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Ergonomics

Part 1:
Are Computers Friendly To Homo Sapiens?

by Bill Lauritzen

I have a master's degree in ergonomics from Purdue University, and was trained there by Dr. McCormick, who helped to start the field during WW2. While in the Air Force, I worked in the cockpits of jet aircraft to make them easy to use. If they aren’t designed well, then pilots can push the "bombs away" button instead of the air conditioning button.

Recently, I had to help my mother with her e-tower, 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 that should be accompanied by tears and anger.

If you don’t know what ergonomics is, I will give you a quick and dirty idea right now. It is designing machines, or any type of human-made device or tool, so that they are easy to use by Homo sapiens.

I say Homo sapiens, because that emphasizes the fact that we have evolved, over who knows how many billions of years, from single-celled organisms to what we are today. 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, kneeling, touching, manipulating, grasping, throwing, and gathering.

Any human-made device can be user-friendly 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. 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. The only non-manufactured things that some people touch during the day, if they are lucky, are a pet, or another human being, in the form of a handshake, hug, or, if they are really lucky, something even more intimate.

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

Perhaps some of this alienation is felt acutely by mail bombers, and by some school kids as they sit for 5 hours a day in a box and stare at tiny markings that are 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 technology, the answer is to make that technology 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. (Until traffic engineers note the frequency and make changes.)

On a more mundane level, whenever I walk into a library I am continually amazed at the poorly designed signs and maps that are supposed to make it easy for you to find books. If those same quality of signs were used for the freeways, we’d have big problems. As it is, we have just lost man-hours and perhaps lost knowledge.

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 friendly, or adjusted to the design capabilities of Homo sapiens (assuming they have a good product otherwise), will be the company that survives and prospers.