Considered by many as being one of the most innovative companies, Nike doesn’t just earn that title by chance.

Sure, Adidas and New Balance are innovative in their own ways…as are many other companies not related to sports at all. But when it comes to market performance and social influence in 2014, it’s hard to argue that Nike isn’t doing at least something right.

While their ‘Innovation Kitchen’ is well-known for being a playground for designers, engineers, makers and color scientists, the real science goes down in their research lab located a stones-throw down the path at Nike’s Beaverton, Oregon WHQ.

Among other concepts that Nike has been exploring in the past few years has been combining real-time data and ‘the quantified self’ to more sport-specific purposes. A large majority of their software/hardware prototypes are tested at this research lab and end up as products such as the Nike Fuelband.

The lab uses both brains (there are professional doctors and health professionals and staff) and machines (including the state-of-the-art sensor-based systems) to formulate data that is then used as design drivers for whatever product design is up next in the queue. This could be unique products designed specifically for a professional athlete or for the next mass-manufactured minimalist running shoe.

Nike has just released a video and interview with Matthew Nurse, Senior Director of the Nike Explore Team Sport Research Lab, where he gives us a glimpse into how the quantitative research generated from the research lab helps shape the creative process.

How was Nike’s sport research lab formed?

The research lab was started in Nike’s infancy, in 1980 in Exeter, N.H. It was formed in response to the running boom of the late ‘70s (the name was coined by recent hire Mark Parker, current NIKE, Inc. President and CEO). The primary goal was to understand runners’ needs in order to make the best products for athletes.

What exactly do you do in the lab?

We quantify athletes’ movements, the environments they play in and the products they use. Then we analyze the results and if we are able, use that knowledge to make really unbelievable product.

What is the process of working with athletes?

Nike’s sport research lab is a destination for athletes when they visit Nike’s Oregon campus. We might solve a problem they have or help with a performance issue, but the really cool thing is making them part of the process. They contribute performance insights through testing and data, and provide verbal feedback that actually drives our product forward. Generally, what we learn from working with elite athletes, can be used to make better product for everybody. In cases where considerations for elite athlete don’t apply to everyday athlete, we make sure that we are also working with athletes of all skills and abilities.

What do you typically hear from athletes?

If you look at how sport has evolved over the last 30 to 40 years, athletes are getting stronger and faster — there’s no question. But the three basic things athletes ask haven’t changed in decades: make me better, protect me and inform me.

How far in advance are you working on product?

We can work on anything from 18 months in advance to decades out. Often, we’re doing research and collecting data that informs a specific technology or a wide range of products, not just a single shoe or garment.

When you work that far in advance, what is it like to see the final product?

What really motivates us is when we see our products being used on the field of play, whether its at a pinnacle event like the Olympics or the World Cup, or just seeing someone out on a run. We obsess the details. We stare at their feet, and if they are in a motion-controlled shoe and it looks like they are pronating too much, we worry about those things. If we go to a soccer game and an athlete slips, we obsess over that and we come in the next morning and everybody’s asking each other “Hey, did you see that person slipping?” We start to question why did that happen, what are we doing wrong, and how do we make it better.

So it’s not all about the data?

We collect a lot of data, an unbelievable amount of data. But by itself, data is useless until you turn it into knowledge. And the knowledge that we gain from each project and each athlete helps us better understand the product at hand. The long-term benefit of having a sport research lab like ours since 1980 is a wealth of information to build on.

How do you convert data into actual product features?

We can look at data from athletes about how they perform, how they move and how they fatigue; and we can look at data from product as it relates to fit, flexibility, traction and cushioning. However, the interaction between athletes and products is complex, and requires a lot of data to solve. Take motion capture for example. We put markers on athletes and we collect 200 frames per second and higher — so for one second, there is a minimum of 200 frames of information. And each one of those has three-dimensional coordinates from the athlete’s movements. Over the coarse of one particular study, we have, say, 10 subjects come in with two different shoes, or two different actions (running, jumping), and we end up with millions of data points that we need to capture and analyze. Then we take that information and drive product.

Check out the rest of the insightful interview over at Nike, Inc.

Author

Simon is a Brooklyn-based industrial designer and Managing Editor of EVD Media. When he finds the time to design, his focus is on helping startups develop branding and design solutions to realize their product design vision. In addition to his work at Nike and various other clients, he is the main reason anything gets done at EvD Media. He once wrestled an Alaskan alligator buzzard to the ground with his bare hands… to rescue Josh.