Twenty years ago, tapping your Palm Pilot in public made you an object of derision.

Now, we look askance at anyone who doesn’t use a smart phone. Ten years ago, wearing a Bluetooth headset was an act of self-absorption. “It looks like you’re talking to yourself.” (Yeah, I know. And I’m on the phone. So let’s not have this conversation now, whoever you are).

Today, Vibram Five Fingers shoes are the moral equivalent of the Bluetooth headset, plus about one year. The product has gone from the “small children gather around me and point” to “dad walks over and asks me how I like my Five Fingers – and that he’s considering them, too.” Still a bit outside the comfort zone, but no longer completely alien.

I had the opportunity to meet the extended team at Vibram a few weeks ago when they invited me to speak at their national sales meeting. During the few days I spent with them, I had the opportunity to discuss the role design, product aesthetics and bridging this gap between consumer revulsion and acceptance with Peter von Conta, Vibram’s VP of design and development.

Here are 3 questions with Peter on bringing impossible products to acceptability:

SD: How do you approach the “user experience” versus “aesthetics” question when designing a product like the Five Fingers? What goes into this balance for you as a designer?

PvC: We try to maximize the potential of the product using whatever tools are available to us. It’s a classic scenario. If life gives you wheat, you make pasta, but you also have to choose the shape, or conversely, you can choose to make bread instead. We also know that in today’s product culture that cool looking is accompanied by great functionality, or you potentially lose your audience.

SD: When you look at the changes that have happened over time, how have you judged when you’ve gone “far enough” in pushing expectations and frames of reference – and when do you believe you can go farther? There’s only so much the average Joe can take in a novel product, after all – how far is too far, and when do you know you’re there?

PvC: I believe in quantum leaps, but consumers are sometimes unprepared for the experience. My personal approach to design is about transforming the strange into the curious or recognizable so that the consumer can meet the product through their own perceptions and expectations. Creating multiple perceptive pathways to the product can make it successful in its own right, even if the primary benefit is hidden or ignored at first glance.

SD: What advice would you give to a brand that’s seeking to take a product that consumers might find “functional… but not for me,” and bring it closer to the mainstream? How could a smart company follow your lead?

PvC: To me it’s simple to say, but not as easy to execute: The goal is to make a great connection with your audience. People love connections, just look at Facebook. Then you have to be willing to teach what you know, and to change what doesn’t work, so that your product is allowed to be the subject of a shared experience. Products ultimately take on a life of their own, occasionally outside the intention of their inventors, and so dealing with this movement is the real task. For instance, when people use Vibram FiveFingers shoes, they are not necessarily pondering the Vibram designers’ intent, but know inherently and instantly that they are receiving an interesting experience through their feet. It’s all about the connection.

A few thoughts to summarize:

Just Noticeable Differences are crucial. A shoe with toes in it – especially when described in those terms – is silly. A shoe that looks like a SCUBA boot that you could also wear outside the water is something different. It’s somewhat exotic, actually. A shoe with a minimalist design that evokes memories of the sprinter’s spikes you remember from your high school days makes sense to those of us who have those memories.

As Peter says, it’s about creating the right connections, transforming the unusual into the recognizable – be they metaphors or parallels from other similar pursuits.

Design isn’t just looks. Regardless of how outlandish our starting point, we’re strongly influenced by the design aesthetics of the products we use. But as Peter alludes to, this isn’t merely a question of looking cool. It’s a question of experience. Look at Bikila FiveFingers and you see an admittedly cool looking product. Wear them for the first time, though, and you quickly become a believer. There’s something to that first experience that validates everything you thought you knew.

The “How” is often more important than the “What.” Peter’s point about functionality is important to contemplate. Products that look great and that do many things, none particularly well, are prone to churn. If the novelty of the product’s functionality is enough to put up with all the problems – a classic early adopter mindset – then consider that a short-term fix. It doesn’t make for a lasting brand, though. How we do things – the experience side – is what sticks.

Go visit for a closer look at how the Five Fingers team views the barefoot running movement.