The design of high-heel shoes: looks or comfort? – You cannot have both

A Washington Post author writes about the “illogical psychology at work when a woman buys a pair of shoes” and speculates that it is “some curious synaptic misfire in the cerebrum that causes so many women to give form precedence over function”.

If you are a woman, then you recognize this particular form verus function dilemma. At some time or the other you have stood in a shoe store and looked longingly at a pair of very pretty but totally impractical shoes. My last visit to a shoe store, I asked my friend, “So can I do this?”, as if the shoe was a challenge that I needed to conquer. Egged on by her I bought it and took it on my next trip. But just for safety I also packed an older, more prosaic pair. Guess which one saw more wear during the trip?

This article offers a fascinating look at the mechanics of the shoe industry, the innovations involved in creating more comfortable shoes, the litany of problems associated with wearing high-heel shoes (such as knee, ankle and joint injury). And yet, the reality of the market is that the impractical shoes clearly sell better.

So why are shoes so badly designed? Partly, creating a fashionable yet comfortable shoes is a hard engineering problem. It has to do with impact reduction, padding and cushioning technology…

Shoe designers mostly being men probably has something to do with it. One of the developers of these breakthrough shoes spent some time wearing size 11 high heel shoes to understanding the subjective feeling of wearing such heels. Only after wearing them did he understand how it mimics the dynamic of walking downhill.

Turns out the shoe design industry is fanatical about testing the shoes (who would have guessed that). There are companies that specialize in testing shoes! I wonder if they create video-clips of their tests (like usability testing companies), highlighting sections showing women oohing and aahing over shoes that they can barely stand straight in. Perhaps they use metrics such as “how long it took a woman to walk 20 feet?”. Maybe they have a inferred pain scale based on the subconscious winces.

The article reports on two new companies with breakthroughs in shoe technology, that are taking up the challenge of comfortable yet sexy shoes.

“Oh! shoes, based in Portland, Ore., is trying to solve the high-heel conundrum by slowing the speed at which force is absorbed by the body. By dissipating the impact, the body is protected from the equivalent of a sucker punch.

Insolia, in New Hampshire, focuses on geometry. Its designs decrease the angle at which the foot rests in the shoe, essentially trying to make a three-inch heel feel like a one-inch version.

I think I like the idea of Insolia’s shoe more. Seems to me that if the angle was reduced, then the impact would be automatically better. So I know what to look for next time I go shoe shopping…

Reporting back on the BayCHI Rich Internet Applications Panel

The panel yesterday went very well. It was a full house, there were many first time BayCHI visitors in the audience. And I never had so many people come upto me at the end of the evening and said that they had enjoyed the evening. Someone asked me if I was writing a book on the topic, and if so they would read it. Thats a little premature, but you can expect a white paper sometime in the near future!

We will be posting slides, links to demos and meeting notes soon to the BayCHI website. Stay tuned for that.

DIS 2004 and the universe of HCI conferences

Last week I was in Boston for the DIS 2004 . Apart from bouts of East Coast nostalgia (I went to grad school on the East Coast), I had a great time. DIS is a small conference with some interesting sessions. ONe thing I noticed immediately was the number of people sporting the nerdy artisty chic look. Another was that one could not walk a few steps without bumping into a CMU (Carneige Mellon University) student/alumni/faculty. Another trend was the proliferation of Mac’s. The few PC’s I saw apart from mine, were the IBM’s owned by IBM employees.

DIS stands for Designing Interactive Systems and has been around since 1995 (held alternate years). This was my first visit to the conference. Although the focus was interactive systems, there was very little about web-based interactions.

From the beginning of the conference, I had a feeling of deja-vu at every paper session. Finally I realized that I recognized many of the research projects – the same groups also present their work at CHI. It all made sense when at the end of DIS, Terry Swack explained that the purpose of DIS was for researchers to disseminate their findings to designers (as compared to the goal of DUX – let designers present their work to researchers/designers).

Continue reading