Thursday, February 28, 2008

I Love My Backpack!

Every once in a while there is a product which is so well designed that every time you use it, it brings a smile to your face. The parts of the product complement each other so well that it is a joy to use. For me, one of these products is my backpack.

My backpack?!

I know that's what your thinking. Of all the products I might own and want to write about, why am I writing about my backpack? What could be so special about a backpack? And what does this have to do with user interfaces anyway? (if the last question is the most important to you, then just skip to the end of this post)

The bag in question is the Kata R-103 (note that their web site is and it's a backpack that fits both my camera gear and my laptop gear.
What makes it so great? First off, let's go with the obvious reasons:
  • It fits everything that I want to carry. Here's what I normally pack:
    • Nikon D70s with three lenses
    • Nikon SB-800 flash
    • Camera battery charger
    • Spare battery for the camera
    • Spare batteries for the flash
    • Spare memory cards
    • Instruction sheets for camera & laptop
    • Small bag containing camera and flash accessories
    • Flash remote control
    • Lens cleaning pen & cloth
    • My 15.4" Dell laptop (and formerly, my 15" Toshiba laptop)
    • Kensington power adapter, including cable for car & airplane use (if you're in the market for a universal power adapter, I highly recommend it — it's another product that makes me happy).
    • Mouse (corded, normal size)
    • Ethernet cable
    • Two USB cables
    • USB hub
    • USB Compact Flash card reader
    • A couple of USB drives
    • Laptop security cable
    • GPS for my laptop
    • Earbud headphones in case
    • Blank CD-Rs
    • Mousepad
    • Papers
    • Business cards
    • Pens
    • Kleenex pack
    • Folded up canvas bag
    • When I'm traveling, I'll also toss in my cell phone, keys, an inflatable travel pillow and maybe a few magazines or crossword puzzles
  • It's incredibly comfortable. The list above is pretty large. Fully loaded, it can weight 25 pounds and I have worn this laptop for hours at that weight. It is very well balanced. It can easily be adjusted and comes with both a chest strap and a waist strap. With the laptop removed, I've taken it on an extended hike, including some climbing, with no problem. The way the support harness is designed, the bag is less likely to cause you to sweat than most bags.
  • It's configurable. The inside compartments can be easily rearranged. There is no useless space, pretty much no matter how you rearrange it.
  • There are two openings — a large one for access to everything (and it really opens up) and a small one for access to just your camera and a second lens — plus a separate compartment for your laptop. The backpack works well if you don't have a laptop in it and it even works well if you only have a laptop in it.
  • It fits in the overhead compartment on every plane I've tried it on, even small commuter jets (where it's a tight fit). That is not true of all of the competing bags.
  • It's very well padded. I tripped once and hit the backpack on a curb, with no damage to anything inside (or the backpack either).
  • It is constructed extremely well.
  • It doesn't scream "camera bag" — many people think it is a regular backpack.
As good as this bag is, they did made a few mistakes.
  • The bag is mostly black. The zippers are black. The zipper pulls are black with black extensions. Despite the bright yellow interior, it is not always obvious when the bag is fully zipped up. I replaced the zipper pulls with bright blue ones (I wanted yellow, to match the interior, but could not find them) and I always zip the bag the same way so that it's obvious whether it is open or closed.
  • On the top of the outside, there are too small zippered compartments, about the right size for some cards, keys or chewing gum. Unfortunately, their zippers open down rather than up like all the other zippers, which means they can work themselves open if they get knocked. I lost some chapstick once. I never put anything in these two compartments that I'm not willing to lose.
  • A 15.4" widescreen laptop is a tight fit because of the non-rectangular shape (you have to make sure to push the laptop down toward the wide end to get it in). A little extra room would have been helpful.
  • The external tripod holder is clunky and difficult to remove when you're not carrying a tripod. I simply don't use it and carry my tripod or monopod separately. But, I ran an elastic cord through the loops for the tripod holder and use that to hold a lightweight jacket on the outside of the pack.
I looked at a lot of bags when I was looking for this bag and it seems to me that the market is divided into three groups:
  • Bags for storage. Most of the bags fit in this category. A lot of them look like boxes with straps. For the most part, they seem to be designed for people who carry their packs rarely and want to maximize the amount of gear they can fit.
  • Bags for carrying. The Crumpler bags, which are pretty well regarded, fit into this category. They carry the equipment very well and they are very comfortable to wear. But, removing camera gear is a multi-step process and you can't easily leave them open while accessing equipment because of the way the laptop is stored in them. They also do not carry the laptop well if you've taken out some of your camera gear.
  • Bags for use. I really only saw one bag in this category and that's the Kata. It's easy to wear, easy to take on and off, easy to access the gear. It's a working bag, almost as much of a working bag as a traditional one-strap camera bag (I still own one and I never use it). The Kata doesn't fit as much as some bags and some people will find that the Crumplers are more comfortable (but, as noted, the Kata is very adjustable).
As you can see, it's not the case that one size fits all. Which bag is the best for you will vary depending on how you plan to use it. I started by doing research on the web. The Kata was not even close to the top of the list based on what I'd read online (among other things, it was one of the most expensive bags). Next, I went over to Glazer's Camera in Seattle. I brought a lot of my gear, including my laptop, and I sat down on the floor with five different bags (Kata, Lowepro, Tenba, Tamrac, and Crumpler). And it became very clear, very quickly, that the Kata was the best for what I wanted it for. They only had one in stock and I bought it on the spot. If you're looking for a bag and you have a local camera store where you can check them out in person, I recommend it.

So, what does this have to do with user interfaces anyway? (if you skipped ahead because you're only interested in software, here's where you should start reading again) We can learn a lot from what Kata did right:
  • They decided what the use case of the backpack was (roughly, active usage) and they designed the bag around that. I can tell this by the two compartments and the separate opening for quick access to your camera. Plus, they have the integrated camera strap that I don't personally use. Recognizing use cases isn't the same as making up scenarios or personas.
  • They realized that the most important thing to their customers was what they put in the backpack, not the backpack itself. The outside is nondescript. The inside is bright yellow so gear stands out in sharp contrast. Every part of this bag is there to hold or protect the contents.
  • They knew that their customers would be using it for long stretches at a time, so they focused far more on comfort than most of their competitors.
  • They knew that not all of their customers were the same. They made both the inside and the outside very adjustable.
  • They made security and safety a no-brainer. It protects what's inside and it doesn't throw you off balance (for me, even at 25 pounds). The fact that the company also makes lightweight body armor probably doesn't hurt here.
Final Note: If you're actually interested in the bag instead of the lessons learned, Kata also makes two similar bags — the R-102 for camera-only use (on the right below), and the R-101 for 12" laptops and a bit less camera gear (in the middle below). Note the R-103 does come with a piece of removable padding for use with a smaller laptop. And Kata make a lot of non-similar bags too (plus body armor, apparently).

Images are from Kata Bags and are used with permission


Anonymous said...

I always like to carry along my backpack all the time when I have been going out from my house. It sure is a good choice when you are having this capacity to carry so many things at once.