Bureau of Ergonomics | What is Ergonomics?
Thursday, September 27th, 2012
Illustration by Luke Williams
Rob Tannen is an expert in designing products and interfaces that best fit our cognitive and physical capabilities. He is the director of research and interaction design at Bresslergroup, a product development firm in Philadelphia. He holds a PhD in human factors and is a Certified Professional Ergonomist. designingforhumans.com
Q What really makes a product “ergonomic”?
“Ergonomic” is a term that gets thrown around a lot these days. Like the old pornography adage, most people don’t have a clear definition of what makes a product “ergonomic”but they know it when they see it…or rather, feel it. The actual definition of ergonomic means something that is designed to maximize fit and comfort for more effective use. Often the strongest associations we have with a brand, whether it’s a car or a toothbrush, stem from our physical interactions with the design. Ironically, products that market themselves as ergonomic are often not ergonomic at all, and frequently substitute physical fit with more visible features (such as grips or ribbing) that provide little value.
There are measurable scientific parameters that can be used to evaluate how well a product fits, with a slight variance from person to person. Next time you’re purchasing a product, think about these fundamental characteristics.
• Strength This is what ergonomically separates a laptop from a desktop computer. For a portable product, ask yourself: Will this be too heavy to carry around all day? Does this require more force to set up or operate than I am comfortable with?
• Reach Think of trying to get that mustard at the back of the fridge. How much do I need to extend or stretch my limbs to access or use a product?
• Clearance Airline seats are the biggest offender in this category for their notoriously poor clearance. Is there enough room in my environment for both the product to work and myself to work effectively?
• Posture This could be a concern, even if it’s just your hand or fingers that are contorting and not your whole body, like trying to remove batteries from a toy. Consider: Will using this product require me to bend excessively?
Keep in mind that several of these factors will usually occur simultaneously when a product is truly “ergonomic.”
Q I’ve heard that with today’s texting generation, we’re all going to need finger and thumb joint replacements by the time we’re 60. Is this true?
Texting is just the latest in the recent history of demonized repetitive motion activities that were supposed to damage our bodies (for other examples, see the hula hoop, video games, and masturbation). Yes, texting too much can lead to muscle fatigue and possibly injury, but so can practicing the violin. The human body is highly adaptable and recovers quickly with moderation and rest. Good advice is to limit texting by taking breaks, vary which fingers you use, and stopping for a while if it hurts. Besides, if you really text that much, it’s more likely that you’ll walk into an open manhole before your joints wear out.