Ted Stevens and the art of the ramble
Balls, cheekiness, cogs, independence, travel, & high boots

A jogging reminder on the importance of simplicity

If I asked you to define simplicity in the context of design, your definition would likely include at least a general principle of using fewer parts/elements rather than more. MIT's John Maeda touches on this in his blog, Simplicity:

"Simple parts are most simple when there are few (versus many) parts. When there are fewer parts, there is an opportunity to distribute one's precious time in fewer directions which results in a higher quality per part."

                                                 — John Maeda, MIT

Steve Wozniak, of course, was famous for slaving over his early designs in the'70s and getting them to work with fewer and fewer parts. The fewer the parts, in general, the cheaper a design (a product, a system, an event, etc.) will be. But another real advantage is that the chance of something going wrong, of failing, is reduced.

Few versus many parts. I was reminded of this aspect of simplicity of design when I was out running the other day. Thirty minutes into my run, and 5-6 kilometers away from my home in central Osaka, part of the heel of my right shoe suddenly went bouncing past me while I was jogging easily on a smooth surface. Weird. I never had part of my shoe just fall off like that before. Now minus the right side of the 2cm heel, continuing to run was not only uncomfortable but also dangerous. Frustratingly, I had no choice but to walk (limp) home. The shoe had only about 50K of wear.

   Nikeshoe

Above: Here are my shoes placed on my desk at home moments after I returned  (of course I cleaned the outsole first; we don't allow shoes even on the floor indoors here, as you know). As you can imagine, running on that heel was out of the question.

I was wearing Nikes with the "Shox" technology, the TL3 Shox. "Shox" are little rubber columns on the outsole of the shoe that actually work extremely well as shock absorbers. The particular shoe that I was using, however, has one especially hard piece of rubber attached to the column on the outside heel. Nike calls this BRS 1000 Carbon Rubber for the "key wear areas" of the shoe. This is good for people like me who have a slight supination in their form. It is interesting that the failure of a small rubber part can make this pair of $150 shoes completely useless as a running shoe in just a blink of an eye. This little rubber part is ironically the "Achilles heel" of the shoe. And since I have already severed my right Achilles tendon twice (years ago while playing American football), a strong, elevated heel is very important.

      Necessary_part
Did the designers of this running shoe stop to consider that runners run on trails and beaches or roads, etc. far away from home or their cars, often miles away from anyone at all. The possibility of the shoe failing is usually the furthest thing from a runner's mind. The shoe was a given...at least they used to be. This important part on the Nike shoe was held together with only a bit of glue over a small surface area (since the "shox" is a hollow piece of rubber the area where glue can bond is limited to the rim). I didn't know it at the time of purchase, but only the integrity of the glue for this piece of rubber stood between me and a possible running injury.

     Oregonwaffle
In the "old days" of running shoes (such as the '70s era Oregon Waffle above) the outside tread was usually a single bonded piece of rubber. If the glue ever failed it would do so gradually, noticeable first along the edges. The failure of the bond would not lead to a "catastrophic failure" of the shoe during the middle of a run. Today the sole of a running shoe may have 2-3 (or more) pieces of rubber attached in some way, but usually these pieces are not so small that they could be easily knocked off, nor are they in such a crucial area as the outer heel. The BRS 1000 heel is 2cm in height; a loss of the heel makes running unwise at best. I will glue the heel back on, but I will never trust this particular shoe again for anything but walking. I bought the shoes in Hawaii; I doubt Nike here in Japan will take them back.

Jackson I am thankful for the advancement in running-shoe technology since the days of running track as a high school student. But I would hope that the advanced designs they create would not lead to an increase probability of failure as well. Is this an inevitable consequence of complexity? Maybe Nike needs to ask how they can leverage their technology and cutting-edge design to produce a running shoe that is supportive, good-looking, and will absolutely not fall apart in the middle of a run. Maybe they can take a tip from the folks who designed the Jackson manual typewriter over 100 years ago. I love these lines from the people who brought you the Jackson:

On Simplicity:

"As every one knows, the greater the complexity of a machine the greater the liability to derangement, and the greater the outlay for repairs."

On Durability:

"Mechanical simplicity is naturally followed by mechanical durability."

Not every problem lends itself to simple solutions, of course. Still, as "simple as possible" and "with as few fill-in-the-blanks as possible" is a good general principle worth aiming for. I'm not suggesting we go back in time and use typewriters and run in Oregon Waffles, etc. But whether we're talking about hardware, software, user interface, presentation graphics, or running shoes, simplicity is not only aesthetically pleasing, it often leads to better performance, greater reliability, and overall better results.

Comments

Thinker

Use Adidas. I have done so for several years now and I had no problem with their shoes at all.

John Jantsch

Thanks for the trip down memory lane - I wore out a couple pairs of the Waffels when I thought I was bound to be the next Pre!

Caleb Elston

Dead on. I think that most companies feel the need to add, to "improve" something with more stuff, it gives the marketers something to sell. However we know that this approach does not always work, nor does it lend the best performance. Take for example performance vehicles; the fewer moving parts, the more compact the pieces, the smoother less adorned body, lends to the best performance. The clarity of purpose which comes from simplicity should be enough.

Corto

Oh c'mon. All this rant 'bout poor design and you're not even taking them back?
You bought not only overpriced, but also overdesigned pair of shoes...not to mention the "evil" of the brand.
Try to be better consumer next time... ;-)

safe running!

Jeff Bailey

The Oregon... it does bring back memories on miles and miles of running during cross country practice. How about the Nike Elite? Do any of you guys remember those? They were much easier on the legs and feet. Of course, if you were running golf courses, the Oregon was great!

Looks like superglue may become a manditory running accessory;)

Diego

Great post! The quote from Maeda is a great way to start a story about your shoe adventure. Thanks.

CM Harrington

The Jackson? You're kidding! That typewriter binds up if you try to type more than 20WPM (although it binds in a very different way than a "normal" manual typewriter). Sure, it's unique in its scissors-like striking action, but for someone used to typing around 80WPM, it simply won't do.

As for your trainers, sorry you suffered a blowout. I do agree, just because it's modern, doesn't make it superior. Often, the modern object is made to poorer standards, as the need to keep margins high trumps build quality. Look at HP printers for an example.

geraud servin

totally true also for web sites/information systems. make it simple not only on the design but also the architecture/database.

now I suspect that IT pro unconsciously complicate things to ensure their long-term survival i.e. they're the only one to understand the system and you'll have to rely on them in the future for maintaining/upgrading. thus I spend most of time simplifying/trimming/cutting. why make it complicated?

Jimbo

Forrest Gump ran for like 4 years in his Nike Cortez!! That was a simple man!

It seems that some things—e.g. Nike Shox, websites, young Hollywood starlets—are designed superficially, not with the intent of being explored and used in-depth, but for show and initial attraction. This is the complicated question of the purposes of design, visual attraction AND usability... But, that's for another post I imagine.

Devdas

Erm, IT pros make complicated solutions because the requirements are complicated. Any graphical user interfaces has a humongous number of components. Adding in availability to the mix adds complexity. Prettiness adds complexity.

A lot of things can be simplified. However, if the function is complex, it results in a complex solution.

A lot of clueless people do make things unnecessarily complicated, and then they end up (or should end up) on http://thedailywtf.com/ .

After all, software is just implemented mathematics and more of an art than engineering.

David Armano

I REALLY like this blog and great post here. Are you familiar with the three pillars of product design? (Useful, Useable, Desirable)?

When a product scores exceedingly high points in all three areas, it tends to reach the coveted "product lust" status. Though it's more comman for some products to excel in one or two areas over the other.

But whether it's presentations, digital experiences or products, it's a worth goal to shoot for all three.

Rick

I like those shoes ;)

rick
--
http://rwez.blogspot.com/

andrea

I would recommend New Balance... (I use 1060)
this post is really good as it points out how the need of somthing new can lead to a not-so-well-thought-and-executed product.
anyway I don't think it is only a matter of "how many parts", of course if something is not in it will never break, but is something is in for a reason it is Ok it is in.
the point is: why that last absorber is in the shoe? IMHO it is there not for a "functional function" but just because it is cool and it looks good, just like some air intake leading air nowhere on some motorcycles and/or cars (I remember a Yamaha of some yrs ago with a "FAI System" acronym on its body, well... FAI was an acronym of "Fresh Air Intake"...)

Stan

I remember being at DesignMuseum in London when they had a small exhibition about Nike (must've been around 2001) and quite a big part of that exhibiton belonged to the shox' evolution. afair they experimented for about 14 or 15 years to get that system work, but what's the result? back to drawing boards!

btw this shoe is quite ugly (when you said, you look for a good looking running shoe, then why the "hetero-pumps"?)

Jason

You would do well to read this article, very detailed exploration of athletic footware and running injuries.

http://www.quickswood.com/my_weblog/2006/08/athletic_footwe.html#more

Matt A

I'll have to watch my Nike Shox pair then.. I've got an early pair (similar to your failed shoes, with the laminated/two part rear shock column)and I'd always wondered what was holding the lamination together.. Now I know it is glued & could fail, I just use them for walking. Interestingly, Nike has created all newer versions of the Shox shoe with a different rear shock column now- the new pair of Shox I've just bought has a one-piece rear column, more like the other 3 columns on the base of the heel. I guess this is to prevent the glue from delaminating.
I found this site by typing in "BRS 1000 failure" in google by the way :)

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