The New Ergonomics

In this age of ubiquitous computing, what exactly are we doing to our bodies?

(page 4 of 6)

Such awkward collisions of the digital and the physical show how ill-equipped designers are to deal with the range of possibilities that technology affords. This is because there is a deep divide between the skill sets they use to tackle each of the two realms. The designers of software and interfaces have relied on specialists in Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) to tell them how our eyes, fingertips, and brains process information, while industrial designers have traditionally turned to physical ergonomists for design guidelines and anthropometric data on how our limbs move and behave. These two things have rarely come together, partly because the design timelines are so different: “In the furniture world, it can take you several years to develop a product. In the digital world that’s the kiss of death,” Hedge says.

Illustration courtesy Katherine Miyake

But come together they must. Over the last two years, Bruce Smith, the design director at Steelcase, commissioned a series of studies for his company, getting researchers all over the world to document how people actually behaved in work and public spaces. “The second phase of the study included smartphones and tablets, and there we were able to see some profoundly different postures,” he says. These observations were consolidated into a set of nine postures that workers customarily adopt with their laptops and tablets, and ultimately fed into the design of Steelcase’s Gesture chair.

“I can’t sit here and say that it was terribly scientific,” Smith admits, but like Nova’s Curious Rituals project, the Steelcase study brought new, more contextual understanding to the field, and might shake designers out of their apathy around ergonomics. In the past, masters like Herman Miller’s Bill Stumpf and Humanscale’s Niels Diffrient transformed design through their understanding of human behavior, but for many other designers it still means looking up how long most people’s legs are and deciding how deep the seat of a chair should be. “We can’t apply the same methods and techniques of the traditional contract furniture industry, and expect different results,” Puleio says. “For instance, the desk height of 29.5 inches, which has been a standard in the furniture industry for at least the last four decades, correlates to the seated elbow height of a six-foot-four tall male. By default, work surface heights are much too high for much of our workforce.” This poses an additional problem in the digital age: “Monitors are getting so large that when they are placed on this standard desk height, they’re too high even in their lowest position,” he says.

continued on page 6

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