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What is Ergonomics?

Ergonomics is the study of people in their working environment. The word comes from the Greek: Ergon =Work + Nomos = Natural law. But studying the problem only takes you half way, so in practice, ergonomics is about improving the fit between people and their 'working' environment. Or at least that was the original idea, but we now live in such a technology rich environment that ergonomics has to cover a lot more than when we are ’working’.

The human body and mind took hundreds of thousands of years to evolve, and we can't change them very easily. Technological products are designed and created much more quickly. You might expect people to design them around the needs and limitations of their human users. Products designed with their users' tasks in mind are easy to use, but sadly many products aren’t.

Whose fault is it?

Ergonomics provides the knowledge and the techniques to get things right, but it can only do so if those involved with creating the product make use of that knowledge. Those of us who use the products need to raise our expectations if we expect manufacturers take notice. Products don't have to be hard to use. They can be designed properly. But if we buy poorly designed products and don't complain, then there is little incentive for anyone to design them properly.

Most people only think of ergonomics as being related to things like keyboards and office chairs, or maybe to the design of hand tools, but has much broader application. At one end of the scale there are experts in bio-mechanics, concerned with how the body responds to the demands put on it, whether the body is sitting in an office or in a jet fighter, lifting parcels or patients, or performing extreme sports. At the other end of the scale, there are experts in organisational psychology concerned with how people interact with each other, and how things like leadership and safety culture affect their behaviour and performance. In between are experts in a lot of other things: equipment design, work and task design, teamwork and procedures, and there are specialists with expertise in areas like human performance, cognitive processes, human error and human reliability. What they all share in common is a concern for how people interact with, and are affected by, the rest of the complex systems of which they find themselves being a part.

See for yourself

The world is full of examples of good and bad ergonomics. Many are so obvious that even a non expert can learn to spot them.

Designers don’t deliberately make things hard to use. They usually want to make the product better, but they might have been trying to do something else, which you might not need but which seemed a good idea to them. Things that make designers excited aren't always the things that will make a product easy for you to use. So when you meet a design that doesn’t work for you, try to work out what the designer was really trying to achieve – it can be a fascinating guessing game.

To err is human

As humans, we are inherently error prone, but well designed products and systems make it easier for us to avoid the errors, and also easier to spot and correct errors when they do occur. Alphonse Chapanis once paraphrased the old saying as: "To err is human, to forgive design".

Some interesting facts (circa 1999)

There's nowt so queer as folk

One of the things you come to appreciate as an ergonomist is the truth of this old saying. It even applies to what we call ourselves. In some industries 'Ergonomics' dominates and in others 'Human Factors'. Even worse, in industries like transport and defence, where 'Human Factors' is the prevailing term for the overall discipline, some people think of ergonomics as being restricted to the physical aspects of how people interact with controls, seating, and so on. It doesn't help that the discipline has such a broad span, embracing everything from bio-mechanics and musculo-skeletal disorders at one end to cognitive processes and social structures at the other. Human beings are very complex, so it isn't surprising that Human Factors (or Ergonomics) is such a broad discipline.

In 2009, The Ergonomics Society, which had been formed 60 years earlier in 1949, acknowledged this diversity by renaming itself the Institute of Ergonomics and Human Factors (IEHF) .

Good and bad examples

 You don't need to be an expert to find good examples of ergonomics in everyday objects, as well as designs which clearly ignored ergonomics. See Everyday ergonomics .

A 'car park from hell'

This was a very public saga of poor ergonomics that ran for many years before I took a serious interest in it and tried to get things changed. Read all about it .

Find out more

For very good introductions to ergonomics, look at  What is Ergonomics  or at  ergonomics4schools  .

The Institute of Ergonomics & Human Factors  is the UK professional body of ergonomists.

I work for Hu-Tech , an ergonomics consultancy.

See also   my talk about ergonomics

Some manufacturers include ergonomic information on their web site, for example this US office furniture supplier has a lot of information on office ergonomics.

The HSE has guidance about many aspects of ergonomics in industrial workplaces .

There are some graphic descriptions of Six Disasters Caused by Poorly Designed User Interfaces 

Copyright © 1999 - 2012 John Harrison

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