Endless Testing and Learning From Mistakes: The Pursuit of Perfection Highlights Reebok’s Road to the Nano X3

January 19, 2023 by
Photo Credit: Reebok
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Reebok officially unveiled the Nano X3 on January 20 which marked a major moment for the apparel company. It celebrated the 13th version of the longtime functional fitness shoe, and it highlighted a continued emphasis on supporting the customer base.

Let’s first look back: Creating a shoe that can hold up to the most grueling CrossFit workouts for years on end is a monumental task. So is continually releasing shoes that appeal to the design sensibilities of top-level athletes and everyday consumers alike. 

How does Reebok achieve this? The company takes an unorthodox approach. It actually gets the shoes out to key people very early in the process so that they can put them through the paces, so to speak. 

  • “That’s one [factor] that we always look at is durability,” said Tal Short, Sr. Product Manager of Performance Footwear at Reebok. “So when people do test it, we get their shoes back and we check them out.”
  • “We have a whole testing team that looks at it, and they do a full analysis. This is what they did like, didn’t like. Here’s what their shoes… here’s where the wear and tear is. What are we gonna update?” 

Testing the shoes every day in the gym is a major part of the process. Reebok’s team needs to know that the latest Nano can hold up to rope climbs, box jumps, and sprints while also providing stability in weightlifting events. 

  • A fitting example could be 31 Heroes, the workout that honors 30 soldiers and 1 military K9 that died when a helicopter was downed in Afghanistan on August 6, 2011. Thousands of community members do this workout every August to raise money for the 31 Heroes Project.
  • The workout itself is a 31-minute partner AMRAP. One partner does a 400-meter run with a sandbag while the other works on eight thrusters (155/105), six rope climbs, and 11 box jumps (30/24). 

Of course, building a durable shoe is only part of the process. Reebok also has to have faith that it can stand up against the unknown and unknowable. This is a staple of CrossFit, whether it’s a competition or daily programming for a 5 p.m. class. Sometimes, the designers come up with movements that no one ever expected to see. 

  • “I remember the time they put the pegboard in,” Short said. “That wasn’t a surface that we’d ever tested. So when [Dave Castro] broke it out, I remember sitting in – I think that one was in Carson – I remember sitting – and it was hot sun, and it was glass.” 
  • “And I’m like, ‘I think it should hold up. We didn’t ever test it, but let’s go.’ So it luckily did, obviously. So we’re always kind of dabbling with the sport, whatever’s kind of new out there.” 

Apart from focusing on durability, Reebok also has to address other concerns. Consumers and athletes have to want to wear the shoes. One big thing that Short and the team learned over the years is that there must be a balance. He specifically pointed out how the Nano 4 was extremely durable, but it was covered in plastic. Now, Reebok has moved toward more of a knit look that fits more of the customer’s desires. 

  • The design process is extensive. Short estimates that it is about 18 months from the start to the shoe hitting the market, and it includes getting prototypes out in the wild so customers can provide feedback.  
  • “So what we do is we actually take our first prototypes and we get them in front of consumers. That is a very scary thing to do when you’re talking product development because there’s so much that happens between the first prototype and the second.” 
  • “The shoe’s not dialed in, but you’re showing it to consumers, you’re getting feedback. And it really has helped us over the years. I think the earlier we’ve started the consumer insights, the better the shoe always turns out.”

This process has led to the release of some subtler looks, such as the black Nanos. There have also been some unique collaborations with National Geographic, DC Comics, and the “Power Rangers.” These bright looks are actually the byproduct of consumer feedback. Reebok knows that CrossFit and fitness are at the top of the list, but the company has also reached out to see what other interests the consumers have so that it can better address those needs. 

  • “I would put building a CrossFit shoe up there with one of the hardest things you can build just based on everything that it needs to be,” Short said. “We accept the challenge. But I think the biggest thing for us is we listened to the consumer, we listened to the community.”
  • “What do they want versus us shoving something down their throat. ‘Hey, this is what we think is cool. This is what we think.’ We listen to them and say, ‘Hey, what do you guys want?’”
  • “Sometimes our designers try to push it pretty far, and we’re like, ‘Hey, this is cool. But here’s what the consumer actually needs,’ right? And so we always start there.”

There have been missteps, which Reebok acknowledges. The Nano 7 wasn’t a high point for the company. They forced it out onto the market and then later realized that the Nano 8 would have been a better shoe to have under the 7 banner. It wasn’t a high point for the performance side, but it also served as a great learning experience for Short and the team on the road to the Nano X3.  

The here and now: The past several years have been learning experiences for Short and the performance team at Reebok. One of the biggest things they have learned is that consumers want a shoe that can do it all. Sure, marathon runs or dedicated lifting sessions require specialty shoes, but there is a need for a shoe that can handle workouts that mix the movements together. This is where the X3 comes into play. 

  • “So we started about three years ago really trying to identify what can we do in the midsole, right? Because when you lift heavy, you need a flat sole. When you run, you want cushion, especially in the heel,” Short said. “The heel’s kind of the area where you’re like, ‘Alright, how can we play with this?’” 
  • “So we built this really adaptable kind of Lift and Run Chassis System. So the idea is it’s hard plastic – so TPU if you’re familiar with thermoplastic – so a really hard TPU connected to a plate that goes underfoot. The idea is the hard piece is actually shaped like a dome. So under the heel, there’s a dome shape. If you have no weight on your body, if you’re doing just lightweight body movements, even a light barbell, you probably won’t feel it.”
  • “It just sits there and is surrounded by some really special kind of Floatride energy foam, which is our running technology. And so when you do have something heavy on your back, it actually flattens out and gives you some stability. So the idea is that it’s hard when you need it to be hard and soft when you need it to be soft.” 

Reebok is already hard at work on the next evolution of the Nano, and the team is trying to find anything wrong with the X3 so that they can continue to make improvements. It’s the same approach as someone that hits a PR. They just want to keep improving. However, the belief inside the building is that the X3 will help solve a community problem as members can use one shoe for the majority of their workouts.

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