“Once upon a time,” begins Jyri Ahola, the project manager for Suunto’s D5. He’s about to tell me the story of how a dive computer is born, from the whisper of an idea to an actual instrument hitting the water on diver’s wrists.
I asked him what it takes to create a Suunto computer from scratch, and what followed was an epic tale with a cast of dozens.
“It’s a big project,” he says, “Lots of people are involved. The total process can take 12-18 months. More if there’s lots of new innovation.” His journey with the D5 began in 2017. The first stage was a detailed sales analysis of computers, to see what was selling and for how much.
“You want to keep an eye on what other brands are offering, and develop the product portfolio to be competitive.” In other words, you have to find out what customers want, what they need, and what they absolutely can’t do without. The answer to those questions will all depend on what kind of diver it’s going to be for.
To determine what kind of diver they were designing for, the early developers had to ask even more questions. Who would be using this computer – rec divers or tech divers? Would it be for users who were active, dedicated, professional, obsessed? Would they want to use it to freedive as well for scuba?
Not every instrument is for every diver, and Suunto didn’t earn its reputation for quality by doing a whole lot of things at a mediocre level. They choose instead to make a product that’s a perfect fit for its target user. And a maybe slightly less than perfect fit for other types of users.
Once they identified who those divers were, they started homing in on what capabilities the computer would need to have. In the case of the D5, Suunto was aiming for rec divers. In order to isolate the features that are uniquely suited to and desired by recreational divers, they began collecting customer questionnaires and analyzing consumer insight data.
The company has its own contacts among the dive community – users who already own a Suunto product, divers who sign up for mailing lists, etc. Sometimes though, to supplement that data they’ll employ a third-party company to administer questionnaires, or they may buy a panel of answers from industry surveys.
Based on their results, designers created a profile for a typical user in an almost narrative process. They gave this person an age, a training level, a geographic location–a whole host of demographic information. They specified their purchasing patterns, deciding if this person needed to have all the new tech right as it comes out, or if they prefer to wait until the development is mature. This helped generate problems for which they could then engineer solutions. This is the concepting phase.
In the end, they decided that the D5 diver dives recreationally on holiday, meaning 3-4 dives a day, every day for a week, followed by longer periods of inactivity. This diver is concerned with battery life. A commercial diver, or an instructor who uses it every day would have different needs.
After they defined the concepts of the computer, they took the results to top management. The presentation basically outlined: “Here’s the idea, here’s why, and here are some statistics on cost, market appeal, etc.” Once the green light was given, the consumer insights team met with the design team and they began to flesh out the plan.
They did some role-playing, they wrote some word problems: If Sam from Australia dives X times in Y conditions…does he want his computer to be rough and tough serviceable, or to look like a fancy, high-tech instrument? Or will he want it to be suitable for everyday wear? If so, would it be worth trying to include smartwatch capabilities? The two-department mega team came up with several concepts and then created a fake ad for each of them.
Then it was back to the consumers: 400 divers were shown a collection of D5 concept ads as well as some competitors’ products. Suunto wanted to know what they liked, what attracted them. From this data, designers were able to pinpoint what was critical, what wasn’t, and where compromises could be made. The most popular ideas from consumer feedback got incorporated.
It was at this point that the D5 really started to take have an identity of its own. The input from consumer feedback, industrial designers, user-interface designers, and dive experts was assimilated into a cohesive concept. They made choices about how the product would look, whether it would be very masculine or if they’d go for a more unisex appeal, and how it could still express a kind of diver identity, even if worn topside every day.
They projected annual sales, wrestled with the internal limitations of the software and mechanical platforms, and tried to decide whether everything would be new, or if they could place the new technology into the body of a model that already existed. At the end of all that, they looked back and asked themselves, “What are the problems being solved by this particular computer?”
Then it was time to go back to management for a reality check.
Armed with the general design and all the numbers, leaders had to decide if the proposed model made sense, what the key selling points would be, whether there was funding available to begin production, and how it would ultimately be paid off. Once these practical details were hammered out, it was time to assemble the complete team–which would include between 20 and 30 individual experts.
About a third of the team would be dedicated to the D5 alone, but most would continue to work on other projects as well. It was at this point that Jyri was nominated to manage the project. His job was to oversee all the teams, track different production milestones, and present progress to the upper management. He designed a calendar of what needed to be done by when and mapped out the different phases of the process.
Jyri was the hub that coordinated every aspect of development, each with its own leaders who had their own agenda and priorities. The mechanical designers had to determine what level of waterproofing would be appropriate, and the software designers needed to bring the necessary programming features to life. Someone had to figure out what laws and regulations the D5 needed to comply with, and what certification standards it needed to meet, while someone else would need to determine if the profit margin of the new computer would be proportional to the cost.
During production, someone would need to order components, and before release, someone would have to develop a plan for servicing the instruments and providing customer support. At every stage, it was Jyri’s task to balance what was crucial with what could be compromised. But hey, no pressure.
And from the very beginning, from day one, he had to keep marketing in mind–because if the marketing was bad, it wouldn’t matter if the product was good. The D5 would never make it.
It was also important to solicit feedback from the manufacturing floor in Finland, learning from the experts assembling the product. It was the workers doing the build who was best able to answer practical questions, like whether the tightening of a screw would improve the finished design or just end up damaging the body. They would also be crucial in refining the assembly line process and improving the flow.
Finally, they would need to develop processes for quality control. How could they ensure the consistency and reliability of the final product? What tests could be performed to make sure the finished device was fulfilling all the requirements the designers had set for it? And how could those standards be verified without doing destructive testing on sale units?
If you know anything at all about Suunto, you know that they are dedicated to the development of their algorithms. While other manufacturers might adhere to industry standards such as the DSAT or Z+, Suunto pioneered its own algorithm.
In the early 1980s, they developed a reduced gradient bubble model (RGBM) based on the US Navy dive tables. The logic and theory were developed really carefully, with an emphasis on safety. Suunto understood that people’s lives would depend, in part, on their instruments, and they took that responsibility very seriously.
They calculated variables that would affect safety stops, taking into account different depth limits and gas mixtures. They ran lots and lots of simulations, searching for what was missing and what went wrong in failure scenarios. And they’ve had plenty of feedback in the intervening years, ranging from critiques that the algorithm is too conservative, to grateful users proclaiming that the Suunto algorithm saved their life!
But the industry is changing, and Suunto understands that they need to change accordingly or be left behind. That’s why continuing to refine the algorithm is really at the heart of the company. They’ve worked to include new features that allow users to modify the conservativeness of their instruments, and to train those users in how to use them most effectively.
To guarantee that the product would be good enough to put the Suunto name on, the computer would undergo some heavy testing, which would continue throughout the process. Engineers created proto-builds to test how much pressure it could withstand, to see whether the materials would hold up or if the face would collapse. There was the math behind the structure, detailed mechanical models, and simulations. They put some in the chamber, and over-tested others to discover their tolerance limitations.
Assimilating the results from that round of testing, they created a second round of proto-builds with modifications to fix any unresolved problems. They shock-tested the newest versions by throwing them into tumblers and hitting them with hammers. The software, too, went through rigorous testing and modification right up until the product was released.
Three weeks of comprehensive testing was performed. The D5 was evaluated for its ability to withstand shock, leakage, and chemical exposure. They measured the sensitivity and accuracy of the pressure sensor and the resilience of the buttons. They tested the strap to see how much stress it would bear. The D5 team was really trying to find out where the computer might fail, and what areas to improve.
After all that testing, it was time…for more tests. During this period, the D5 was considered an “immature product”. The device was working – the main functionality was there, and while there were still some glitches and bugs to be worked through, they were fewer and farther between.
Suunto had involved divers in the development and feedback from the very early stages, but in order to optimize the results of all of these exhaustive trials, they employed certified field testers for the beta testing. These divers would take the unit out into the water and dive it, comparing the data it gathered to data collected by a calibrated reference device. The reference piece also served as a comparison for the user interface of the fledgling computer.
While the D5 was evolving and being put through its paces, another team was developing comprehensive customer support strategies for the product. They had to develop quick-start instructions and detailed manuals for end-users and determine what sort of information and interface would appear on Suunto.com.
Customer support for a product is crucial to its continuing success, so they had to determine how it would be handled after the computer reached the market. All of this, as well as effective trouble-shooting, had to be ready to drop right alongside the D5’s release.
Closer to the release of the D5, marketing began to ramp up and become more important. Much of it is handled by Suunto directly, and some are handled by local distributors, but the overall campaign has to have some kind of cohesion. All over the world, all at the same time, Suunto wanted to project a unified message.
The marketing team had to decide just how the product would be launched. What would be the key visuals, the message? How many videos would they need to make, and in what locations would they push the D5’s release?
Photo and video content would need to be made available early enough that distributors would have time to design materials for release in local markets, in local languages. Dealers would need to be oriented and trained on the product so that they could train their salespeople in turn.
It’s a wide-ranging project with a lot of moving parts, and it all had to be ready to go when the D5 was ready to hit the shelves.
Once the design, production, customer service plan, and marketing strategies were in place and ready to go, it was time to plan the launch. It seems obvious, but in order to launch a product, it has to be available. The logistics are complex, and they shift depending on consumer response.
Jyri’s teams had to figure out when the D5 would be available for shipment, and which distributors in which markets would be the first to receive it. It would take time to get production up to full capacity, and if the demand was high it might take several months of the factory producing in 2-3 shifts a day to fulfill customer orders.
Once the first push of the launch was over, you’d think Jyri and his teams could put their feet up for a well-deserved rest, but their work was far from over. The release of the D5 was a continuing process.
Customer registration of the units let Suunto know how the product was moving and gave them the opportunity to get feedback from users. They administered a questionnaire to find out if customers would recommend the instrument to other divers, and how customer care could be improved. Requests for customer support and early returns helped them understand where there might still be room for improvement.
Marketing was still a priority, requiring fresh materials to keep visibility high. Suunto would also continue to develop the D5 in response to market feedback. This might eventually take the form of new variants, new colors, or new software features. The goal was to maximize the product that had already been released in order to maintain and boost its popularity.
One very promising direction for development is into what is called the digital ecosystem. More and more, users are moving away from desktop and laptop computers to download and store their dive data, towards an app-based platform that can be accessed via smartphone. This informs physical features, like mechanical requirements in the actual instrument to allow it to access GPS to determine dive locations, and Bluetooth to enable connectivity. It also requires intensive coding to make the dive computer compatible with the app. Users also want to analyze their dive data and share their experiences with other divers, which will necessitate easy articulation with social media apps.
The process of bringing a dive computer to life is long and complicated. It requires the expertise of so many people, as well as innovation and a particular sensitivity to the needs of end-users. At Suunto, their development is driven by consumer feedback. They involve divers from the very start, making sure that if you’re the type of diver their device is made for, it’ll do everything you need and want it to do.
Considering they’ve made over two million computers since the late 1960s, it’s clear that they’re doing something very, very right.
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