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Comfort Is Not an Exact Science When it Comes to Footwear

When it comes to comfort in footwear, the consumer experience is not unlike that of Goldilocks and her quest for a comfy bed to rest. Some shoes are too soft. Others are too hard. A shoe in the middle is usually just right.

And there’s data to back that up, Martyn Shorten, Ph.D. of BioMechanical, a Portland-based applied research and product development firm, shared at The Material Show in Portland, Ore. Wednesday.

While comfort is a key area of investment for component companies like Vibram and OrthoLite, as well as for most household footwear brands from Nike to Ugg, Shorten pointed out that comfort isn’t an exact science. The feeling of comfort is subjective.

And shoes rated the most comfortable don’t usually have the most cushioning, Shorten said. Franchise shoes like Nike’s Pegasus are often given high ratings by runners because they have a “good balance of properties” with cushioning levels that are in the “middle of the spectrum.”

“The sweet spot is the most comfortable that will work for most people for most of the time,” he said.

Material innovations, new constructions and wear tests help brands hone in the optimal level of cushioning and comfort, but Shorten said a slew of unrelated factors also influence how consumers perceive comfort in footwear.

“Comfort is psychological,” he said. “If we ask somebody to try on a pair of shoes and ask them how comfortable it is, their response will depend on a number of things. One will be the shoe. Others will be their mood, their experience with other shoes, did they have an argument with their wife that morning, are they hungry—all kinds of different things can affect the sensation of comfort.”

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Along with the wearer’s mood, Shorten said there are various sources of bias that influence consumers’ level of comfort. That’s why he believes typical wear tests don’t work. On average, people rate shoes above average during wear tests for comfort. This may happen because wear testers don’t understand the rating system, that they have no other shoe to compare it to, or underscores the fact that they may have positive feelings about wearing free shoes.

Their perception of comfort can also be skewed by their previous experiences with the brand, excitement for trying something new, their established preferences and expectations, and their sensitivity to cushioning in general.

For example, Shorten said its take about a 1.5 ounce change in weight for wearers to notice with running shoes. And it’s much higher in basketball shoes. “It’s surprising how insensitive people are to change,” he said.

The novelty or appearance of the product may enhance or lessen the shoes’ comfort factor, too. In a study that asked consumers which Nike sneaker appeared the most comfortable—a white version or a black version of the exact same model—Shorten said consumers overwhelmingly chose the white shoe.

“People perceived the black shoe to be heavier, less flexible and less cushioned than the white shoe. The only difference is the color,” he said. “It’s just the bias of dark versus light.”