Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Bicycles and decision fatigue

First, homework: NYT article on decision fatigue (warning, it's long). Done? Good.

I read this article and immediately thought about how it applies to something I deal with every day - that is, the myriad decisions needed to get a custom bicycle. Setting aside the decision to buy a bike in the first place, there is an awful lot that goes into the frame design (how should the bike fit? How should it handle?) but the parts and compatibility of said parts as well. There are numerous wheel, fork, headset, bottom bracket, and even seatpost standards to choose from - I could go on and on. Not to mention the fact that as the builder, I also have to make decisions about what to recommend, what size/shape of tubes to use, etc.

That's a lot of decisions, and the research seems to suggest a couple of things:

-If you make all of the decisions about the bike at the same time, you'll make good/thoughtful decisions on the early choices, but run out of mental energy to do the same for decisions that are made later in the process.

-Making decisions late in the day or on an empty stomach is probably a dumb idea.

-It's easy to get talked into things the longer you spend on the process, and the more tired/hungry you are, especially if your job requires a lot of the same kind of decisionmaking (and most of y'all reading this are smart cookies, so I'm guessing your jobs require a lot).

Sounds silly, doesn't it? But science isn't always intuitive. Taking that information into account, there are some easy steps that should help you (and me) make good decisions when designing a bike. I'm actually going to try to do this, too, so don't be surprised if I tell you to call back in the morning!

-Do design work/decisionmaking early in the day and/or after rest or a meal. That will mean call me to discuss after a nice breakfast, or at the end of your lunch break - not in the evening or the middle of the afternoon.

-Don't get caught up in minor details at the beginning of the process. If we spend a bunch of time discussing colors, or which height-adjust seatpost is best, that's probably going to detract from the more important decisions, like what combination of seat tube angle/toptube length/stem length will put you in a good position to feel comfortable on the bike, or what trail number/chainstay length/BB height is going to ride the way you want. Here's a quick list I came up with of priorities (comment if you disagree with the order, or have something I forgot to include):
1: Fit - BB/saddle/bar positioning.
2: Handling - positioning of wheels (front center, trail, bb height, chainstay length)
3: Frame rigidity/flexibility/strength - selecting appropriate tubes
4: Dropouts/brazeon configurations and parts compatibility (ie, direct mount derailleur? tapered steerer? through axle?)
5: For complete bikes, parts choices and backup options
6: Colors, decals, misc other details

-Make a list of priorities to discuss a day or two before making any decisions and prioritize them by importance. Then check them off in order and try not to deviate too much from your list. Of course new questions will come up and some will end up out of order, but a list is probably a good idea.

-If a discussion/decisionmaking session is going on longer than about half an hour to 45 minutes, stop and start again the next morning, or after lunch, so that you're refreshed and ready to devote mental energy to the task again. If the process takes several sessions, that's ok.

So, am I crazy to think a custom bike customer can actually end up with a better bike this way? You tell me, I personally think it's worth a shot.


Anonymous said...

It makes sense; I just hope it's practical.

I might also suggest having a few sets of components that work together well that satisfy a certain set of criteria (e.g. value xc, light trail, etc.) that are maybe a bit more granular than your dream build/dirtbag SS items already listed.

Some (me for example) might like to pick a functional drivetrain from a list of a few sets that you've found work. Or maybe a collection of stem/post/collar/headset that are of an ilk. This might reduce the number of decisions, and allow you to focus on the more important ones, like the color of the bar-end anodizing.


Andrew Brautigam said...

Well, from a quick mental survey of posts I've seen about custom bikes/frames on MTBR in the past couple of years tells me that there are 3 categories of purchasors:

First, the guy who doesn't know anything (Which should I choose - IF, Moots, or Lynskey???) and has more money than sense. Basically the same guy who walks into a shop and buys an s-works epic/hardtail or other chi-chi production bike.

Second, the know it all who knows exactly what he wants. This isn't a dig, but I think that guys who have been posting frames from Vertigo and Wolfhound on MTBR lately fall into that category - they *need* super, super short stays, and tapered everything, and flowy lines, etc. Not that there is anything wrong with those bikes, or the people who order those bikes, but let's face it, those guys know what kind of spokes they're going to get before the frame is delivered.

The third category is someplace in the middle - guys who have some general ideas, know what kind of riding they like, but are willing to defer to the builders judgment.

I bought a custom frame from Warwick @ Thylacine cycles 3 years ago, and got a great frame that was a combination of what I thought I needed and what he knew I needed.

(For the record, I got a bike with a 70.5 HTA, 72 STA, and long(ish) stays, and a high 12.5 in bb)

That was 2008, and 29er geometry was not going in the slack direction at the time.

My next frame will likely be quite a bit like my thylacine, only with a tapered HT, and shorter stays. SS only, most likely, this time around.

Andrew Brautigam said...

Sorry to break this up into two comments, but I hope it makes more sense this way:

So with the three categories, as far as frame dimensions and specifications go, you'll run into corresponding levels of analness/stupidity. The know-nothings will probably say "My bike doesn't handle fast enough" which is code for "I don't know how to ride a bike very well," the anal MTBR types (and I put myself in that category, lovingly) will agonize over each MM of chainstay and top tube length, and the easygoing guys will do whatever you tell them to do.

That said, I don't think that most people think about their frames in concrete terms, so your checklist will probably be helpful.

Wow this is a long comment.

Bikewright said...

Walt- all of this makes sense. For me the process was over a year. To add to your list I add the following.

-To me knowing why you are picking your framebuilder is important. It was for me.

-Knowing how you ride on your current bike and how you want the custom to ride. Be which one with the bike.

-Take the time to think about it. Set on that email or phone call for a day. Its not like someone has a gun to your head.

-mm this and mm that, top tube this angle is that. Is that right? The hardest thing for me after the final build sheet is it going to be right. I know that my production bike does not fit. I had a hard time with this because I could not see it. **See my first bullet-Know why you pick your builder. I did and I had to trust him (Walt)**.

- while on the wait list figure out your parts and start to source your parts if you have to.

This is a process and having done it, I don't know if I could go back to a production bike. I fear I could never get the right fit. I did with my Waltworks!

Jorah said...

Walt, what percentage of the bikes you make are repeat customers vs. new customers? I'd hope that you get many repeats and if you do, I'd postulate that you get them because the bicycle feature selection process that you (perhaps organically) engage in with your customers is very effective. I don't know why my WW rides as well as it does but why ask why?