Sometimes I take a moment to remember just how lucky I am to work at CHOICE. During the several years I’ve worked here I’ve managed to go through three or four departments to try my hand at a bunch of different tasks to help members get the facts they need to make a good choice.
A quick example of just how diverse our days can be is encapsulated in the following project. I was given the task of managing the electric blanket test. Electric blankets seem a rather innocuous item to me, but many of our members want to know not only whether they are safe, but how easy they are to clean, use and how feature-rich they are.
First we have to find out what electric blankets there are in Australia, so our product research team sends surveys off to all the major manufacturers in Australia such as Sunbeam, Breville, Klikk, Jason and Kambrook, among others. Manufacturers tell us the products available now and whether they’ll be available post publish. Usually we ask for products that will be available over 6 months so the results will be valid for some time and our members get some use out of it. There’s not much point doing an article full of discontinued products. Electric blankets, as well as heaters and other heating and cooling products add another layer of complexity, as they are seasonal products, so have to be researched either in the season prior, or the year before as electric blankets were.
From this information we get an idea of what’s available. If an article is already online, we get suggestions from our members, market data, and our request a test data where many members suggest both products and models to test. We also consult our partners at Consumer New Zealand (CNZ), our sister organisation with whom we often share tests. A suggested list based on all this feedback is put together, which then gets looked over by all the stakeholders such as the director of products, the team lead for household goods, the verification team and our CNZ partners. From all this feedback we construct an actual buy list that our CHOICE buyers use to go out and purchase in normal retail (as consumers do) the one we’ve decided on.
Determining the test method
While the buying list is being constructed, we decide on a test method if one doesn’t already exist from our backlog of testing. We study past tests and current standards, look at any feedback and suggestions we may have received from consumers and manufacturers and then have a story framework meeting where the stakeholders can talk about the test and make suggestions that refine what we’ve already come up with. Prior to the test, we also conduct a risk assessment so we make sure everyone will take appropriate precautions during the testing phase.
Prior to testing we take a whole swathe of general data such as size, weight, origin and other features our members either want to know about, or will possibly want to know. Following this we need to assess how easy they are to use, clean, adjust, affix to a bed, etc. Things people will have to deal with infrequently or every winter night such as temperature adjustment. We also assess whether they have proper labeling.
The test rig
Electric blankets are covered by an Australian standard already (also an International standard), so while it’s unlikely that they will fail any of the standard tests, it’s not as if the government test every single one. We last did this test back in 1998 (they all passed), where we had a CHOICE engineer build us a test rig, which we’ve held onto ever since. However, given renovations, moving around and general messiness, the rig is dismantled. Fortunately, our laboratory manager, Klaus, knows where all the parts are and can turn his hand to any task many would find daunting.
We drag it out of our rig room. It’s a heavy beast of some few hundred kilos. To actually construct it again we have to drill holes through steel, into the concrete and dismantle a drop rig from the suitcase test so we can replace it with the electric blanket rig. When we finally get most of it up, we can see parts that need to be replaced such as the steel rod that holds the wooden rollers.
You’d think this is easily fixed, ordering some steel from a local supplier. However the process for doing so is long winded because they usually deal in bulk supplies and we don’t need a tonne of steel. Once it’s ordered and greased, we can see the rig in its entirety. Essentially it’s designed to drag each electric blanket over the wooden rollers, simulating the impact of the many changes and movements an electric blanket is exposed to throughout its life.
Once they’ve been put through the rig for a few hours (simulating 2000 turns), each is submerged in a salt solution and 3000 Volts is passed through the water to see whether anyone sleeping on the electric blanket is in danger of electrocution from wires that have been damaged during the rig test.
We also use a thermal imaging camera to see how well the products both preheat and distribute heat, their maximum heat, energy consumption and whether they have safety mechanisms kick in so they don’t get too hot.
From data to published results
We collate all the general data, test results and ease of use scoring into a file which can be used to write the article, as well as put together both a publication table for the magazine and a comparison table for online so our members can assess which is the best product for their needs. We discuss what will go into the magazine article, and online, plus any visual aids and videos in a pre-write meeting where again, all the stakeholders can have a say into what gets published.
In this case the test was relatively short. On average, it takes about three months from starting the research to publishing the test results online. At any one time, you’ll find a project manager, tester and every other stakeholder being involved in up to 10 test projects – in a non-profit organisation you learn to be dynamic and flexible. This means we’re starting some projects, are in the middle of others and finishing a few more. It’s busy and rewarding work at CHOICE, because we are working to give our members the knowledge they need to make an informed buying decision, and to keep manufacturers on their toes.
This section doesn’t cover the publication of the online and magazine issues, which takes a whole floor of more people to produce and perfect to the best of our abilities. Data verifiers, sub-editors, designers and writers all have a part to play in making each article the best it can be. A minimum of a dozen people look at each facet of the test and article, from the initial product research to the head of content signing off on the final article. So it really is a team effort.
Is there anything else you’d like to know about what CHOICE does?