    I own what is supposed to be a mid-range, reasonably well engineered, travel trailer yet I constantly find myself say, “What were they thinking!”. For example, the trailer came with a hair dryer installed in the bathroom yet the fan in the same bathroom was one of those cheap units. Had someone asked me, I’d tell them to keep the d@#* hair dryer and install a real fan. Or, installing the city water connection right next to the black water clean-out connection. Guess what happens after a long and tiring day on the road. Those are just a couple of examples. I have many more.

    In the overall scheme of things, none of my issues are mission critical serious but they do seem to illustrate the saying, “Those who design RV’s don’t actually use them”.

    Love the podcast and web site. Keep up the great work.

    ps; I think you are a great influencer 🙂

  7. Greg, again, I find little to argue with you about on this one. So much of what RV mfrs do just leaves me scratching my head and walking away from many, many RVs that simply don’t meet my needs and desires. There is just a total disconnect between owners and mfrs’ execs. I’m still of the opinion that the interior fabric designers are left-over hippies from the ’60’s having acid flashbacks, they are so ugly…

  8. Back in ’92 I was involved in two cross country “prototype drives” 5 cars (a prototype 94, current production model and 3 similar model competitor cars). We didn’t just try to get across the country on the Interstates but basically drove state highways with dozens of different surfaces. We would drive for 1/2 hour then ride for 1/2 hour making notes then rotate to next car. The trip took about 5 days as I recall. Living with the car you discovered it wasn’t possible to tune radio if in 5th gear, Discovered some cup holders would not securely hold various drinks along with numerous noise, ride and vibration issues. There were interior panel engineers, tire engineers, suspension engineers, engine and transmission people too.
    RV doesn’t have to get as involved but I bet just requiring the top folks to live and commute in their product for a week without re-stocking any clothes or food etc would result in dramatic improvement in the product line.

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