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Five ways ergonomics has shaped your life

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Brunel University's Dr Mark Young on what makes good ergonomic design

By Megan Lane
BBC News Magazine

Ergonomic chairs. Ergonomic remote controls. It's a word bandied about to imply good design, and is celebrated in a new exhibition at London's Design Museum. But what's it all about?

It's time for a cuppa. The kettle boils, and as you pick it up, the lid inadvertently flies open and hot water slops out.

And not just into the mug.

Old and new kettles
And lo, the jug kettle was born

Not for the first time, you curse the designer who saw fit to put the "open lid" button on the handle - at the exact location where you grasp the handle to pick it up. This may make sense when filling the kettle at the tap, but not when it is bubbling furiously with 100°C water.

Don't they test these things?

Yes, they do. Product testing involves more than just making sure the electrics are safe and components sturdy - it studies how people use a product, with the aim of designing out any glitches.

It is most notable when it is missing, pointing up a piece of bad design. Like that kettle lid that flies open. Or the office microwave that's so complicated to use - and blinks "12:00" as no-one can figure out how to set the time. Or the shower with sleek controls that wet fingers can't get hold of.

Ergonomics is a branch of science that draws on engineering, physiology and psychology. It is a made-up word, created by joining the Greek words ergos (work) and nomos (natural laws). And while the word might sound obscure, the contribution ergonomics has made to everyday life is anything but. Here are five ways it has shaped our lives.

1. BEHIND THE WHEEL
Car dashboard
Car makers have started to think harder about where to site the stereo

People come in all shapes and sizes. So car manufacturers have to make sure the controls can be easily reached, and the dashboard displays easily seen, by the tallest and the smallest drivers. To do so, they study how people use the controls and how bodies can most comfortably fit into vehicles.

"Good design and good ergonomics go hand in hand - and cars are an excellent example," says Tom Stewart, president of the Ergonomic Society. "Car seats can now be adjusted any which way, and you can reach all the controls without having to stretch across yourself to do so. There's a reason for that - all the car companies invest a lot in ergonomics.

"At the cheap and cheerful end of the market, they want to make cars accessible to as many people as possible. At the luxury end of the market, they're selling optimum adjustability."

The branch of ergonomics that deals with human variability in size, shape and strength is called anthropometry. It is also widely applied to making more comfortable workplaces, such as back-friendly chairs.

2. NUCLEAR POWER STATIONS

In 1979, there was a core meltdown at Three Mile Island - the most dangerous type of nuclear plant accident. As coolant poured away from reactor, those on duty could not understand what was happening due to confusing information on their instruments. And so they inadvertently took action that made things worse.

Three Mile Island
Bad ergonomics were partly to blame for making the nuclear leak worse

Bhopal and Chernobyl too have primarily been attributed to "operator error".

At Three Mile Island, in Pennsylvania, no-one died or was injured. But it led to far-reaching reforms of how nuclear plants operate, which used ergonomics to work out more logical controls for staff.

A 1979 report by the President's Commission on the Accident at Three-Mile Island noted the "control panel is huge, with hundreds of alarms, and there are some key indicators placed in locations where operators cannot see them".

Ergonomics experts were called in to give a crash course to Nuclear Regulatory Commission managers, engineers and scientists. And a panel investigating other plants found "haphazard" control rooms to be a widespread problem. In the US and abroad, the accident led to improved instrumentation and better control rooms.

In the UK, the Central Electricity Generating Board became aware of the importance of ergonomics in the late 1950s, and recruited a specialist to design the control room at Trawsfynydd Nuclear Power Plant. This proved a success, and ergonomics became central to control room design.

3. PRETTY OBJECTS

It's a cliche to hold up Apple's sleek and chic products as examples of good design, but all are highly regarded by ergonomists for combining good looks with usability.

Steve Jobs and iPod
The iPod - smaller models sit pleasingly in the hand

Because an ergonomically designed device should do more than fit pleasingly into one's hand. It should be as easy and intuitive to use as possible. And that involves understanding how we think when carrying out tasks.

"Usability is based on three things," says Mr Stewart. "Is it effective, doing what you want it to do? Is it efficient - you can do this without too many mouse clicks? And is it satisfying - fun, comfortable and pleasant to use?

"Apple's designers have a good understanding of what people want to do with these devices. And then they test and test and test it to refine the end product."

Don Norman, cognitive scientist and author of The Design of Everyday Things, believes attractive objects work better because they make the user feel good.

"Is the Mini-Cooper a brilliant ergonomic design? No, it has many flaws. Is it enjoyable, wonderful to drive? Yes: it is great fun. Emotion researchers know that when a person is in a good mood, the brain is flooded with hormones that make one sensitive to changes in the environment, relaxed about events in the world, and generally receptive to positive events. As a result, minor flaws and glitches can be overlooked.

"With a bad object, say opening a package that requires effort and determination, sometimes even injury (more details. below), once again the brain is flooded with hormones, but this time, anxious, negative valence hormones. This causes intense focus upon the sources of irritation. Good mood: we overlook minor failings. Bad mood: we intensify those negatives."

4. UNDER WRAPS

We encounter packaging a dozen times a day - at least - and many of our encounters probably see us criticising poor ergonomics without ever using them. The most egregious examples are bits of packaging that are so poor ergonomically they actually constitute a minor danger to the people opening them.

In the US, the term "wrap rage" was coined to describe the frustration of trying to open a rigid plastic "clamshell" - two bits of plastic moulded together around a product.

Milk cartons - old and new
No use crying over spilt milk - better off designing instead

This type of packaging is typically used around electronics, software or other high value items where the manufacturer does not want anybody slyly stealing from the boxes.

But the end result is people using nail scissors, Stanley knives, electric saws and even kitchen implements to try to open them, with injuries frequently resulting - either from the tool used or a jagged piece of plastic.

Now there are firms like Amazon and Microsoft who are trying to make things a bit more ergonomic. The former switching plastic clamshells for good old fashioned cardboard boxes.

In food packaging, the plastic milk bottle is a microcosm of ergonomics. Do you prefer a cap attached with a plastic rip strip, or a cap over a peel off piece of silvered card over the mouth of the bottle?

"Some have got a nice easy to pull plastic grip," says Dr Diane Gyi, senior lecturer in ergonomics at the University of Loughborough. "Some of them you have got to pick with your nail to find the tab."

The essence of ergonomic packaging design, is thinking about the ease of the consumer at every stage of the process.

5. IN THE OFFICE

The place where the importance of ergonomics is most commonly articulated is in the office. We may have what we call an ergonomic chair. We may have an ergonomic keyboard. Or an ergonomic mouse.

Mich Maddox
Someone find this man a DSE assessor

While workplace ergonomics may have its spiritual home in heavy industry, it is today a hot office topic, because of repetitive strain injury (RSI).

RSI is not a single disorder, but a range of muscular skeletal problems all attributed to repeated work-related movements, says Paul Goddard, education officer at the ergonomic products firm Keytools.

"It is any injury that is caused by any repetitive process, in the absence of trauma," he says. "A doctor might say the best way is to stop repeating the strain which is fine if it isn't your living."

The key is adjustability. Everybody is a different shape and does things slightly differently," says John Niven, assistive technology adviser at the firm.

"All our equipment , hardware and chairs are adjustable. [At one end might be someone] completely tetraplegic, at the other end is someone with a little wrist pain."

The firm sells 90 different models of mouse - trackballs, sculpted mice to fit different hand shapes, mice to be used centrally rather than at the side, joysticks for people with hand tremors and mice designed to force the hand into a particular position.

Some ergonomic processes can be resented of course. When efforts were made under a school of ergonomics known as "Lean training" to get civil servants to organise their desks in a particular way, many felt they were being nannied. The PCS union attacked reforms that they said meant workers were even told where to put their pen with tape strips on the desk.

Ergonomics Real Design is at the Design Museum in London, 18 November to 7 March 2010.


Below is a selection of your comments.

I'm very familiar with wrap rage. I remember running out of memory on my digital camera while out in London one day and lots more pictures to take. I found a nearby camera shop and purchased a new memory card but it was completely inaccessible behind bonded plastic. I tried in vain to open it. With no tools to hand, I headed back into the shops to find a pair of scissors. I found a pair but they were also completely sealed in bonded plastic. Recursive wrap rage strike!
Jem Fry, London UK

Nice article... I like reading this. It makes a lot of sense and make you pick up your phone again and reexamine its beauty and simplicity.
John, Oxford

As an engineer at heart, I am endlessly appalled by the modern emphasis of style over substance. The marketing men have apparently beaten the ergonomists hands down and too many things which used to function perfectly well have lost ground to trendy, sexy new designs to do the same job terribly. This is particularly evident in kitchens and bathrooms, thanks largely to the home makeover programs that insist on everything being gimmicky and reject sensible familiar things. My new house has a trendy bathroom - the first time my daughter washed her hands after sand play, the trendy revolving metal plug got irretrievably jammed and I had to replace the whole unit before the basin could be emptied. The trendy toilet seat is an absurd shape that is nothing to do with the shape of anyone's bottom - result is said daughter falls down it. A "universal toilet training seat" won't fit this ridiculous shape, and it's uncomfortable for adults to sit on. The stupid design of the bowl means I can't just go out and buy a standard seat to put on it. The taps are trendy quarter-turn ones with ceramic discs that break, and instead of a 50p tap washer you have to replace a whole cartridge (get the right type - there are hundreds of incompatible ones) for up to £40. It's a colossal con - go for cheap and cheerful, and above all WORKING, traditional designs every time.
Chris Colborne, Oxfordshire, UK

As I age (68), I become increasingly aware & frustrated by current concepts of "ergonomics". Packages, containers, almost impossible for my fingers to open, resorting to knives, scissors; even, a hammer at one point. Or,TINY buttons I can't either read or independently click & end up using a magnifier; especially, my TV remote control. In the near future, Canada's demographics will be 60% senior citizens - where are OUR ergonomic products?
Lisa, Barrie, ON, Canada

Ergonomic design isn't just about physical things - it's an important consideration for any field, whether there's a tangible thing or not. In my field (IT), ergonomics goes hand-in-hand with usability - and it's all too easy for designers to overlook accessibility in the pursuit of technical bling.
John Clark, Fife, UK

I don't know why apple is being held up as an icon of ergonomic design. Anyone with an iMac will know that when you eject a CD/DVD, it pushes it out the side of the monitor/hard drive unit at 90 deg to fall straight onto the desk/floor.
Iain Connell, Aberdeen

Surely remote controls are one of the worst offenders. They've always all done pretty much the same thing yet over the years have bloomed in their complexity and variability. Consider simply selecting a TV channel. We used to just hit the on/off button and then key in the channel. Then keying in the channel performed the on operation. Now we have to hold a channel key to do that. Crazy. And yet a remote can't be more complex than an iPod: how can we possibly need more than MENU to one of the major functions (TV/DVD/AV); scroll through a list of channels and play/pause/fwd/back for the DVD? ON/OFF+MENU+EXIT+Touch sense scroll+Back+[Play/Pause]+Fwd? They should be just standardised, it'd be easy.
Julian Skidmore, Manchester, UK

I used to struggle with RSI, and I found that something as simple as changing the height of your chair at work really makes a difference. I also use an "ergonomic" keyboard, and though it took a little getting used to it's certainly a lot easier on the wrists. Another useful trick for people who use computers a lot at work and at home is to learn to use your mouse effectively with your off-hand. I'm right-handed, but when I'm at work I use my mouse left-handed. This helps to change the movements that each hand is making around a bit, which I've found has a dramatic impact on helping to reduce the effect of RSI. It's also surprisingly easy - I'm almost as at home using my mouse left-handed now as I am using it right-handed, which for me is a big achievement - I can barely unlock a door with my left hand.
Michael, Maidstone, UK

I've never understood the fuss about the old cardboard milk cartons - they are the simplest things in the world to open. Fold apart, pinch, and pull forward again. Forms a perfect pouring spout and it's easy to reseal. Unlike the new plastic alternative which dribbles everywhere. Alternatively, the best option of all is the glass milk bottle with foil top - reusable and recyclable as well as being easy to operate.
Adrian Bell, Cirencester, UK

Funny that one of the most commonly used objects at work and home, the keyboard, is still based on an arrangement of letters that was deliberately designed to be as unergonomic as possible to stop keys jamming. And cars and roads are the width they are because this was the width of Roman chariots and Roman roads. Once a design sticks, it sticks.
Athos Athanasiou, London

As a design maker I've used ergonomics whenever possible. This is far more than just a science - it is also an art. I was surprised to find how few colleges and even lecturers had heard of ergonomics, let alone used it.
Bertie Somme, Molde, Norway

If the car manufacturers put so much effort into the ergonomics of their products, then I'm afraid from my perspective as a taller-than-average person they've failed miserably. I have lost count of the models I've walked away from because I simply can't fit in them. Everything from large British made executive luxury saloons through Continental small cars to Japanese sports cars have had my head jammed against the headlining, my knees jammed against the steering wheel or grotesquely inflated centre console at some time or other. Why do designers imagine that a car has to be made cramped to be considered sporty? Sorry lads, if I can't fit then you lose the sale. A few manufacturers manage it, why can't the rest?
John W List, Oxford, UK

I have worked in Silicon Valley for several companies as a quality assurance engineer and as a human factors designer/advocate. I love the third generation ergonomic "Natural Pro" keyboard that Microsoft used to sell. I work in different countries now, such as Afghanistan and Bosnia, always taking one of my keyboards along. Sometimes the keyboard does die, sometimes I leave it behind because I don't have the space in my bag. So, I have been buying the same keyboard on eBay so that I never have to learn a different keyboard layout and not have to change my hand position to a less comfortable position or reach (for key combinations). Think ergonomics!
Sheldon Dunn, Germany

There seems to me to be a big difference between ergonomically designed products and products designed as "ergonomic". My mouse is ergonomic in that it is comfortable to use, but it cost £4. Recent H&S nonsense means you can now effectively force your employer to buy you an "ergonomic mouse" at great expense - just cite RSI. When there is no money to buy new hardware, just say you need new hardware for health reasons and Boom! A new "ergonomic" system is delivered.
Phil Taylor, Edinburgh

As tall objects with a high centre of gravity don't do very well going round corners, wouldn't it be wonderful if someone could design a universal liquids container (milk, wine, bleach, etc) that doesn't instantly fall over in the car when you drive off after you've been shopping? That's real ergonomics. Maybe it's the last major challenge in physics (after finding the Higgs, of course).
Ian King, London UK



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