How Accessible Shoe Design is a Step in the Right Direction
Sometimes a disability can inspire improvement for consumers in every walk of life.
Not having to tie my shoes would be a handy convenience for me. But for some, it’s a necessity.
In 2015, Nike began designing FlyEase, a line of shoes featuring a new wrap-around zipper design. This innovation made it easier to slide the foot in and out, eliminating the need for traditional tie laces. FlyEase was developed with the input of its original inspiration, a 16-year-old with cerebral palsy whose reduced hand dexterity made tying shoes a challenge.
Now Nike has announced that a forthcoming new model, Go FlyEase, will take accessibility a step further by being completely hands-free. While this promises a better experience for people with disabilities, the design also aims to benefit a much larger group of consumers.
This practice of designing for the “extremes’’ has become known as the curb cut effect. Originally curbs were cut between street level and sidewalk to increase accessibility for wheelchair users. Yet removing these barriers has helped create a better experience for everyone, including parents pushing strollers, delivery drivers using carts, and travelers hauling wheeled luggage. An audience-specific feature is now viewed as common sense.
Nike may be a high-profile footwear example of hands-free design, but it’s not the only one. A non-disabled friend of mine recently purchased shoes online for the first time and linked on social media to Kizik.com. Kizik Design had announced its patented hands-free technology in 2018 and launched a line of stylish men’s shoes. A women’s line arrived within six months, and they’ve continued expanding their selection to draw customers from all walks of life.
Product reviews reveal a wide variety of intriguing use cases. A mother of four raves about being able to dash out the door quickly. A wife describes a purchase for a husband who lost an arm in a motorcycle accident, helping him maintain dignity in an everyday task. Customers of every ability can enjoy a comfortable, stylish shoe that happens to be hands-free.
And promising scenarios extend well beyond curbs and footwear. The founder of OXO kitchen products, Sam Farber, noticed his wife struggling with ordinary utensils due to her mild arthritis. So he led his company in designing Good Grips, a new line that would be more comfortable to use.
This focus on comfort became so beneficial to customers, OXO expanded the original line of 15 to over 100 products today. The brand has become synonymous with good accessibility and thoughtful design.
Once you become aware of the curb cut effect, you start noticing the world in a different light. Closed-captioned TV viewing can be valuable to non-hearing-impaired viewers in loud, public areas — or when you’re home alone and crunching on loud snacks. Websites that are fast to download benefit most users, but they also ensure that those with slow internet speeds can interact.
Even among thoughtful design decisions, accessibility issues remain. Nike’s FlyEase is scheduled for a limited release, which means many of the disabled individuals who need them most won’t have access right away. And their $130 price tag will prove another barrier for many.
Still, it’s hard to deny the value offered by designing a better experience for the disabled, marginalized, or excluded. So along with myself, I challenge all creators to look to the extremes and probe how we can improve the experience of disadvantaged groups. In the end, we all benefit.