Dude, you have a problem. Okay, maybe that’s being a bit dramatic. You have… a dilemma. You live on a peninsula, where one side’s got good swell and bad wind, and the other side has less swell and perfect wind, and you don’t know where to surf. Or you live on a well-indented coastline, but there’s island blockage and tricky tradewinds, and you don’t know where to surf… Or you live in Texas.
At least 50 percent of being a surfer is checking the surf. For a Gulf of Mexico surfer, it’s more like 90 percent. And although checking a live surf cam can significantly improve your situation, four or more can really expedite your progress. Just ask the guy who built Surfline’s Multi-Cam product, Matt Harlow, who’s forgotten more about checking the surf than most of us will ever know.
Growing up on a cattle ranch in Central Texas, Matt started surfing in high school, usually targeting the long jetties erected across the Corpus Cristi zone. A family home on the bay in Port O’Connor provided a mysto respite offshore, which he’d often boat to during infrequent windswell events that drew hordes to Texas’ barrier islands. By the time he was a mechanical engineering student at Texas A&M, Matt had developed into a keen surf forecaster and seasoned wave hunter, making him the obvious choice as his university’s surf club president — and everyone’s source for plotting sessions.
“We were always driving two to four hours to get to the beach, sometimes eight if we were going to South Padre,” Matt remembers. “We’d only have a three to five-hour window with offshore winds and good waves, so I spent every day checking the available weather charts.”
Eventually the big fish grew bored of the small pond and moved to the South Bay area of Southern California, where he would surf infinitely more and hopefully get a job in the surf industry. Matt was working at a major consulting firm in the technology space when his amateur surf forecasting background complemented his professional product management background, landing him the Surfline Product Manager position in 2018.
“This product prefers a big screen: the bigger, the better.”
“This is literally my dream job,” Matt says. “And hopefully this is where I will end my career: building products that enable people to enjoy surfing more, you know, the whole Know Before You Go thing. The product team is always trying to re-envision our forecast platform and tools to solve user problems. I think everybody who comes to the website, whether they’re a hardcore surfer or just getting into it, wants to surf better waves more often. So we break that up into specific problems, one of which is, ‘Where should I surf in the next zero to four hours?’ That’s what the Multi-Cam was built from.”
“The Surfline cams can give you an accurate picture of what the surf’s doing,” Matt continues. “But our product was very linear, both on web and app — watch one cam for awhile, then go to the next cam — so you could spend 30 minutes trying to figure out where you wanted to surf. Once we identified that problem by utilizing the data and information we got from the cams and reports and short-term forecasts, we decided to solve it by creating a product that minimizes the time the user needs to have that product — a tool where you can watch nine cams and in three minutes be able to say, ‘Okay, these are the places I should go check out.’
“Then you can switch to four cams, watch for three more minutes, and you’ll know right where to go. With wind and swell varying in most locations over a certain stretch of miles, you come to know your spots and you start building that data. But by having Multi-Cam, even if you’ve only watched for 30 seconds, you can pretty much confirm your initial thoughts.”
Obviously, with nine cams running simultaneously, this product prefers a big screen: the bigger, the better. In fact, it works great on a big-screen TV. That scenario not only provides a sort of utilitarian wall art; it also presents more entertainment value outside the core user problems. Think subliminal, Grambeau-esque lineup Zen. And of course, there are certain investigative advantages.
“A couple years ago I was going to Cabo for the first time, where we have four cams but it’s one of those areas where you really need to figure out swell direction,” Matt explains. “Zippers is a really weird wave that kinda closes out, but if you sit at the right spot you can get some good corners. I watched Zippers for three weeks with this product and kind of learned the lineup before I ever even paddled out. In fact, the Multi-Cam has been a great research tool many times, both in Cabo and hunting locally.”
“So, if we were starting from scratch today, would we build the same linear product experience?” Matt finishes. “I would argue, no. It may have worked in Web 1.0 but it doesn’t work in tomorrow’s model, where we want to create more in-depth experiences. We’re not stuck with the old technology anymore, so we can build more engaging product experiences.”
Know before you go
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