Human-Centered Design is an approach to innovation where you arrive at new solutions by focusing on the needs of those you’re designing for at every step.
Our work will move through three overlapping phases: inspiration, ideation, and implementation. This report captures the first two.Read more about our methodology
Finding great backcountry partners is the most universal pain point across experience levels. We heard many compounding reasons why this is the case. This is a person with whom you’ll be taking risks. This person needs to check many boxes: Compatible risk tolerance, skiing ability, processes, communication style, fitness, and a compatible personality. If we are lucky enough to find the perfect partner, schedules need to align to actually get on snow.
Backcountry travel has an additional challenge compared to other sports: The complex mix of terrain, conditions and people makes it hard to find the language to discuss how we operate, and what we look for in partners. There is no widely-used rating system for terrain as you find in climbing or whitewater, and no rating system for partners as in tennis or golf. We let it suffice to describe ourselves by the courses we’ve taken and the peaks we’ve skied.
Even in areas with lots of options for providers, it is the rare bird who shops around trying to find the best experience. Instead participants cite choosing their course based on availability, location, and cost. These same factors prevent some people from getting education or getting more education.
Courses come in big, expensive multi-day chunks. It’s hard to pick a weekend weeks ahead of time, especially if you have kids or don’t live in the mountains. If you don’t know how often you’ll tour, it is daunting to shell out the big bucks.
People expect that getting along means the group is communicating well but report trips that, in hindsight, took a turn for the worse because it was uncomfortable to speak up amongst friends.
On a summer day hike or skiing inbounds, the consequences of bad decisions are less dire and we get conditioned to go along rather than spoiling the mood. Participants described tours where carrying that mentality to the backcountry resulted in incomplete planning and teammates who didn't fully comprehend the day’s plan.
There is a particular experience most tourers share: The moment of struggling to decide whether a thought is worth sharing with the group. Approaching the backcountry with a “dayhike” paradigm, rather than one more appropriate to backcountry skiing, clouds this moment.
A level 1 course is not only where people encounter how avalanches work for the first time, but also mapping software and route selection. The mountains you drove by hundreds of times on the way to the ski resort look like strangers again through the new lenses of angle, aspect, exposure and consequence. Some level 1 grads initially feel doomed to skin around golf courses. The routes in guidebooks feel out of reach at this point, at least to manage on your own.
There is a strong desire for catalogs of beginner routes while skills are nascent. Some resources of this kind do exist, such as the Utah Avalanche Center’s route guide. Still, most have a relatively small mental rolodex of routes even seasons into their career.
All major avalanche curricula organize their courses around well-defined frameworks for decision making that apply regardless of experience level. Yet alumni we met are losing both the value and content of those systems amongst the torrent of individual facts they are presented with. In the firehose of snow science, weather, gear, navigation and other information, the processes for organizing that data aren't sticking.
Few participants cited the language of their framework or overarching concepts like uncertainty and margins. Instead, avy course graduates speak, with varying levels of accuracy, about discrete observations, avalanche problems, and other specifics of their tour, without any structure that unites them together.
There may be disagreement on exactly how much snow science and pit digging the recreationalist should employ, but if the value of using a system is a desired educational outcome it’s not being achieved.
Perceptions about avalanche courses vary widely. Some wouldn’t dream of entering the backcountry without level 1, some think it’s primarily a rubber stamp you need in order to get partners. Most would be surprised to read on AIARE’s website that “Decision Making in Avalanche Terrain is a three-part program”.
AIARE 2 is thought of as being about skiing “big mountains” and “technical details”, and is not meant for most recreationalists. The idea of yearly beacon practice has taken hold and many aspire to befriend a mentor. Otherwise, tourers are vague on how to go about the project of lifelong learning, both in and outside of formal education. The perception of being done if you “have level 1” contributes to this.
Despite the sports increasing popularity, it’s hard to know where to even begin looking for partners. Facebook is the “least bad”, but folks are hesitant to meet internet strangers. This problem is as true for advanced tourers as it is for new folks.
We can create new spaces, in person and online, to help tourers connect and break the ice. The best spaces will account for all experience levels and the logistics of meeting up. They will nudge new partners towards starting out on the right foot.
Give Facebook a second chance or host an event yourself.
Virtual or physical events to foster introductions around a region, specific objective or some other common ground. Hosting lets any shop or educator provide value while benefiting from brand awareness.
Few have a plan for getting to know partners or connect the ideas of uncertainty and margin to team, as they might to the snowpack. As a result, some jump on big terrain right away and some avoid would-be great partners. Folks new to an area or touring may not know where to go.
We can clarify how to use terrain and communication to ski safely and have fun with anyone. A touch of structure for navigating new teams would unlock many new connections.
Take five minutes to identify what you want in a partner and debrief on this (even if privately). Identify a non-committal, low-angle “first date” route.
A set of online resources that reinforce a memorable framework for new partner progression, meant to be used individually or in a course setting.
Many of us have a moment on a tour where we wonder whether to speak up. Frank conversations with friends are extremely difficult.
We can promote the paradigm that backcountry travel is more like flying a plane than a summer hike. It necessitates difficult conversations. Not all friends make good touring partners. Feedback is caring and conversation can be taught.
Acknowledge for yourself that this sport requires awkward conversations. Let it raise a red flag if you’re on a team where all voices aren’t heard.
A platform blends discovering partners with facilitating healthy feedback.
A set of prompts that helps teams learn more from their tours.
Decision making frameworks get lost among the many things to learn about snow. Perceptions about courses and lifelong learning vary widely. AIARE students describe level 1 as a firehose and 2 as being about snow science and rad terrain.
On a big scale, a campaign could shift perceptions around continued education. On a course scale, consistency and new visuals could be elements in helping students see the forest for the trees.
Speak with other level 1 alumni and providers to understand how your experience and big takeaways compare. Talk to a few level 2 providers to see how they teach it.
A messaging kit that helps clarify ongoing education.
Curriculum-agnostic tools built into popular platforms that make healthy season and trip planning the default.
$500 weekends are hard to book weeks ahead of time and hard to justify if you tour a couple times a season. There is a desire for on-the-snow, experiential learning after their Level 1. Youtube is a great place for both good and bad information.
Other industries can be a source of inspiring new models for service delivery, such as virtual mentorship and subscriptions. New offerings can target moments where tourers are receptive such as season ramp-up, a few tours in after level 1, or when conditions arise that weren’t present during your course.
Many educators and guides would provide a one day curriculum of your choice, even if it’s not on their website.
Upload your plan, gpx track or debrief. Choose a price for a peer, pro, or celebrity to review it.
Offer a course on a narrow topic, like storm instabilities. Students lead & get pro feedback.
Participants who described lowering their risk tolerance after losing a friend to an avalanche or becoming a parent were unknowingly among our riskiest interviewees. This sport has few opportunities to get good feedback.
We can create a community where getting honest with yourself is considered getting rad. We can create tools that foster self-awareness. We can start in the public sphere with messaging and work towards concepts that help individuals implement behavior change.
Spend a quiet moment with the devil’s advocate. What gives you confidence that you are good and not lucky? Are you sure you are using pits appropriately? Consider asking a pro to quiz you.
Each episode follows a real team on a real tour, replete with commentary from a panel of experts.
Near misses, education, personality or something else? How long do changes last?
What’s the conversation like? Is it ahead of time or in the car? Are any frameworks used in practice?
How do student behaviors after their classes vary across AAI, AIARE, JHOLI, SWS or other curricula?
When don’t folks follow its advice? An opportunity to add context to existing literature on the subject.
Long time tourers dismissed it, rookies found it overwhelming. Is there a sweet spot or new approaches?
What can we learn from them? How does it compare with their work days?
We need a more representative participant panel and team.
While the US is AIARE heavy, we seek to branch out.
More non-skiing user groups, such as motorized users.
More interviews done mid-winter, not just early season.
Augment the qualitative work with data and other research methods.
Our approach is called Human-Centered Design, a close friend of Design Thinking. It is a form of creative problem solving that begins with empathy. We do our best to put ourselves in our participants' shoes. The desired outcome is not to definitively prove or disprove a hypothesis but simply provide inspiration. We seek to offer fertile ground for new solutions. Research is typically followed by idea generation and tangible learning via rapid prototyping.
At 30 participants we’d never say our findings are conclusive. We’ve been part of large surveys that leave us wondering why people answered as they did. HCD is great for the “why” and moving fast. Our findings are hypothesis to be validated or invalidated with prototypes or the very welcome complements of quantitative methods and scientific inquiry.
Our interviews took place over zoom and averaged about 75 minutes. They are semi-structured, covering set topics while leaving room to follow interesting threads. Questions are complimented with prompts such as card sorts and scenarios on topo maps. Each interview is debriefed for key learnings, transcribed, and timestamps are tagged with over 50 topics. Example tags include “Motivation”, “Avy Forecast”, “Pits”, “Trip Planning”, “Sidecountry’, “Team Dynamics” and “Pain Points”.
In synthesis we make sense of what we heard. We identify themes and patterns between participants. We use tags to analyze topics across interviews. We create journey maps, archetypes, and other frameworks, like an empathy map, to help us look at the material from several different lenses.
Getting tangible, through rapid prototyping, unlocks a whole other level of learning. It’s one tool for understanding what people do, not just what they say. We organized four virtual partner speed dating events for the Tahoe, Seattle and Crested Butte areas. We helped tours happen in real life while learning a lot from watching how the groups interacted. For the most part, prototyping did not inform this report. It’s our next step as we seek to refine both our learning and ideas.