Why designers should pay more attention to ergonomic issues

Paul Boughton

Far from being unimportant compared with a product or machine's function, good ergonomics can deliver a number of business benefits. Jon Severn discussed the need for good ergonomics with Gary Davis, a qualified ergonomist and industrial designer, a fellow of the Ergonomics Society, a Registered European Ergonomist, and founder of Davis Associates in 1986.

Nobody sets out to design a product or machine that is ineffective, inefficient or unsafe. If asked, therefore, most designers would say that they take usability into account as part of the design process. However, it is often true that ergonomics (or human factors) considerations are restricted to the designer applying his or her common sense, or organising usability trials far too late to influence the design before it is released for manufacture.

Of course, there are many designers and manufacturing companies that take a far more enlightened view of ergonomics, treating it as something that can add significantly to the value of a product - or service or environment. When asked what can benefit from ergonomics, Gary Davis, the managing director of Davis Associates, a UK-based ergonomics design consultancy, replies: "Virtually any product, system, service or environment. There are obvious examples, such as seating, remote control handsets, plant control rooms and websites, but almost anything with an element of human interaction can benefit - for instance, mass rapid transit vehicles and buildings through which people must navigate. Often people do not appreciate that ergonomics is as much about cognitive behaviour and psychology as it is about physical interaction" (Fig.1)

Given that ergonomics is so widely applicable, there are many reasons why Davis believes that designers should be paying more attention to ergonomics: "We have a changing demographic; by the year 2020 half the adults in the UK will be aged 50 or over and the number of older people in the world will double to 1.2 billion by 2028. Inclusive design, in which products and services are usable by the widest possible range of people, therefore provides access to an expanding market" (Fig.2).

Interestingly, Davis is finding that among those product manufacturers that give due consideration to ergonomics, the motivation is changing: "Previously we had to fight to sell the idea of applying ergonomics to improve usability, but now usability is considered to be a minimum requirement and the requirement is to make a product more pleasurable to use and to give it the 'wow!' factor. Ergonomics is becoming recognised as something that can create a commercial advantage" (Fig.3).

Regulations and standards

Other trends that should cause designers to reassess their view of ergonomics include pressure from legislators, which manifests as regulations and supporting standards (for example, ISO11064 Ergonomic design of control centres). This is due partly to stronger promotion of equality (one example being the EU Equal Treatment Framework Directive 2000/78/EC) and a better appreciation of the way in which ergonomics can influence safety (for example, the new EU Machinery Directive 2006/42/EC places a much greater emphasis on ergonomics than its predecessor). In addition, manufacturers of products and machinery are aware that they are operating in an increasingly litigious society, which acts as an incentive to design-out the possibility of human error. Certain industries, such as the railways, also have their own standards to reduce the risks specific to those industries.

Davis also highlights another reason why companies have been taking a greater interest in ergonomics in recent years: "Increasingly, as brand values have become highly valued, ergonomics is a good way to protect a brand or strengthen it. If your products gain a reputation for being user-friendly, this can become important in markets where product differentiation is otherwise difficult." Conversely, the relatively new phenomenon of websites providing consumers with the opportunity to review products can damage brands if products are found to be unsatisfactory.

To illustrate the way in which ergonomics can be used to enhance a brand, Davis outlines a project in which his consultancy is currently involved: "A manufacturer of liquid detergent wants the optimum design of handle for large bottles. We used rapid prototyping to create 80 different models, which volunteers tested with weighted bottles to help narrow down the choice and progress the project. The final handle is likely to be larger than people are used to seeing, so the industrial designers need to work around this while creating the bottle form and labelling."

Business benefits

Aside from reacting to the market trends mentioned above, there are several other reasons why designers should take more account of ergonomics - and why they should do so early on and throughout the product development cycle. We have already alluded to the potential for increased sales and the longer-term value added to the brand, but there are other business benefits that are less obvious. Davis cites the main ones as follows: "If you consider ergonomics from the outset, you are less likely to have to make last-minute design changes; in a typical product development programme there is a huge risk of leaving user trials until the pre-production prototype stage, but this risk can be reduced by considering ergonomics earlier. In addition, if products are intuitive and comfortable to use, this reduces the need to provide after-sales support, plus it helps to minimise the number of product returns and warranty claims."

For designers of machinery that will be used in a production environment, applying ergonomics to operator workstations can improve safety, reduce the opportunities for errors to be made, and raise productivity.

Quantifying the benefits of improved ergonomics can be difficult, but one area where this is done routinely is in website design, particularly for sales-orientated sites. Indeed, a specialist industry has evolved to improve website usability - which can be translated very rapidly into increased sales and, ultimately, profits that far outweigh the costs of the usability consultancy.

Elsewhere, of course, investing in ergonomics can reap rewards in the early stages of a project and at other points too - such as when alternative concepts are being assessed, and when pre-production units are available for user trials. Almost any level of ergonomics input can benefit a design, resulting in improved consumer satisfaction, appeal to a wider range of users, enhanced safety and so on.

Techniques and tools

One of the problems with applying ergonomics is that it is a specialist discipline. Large companies are likely to have in-house ergonomists, some design consultancies possess the necessary expertise, industrial designers probably studied ergonomics to some extent during their training, but most companies will need to rely on consultancies. Furthermore, ergonomics is very much a science, rather than an art, as Davis explains: "We have around 300 different tools and methods that we can apply, many of which are text book methods, while others we have developed ourselves. Part of the skill therefore lies in knowing what techniques to use at which points in a project."

Techniques can be categorised according to the phases of the project: research; interpret; resolve; and test and refine. Some are desk-based, others are computer-based, and the various techniques may or may not require users and/or physical models/products. A number of the techniques are applicable at all stages in the project, but others might be appropriate only for one phase of the product development cycle.

A technique that is often used is Task Analysis, in which user actions are analysed to identify the information required at various points in the operation, as well as the opportunities for things to go wrong. Another commonly used technique is User Observation, which may be with new products, existing products and sometimes competitor products.

With developments in computing power and software, computer-based tools are now gaining in popularity both with ergonomists and non-specialists. For example, anthropometric models and three-dimensional manikins are available, though it should be noted that much work can be done with two-dimensional data, especially if 3D physical mock-ups are to be used. Davis Associates also uses Macromedia Director, a multimedia authoring tool for creating interactive demos and simulations. Davis says: "This is a powerful package that enables us to create on-screen products, systems or environments with which users can interact well before any real artefacts exist. We have used Macromedia Director to, for example, simulate fully functioning mobile phones, ticketing systems, control consoles and mass rapid transport systems".

To gain an understanding of how users feel about a product, service or interaction, cognitive mapping can be very revealing. This identifies descriptive words that people use (for example, 'strong' or 'weak'), then these terms are presented in later evaluations so that people can allocate a score for strength or weakness.

Establishing how people feel about things can help in identifying latent needs, which are the needs that consumers are unaware that they have. Creating a new product or service to fulfil these latent needs can deliver a major commercial advantage because it places the company a step ahead of its competitors.

Few people would cite ergonomics as a way of identifying opportunities for innovation in products and services, but this illustrates the potential offered by the science of how humans interact with objects and their surroundings. Typically an ergonomist will be called upon to improve usability or enhance a product, system, service or environment, but designers and design managers need to appreciate that good ergonomics can make a substantial difference to the business. Remember, though, that to maximise the benefits within the time and budget available, ergonomics should be considered as an integral part of the design process, right from the earliest stages, and not just as an afterthought. Davis concludes with this quote from the principal psychologist at the Health and Safety Executive: "Human factors is not like a coat of paint. It cannot be added on at the end."

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