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Ergonomics

by Bill Lauritzen

Part 1:
Are Computers Friendly To Homo Sapiens?
1998

I have a master's degree in ergonomics from Purdue University, and was trained there by Dr. McCormick, who worked in the field during WW2. While in the Air Force, I helped design cockpits of jet aircraft. If they aren’t designed well, then pilots can push the wrong button which can be disastrous.

Recently, I had to help my mother with her computer, which my sister had bought for her for Christmas. I realized how far the computer industry has to go before it can claim any sort of user-friendly status. Getting set up with a computer should not be an event  accompanied by tears and anger.

Ergonomics is designing machines, or any type of  device or tool, so that they are easy to use by Homo sapiens.

I say Homo sapiens, because it emphasizes the fact that we have evolved, over millions of years. Although we certainly have individual differences, we also have many things in common.

We are not particularly adept at staring at a screen for hours on end, or deciphering relatively tiny markings on paper (reading), or even sitting in a chair. What we are good at is thinking, walking, running, jumping, looking, touching, manipulating, grasping, throwing, and gathering.

Any tool can be user-centered or not. In fact, in a modern city or town one can go through the entire day and not touch anything that has not been manufactured as a tool. A house, a cement side-walk, a car, a computer, a glass, a chair, a pencil or pen, a spoon, etc. are all man-made tools. The only non-manufactured things that many people touch during the day are a pet or another human being.

That’s why some people complain about modern technology. We have lost our connection to our original environment, where we gathered nuts, roots, apples, seeds, and scanned the horizon for predators and prey. We have been thrust, in the last 10,000 years, a mere blink of the evolutionary eye, into a new world, alien to our genetic background, brought on by the rise of agriculture and its resulting tools.

Perhaps some of this alienation is felt acutely by school children as they sit for 5 hours a day in a room often studying tiny markings  less than one thousandth as tall and one millionth as thick as they are.

With a computer, besides the frustration, there are back injuries, wrist injuries, eye glasses, frayed nerves, etc.

The answer is not to give up on tools, the answer is to make those tools as fitting to a human being as is feasibly possible. Yes, it costs more to design something well, so that humans can use it with ease and even joy, but the social costs of poor design may be much greater. One unreadable or poorly placed traffic sign, and the death toll starts to mount up.

When I walk into a library I am often amazed at the poorly designed signs and maps that are supposed to make it easy for me to find books.

With computers, despite attention over the last several decades, we still have devices that do not allow for a smooth and enjoyable encounter. Monitors, keyboards, mice, help menus, software, all have a long way to go. And the company that successfully makes these things user-centered--adjusted to the design capabilities of Homo sapiens (assuming they have a good product otherwise), will be the company that survives and prospers.