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Boots are Made for Walking: Fashion vs Function in User Needs

HSI® Work, Making Things Usable, Posts

Finding shoes that fit me properly is like finding a needle in a haystack. My feet are an unfortunate size: very small and very wide. Shoe boxes would probably fit my feet better than the shoes inside. In Cinderella’s day, I would have managed to get maybe one toe into the famed glass slipper.

Cinderella’s shoes, however, were created by her fairy godmother for pretty effect, not for practicality. How practical are shoes that fall off while running away at midnight? How durable is glass? Today, women’s shoes (and men’s, to a degree) are equally poorly designed, with fashion being the primary criteria.

Oprah once said that many of her shoes she only wears while sitting, because she couldn’t actually walk in them. Many women have contorted their feet over the years to compress them into ill-fitting shoes, and they are now suffering from bunions, heel spurs, corns, calluses, and hammertoes. This is not occasional pain either; it continues even when the offending shoes have been kicked off for the night. Many of these ailments have actually deformed feet so that women can no longer buy shoes in the Cinderella shops of their younger days.

When I used to go to typical mall shoe stores, the clerks would measure my feet and, instantly, any hope of a commission was dashed. It is a dreaded task for me to seek out new shoes when the shoemaker cannot repair my current pair any further. I don’t even attempt the glamourous stores anymore and instead just cross my fingers that some of the more practical shoe stores can accommodate my feet.

Practicality is something I learned when I joined the military. I was issued two pairs of combat boots. The idea is that you alternate them each day so they have a chance to dry out. Keeping your feet healthy is a major concern in the military; if you can’t walk, then you can’t be a soldier. In boot camp, we were told we could be charged if we didn’t properly care for our feet. It was our duty to change our socks often to keep our feet dry, ensure that blisters didn’t become infected, and report any issues before they were debilitating.

The military takes personal ”kit” seriously. They do all kinds of user testing to ensure that the user needs are met (in fact, HSI® has researched user needs for boots – and is currently doing a trial on winter-grade boots for the Canadian military).  Boots are tested for comfort, fit, durability, and protection from the environment. Criteria such as whether they are quick-drying, breathable, lightweight, and durable, are very important. Anthropometric studies are done to guarantee a wide range of sizes is available for footwear, and sizes from one manufacturer to the next must be consistent. No vanity sizing. (By the by, we’ve done anthro studies as well.)

It would be fantastic if manufacturers user-tested women’s shoes at least for fit and comfort before fashion. But that will remain a fairy tale. A wide range of sizes will likely never be offered because commercialism dictates looking for the quickest dollar. In spite of my dismay with the footwear industry however, and my inability to buy into their products, I found my prince charming while I was wearing a perfectly-fitted combat boot.

Dianne Pinder

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