Posts tagged “ergonomics”

Sexy Ergonomics

I was shopping for laptops recently, and was shocked by how difficult it was to find a reasonably priced model with a comfortable keyboard and trackpad, and a front edge that was wrist-friendly. The experience made me wonder why so little attention seemed to be being paid to such a fundamental aspect of the product.

Why don’t ergonomics have more sex appeal? Shouldn’t a well-designed physical interfacing of human and built object be one of the most valued aspects of design? While in truth ergonomics are interwoven (or should be) with aesthetics and materials, our excitement seems to gravitate towards how things look and feel, or cleverness of concept, rather than how well they work with us.

A quick read through this recent interview with Jonathan Ive on Core77 reveals a worshipful discussion of iPhone 4 materials.

It is this sort of materials obsession and constant experimentation that led to a decision to use scratch-resistant aluminosilicate glass for the front and back of the phone, as well as developing their own variant of stainless steel to edge the device.

I had to travel all the way back to 2007 to find someone talking specifically about a sexy merger of design and ergonomics/usability.

Is it that when ergonomics work, they are invisible? That they generally succeed by creating an absence of negative experience, but don’t extend into the realm of pleasure creation, where they might generate more attention?

Dieter Rams’ “weniger, aber besser (less, but better)” design philosophy – and indeed Jonathan Ive’s as well – heads in a similar direction – the absence of superfluous elements, but yet we still find it sexy.

Perhaps part of the picture is the lack of sex appeal that discussions of ergonomics tend to have. Is this an issue of professional culture? What is more important than objects that – never mind giving us pleasure – at the very least don’t injure us? Maybe that’s it – it’s too serious an aspect of design to engender the fun spirit we find in aesthetics?

The movie Waterworld (one of a handful of movies-most-people-think-are-bad that I like), while over the top and mostly quite silly, nicely illustrates the balletic relationship of person and object that good ergonomics make possible, as Kevin Costner’s character Mariner single-handedly sails and otherwise operates his boat throughout the film. The boat’s steampunk aesthetic won’t be for everyone, but it’s perfectly designed to work with the needs of its user, and to me there’s something really sexy about that.

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • Autom, a weight-loss robot coach – Autom's human qualities, if primitive, were an important factor in keeping 15 dieters motivated during a trial in the Boston area. Another 15 slimmers were given a computer with a touch screen running identical software to Autom's and 15 had a paper log. Each had to stick to a certain eating and exercise regime. The average time someone used the robot — almost 51 days — was nearly twice as long as with paper — almost 27 days — and 40 percent longer than with the computer. "Even if you have an animated character that looks exactly like Autom on the computer screen, you cannot have the same interaction as you can with an actual robot," Kidd says. Kidd says the fact that people were able to humanise Autom made the information it gave them seem more credible. Maya, Casper and Robbie were among the names users gave their robots. Some even dressed them in hats and scarves.
  • We’re Gonna Need A Bigger Boat [CBC News] – Companies working off Nova Scotia's coasts have been told to supersize their lifeboats to accommodate bigger workers. The current standard for lifeboats is based on a person weighing 165 pounds in a survival suit. The proposed standard is 220 pounds. "The reality is such that the workforce is considerably larger nowadays," said Dave Scratch, the regulator's chief safety officer. A lifeboat may be rated for 50 people, but that doesn't mean they all fit. "We've had a number of [exercises and drills] where they actually wouldn't. We found that most lifeboats had to be downsized just because people were larger and wouldn't fit in the allocated locations," said Scratch. The board is following the lead of the U.K., which adjusted safety regulations after a study found offshore workers are heavier now than 20 years ago.

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • Optimal Microwaving with Fitt's μλ-Number – I had an idea to blog about this myself, funny that someone else did. I try to enter microwave times that require minimal thought (or "mental operator" as they say in Fitt's Law): "2:22" is about as good as "2:00" when reheating and is provably faster. It obviously doesn't add a lot of time savings to your day, but it's been one of those little habits I've observed in myself. It's funny how math education, our money, and the way we tell time and structure our day conditions us to favor certain types of numbers, even when our interfaces don't.

ChittahChattah Quickies

  • Percival Everett's short story, “The Appropriation of Cultures” – This is the second story in this podcast and is an entertaining and powerful piece of fiction about the meaning of symbols and the power that we might seize to change that meaning. Culture jamming as narrative device, in other words.
  • Ethnography is not an in-home interview – Grant McCracken considers the emerging finger-pointing as Tesco doesn't do as well in the US as they had hoped. Was research (or rather, poor research) to blame? I share his concern about people going through the motions and claiming they've done the research. A prospective client asked us the other day why they would hire us as opposed to simply borrowing a video camera from his brother and dropping into some of their target offices. It's an important question because it reveals a common mindset. My short answer was that they should definitely do that, but that the expertise we are bringing includes (but is not limited to) the ability to plan and execute those interviews so you really do get to something new, and the process for analyzing and synthesizing that data so that we can identify what it means to them and what the opportunities are. Perhaps, as McCracken suggests, Tesco failed to do just that.
  • Standing/adjustable height work surfaces, long available in workplaces, are being tried out – with seeming success – in schools – Teachers in Minnesota and Wisconsin say they know from experience that the desks help give children the flexibility they need to expend energy and, at the same time, focus better on their work rather than focusing on how to keep still.

    “We’re talking about furniture here,” she said, “plain old furniture. If it’s that simple, if it turns out to have the positive impacts everyone hopes for, wouldn’t that be a wonderful thing?”


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