The New Ergonomics

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

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While overreliance on outdated data is dangerous, so is being too enthusiastic to adopt new research. Studies have shown, for instance, that sedentary work has longterm negative effects on our bodies. But in their enthusiasm for dynamic workspaces, designers have found solutions that either have very limited application, or, frankly, border on the absurd. “Things like the treadmill desk seem to make sense on one level,” Hedge says. “But they have been shown to have a detrimental effect on work performance, and also potentially pose a safety hazard for people who forget to walk.” Ultimately, the wisest solutions acknowledge that no one solution is perfect: The Norwegian furniture designer Peter Opsvik, who pioneered the idea of active furniture, used to say that the best posture was the next posture.

These ideas of pervasive technology and active work-places are fine goals for a fit, young workforce; they might prove more challenging as we inevitably age. This, as we have been warned time and again, is an urgent problem. In 2010, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated that one in five workers is over the age of 55; in 2020 the figure will be one in four workers. And that doesn’t just mean older desk jockeys learning to use Skype on an iPad. It will eventually mean, say, woodworkers of all ages operating computer-controlled machinery, factory workers of different abilities using smart interfaces on increasingly automated shop floors, and let’s not forget, older citizens navigating spaces where everyone is distracted by what they’re seeing with their Google Glass.

Illustration courtesy Katherine Miyake

It’s an incredible stack of challenges. “How can we design places that accommodate these different generations, and how can we design places that we don’t base on technology, because that technology is going to change so rapidly?” Hedge asks. Nova believes we must start by breaking down the silo between software designers and hardware designers and start studying new patterns of behavior. Smith suggests that specialists from many related fields—psychologists, sociologists, even archaeologists—must bring their expertise to bear on the field of human factors, to help us understand why we behave the way we do. But ultimately, both of these initiatives will need to be infused with the rigor of older anthropometric studies. In Dreyfussian terms, we need to take the measure of digital human beings of all ages and abilities.

Illustration courtesy Katherine Miyake

In doing this, we must not forget that we also live in the age of instant gratification. “Simple is not so simple, from a design standpoint,” Puleio says. “We’re putting a lot of our effort and development dollars into passive technologies—an example of that would be a chair that has a self-adjusting recline mechanism.” Convenience is key, especially as work spaces grow less formal, or move out of the office entirely. People are less and less likely to put bulky task chairs in their homes, where they might actually be doing as much work as in the office. But they are also less likely to invest time in learning to use products properly—an old complaint of ergonomists who were constantly exhorting us to sit straighter or rest our hands elsewhere. In an age where I download a new operating system for my phone and expect to immediately know how to use it, I have no patience for anything that doesn’t feel intuitively comfortable.

It’s obviously time to forget the crazy shapes of the keyboard supports of the early 1990s, as well as the knob-and-lever-operated sitting machines of the turn of the millennium. But our blandly cuboidal devices of today may not be the best idea for our bodies. We must apply Occam’s razor to ergonomic design. The creative breakthrough in the field will ultimately be when designers can bring the greatest comfort to the maximum number of people, in a variety of situations, in the simplest way possible. That was always the basic tenet of human-centered design, and one we would do well to recall in these tech-fetishistic days.

My Starbucks problem, of course, is still not solved. I’m tired of deciding whether the banquettes (deep low seats that force me to sit on the edge and lean forward) or the bar stools (high seats that have me slouching) will ultimately cause me less pain. So I decided to turn to the Internet. Lo and behold, the physical therapist Steve Meagher had a very helpful YouTube video on how I should sit on a pillow and prop my laptop on a ring binder to turn any old work surface into a comfortable environment. That works, for now. So until industrial designers, interface designers, HCI specialists, and ergonomists get their act together for this millennium, I will be reduced to carrying a pillow and a binder to the coffee shop. 

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