Ergonomics 101: Why Ergonomics Matter

Ergonomics matters, greatly. It’s spoken about by many people, all over the world. And yet, I find myself still coming across products where ergonomics were not factored into its design enough. Ergonomics has tremendous value and is a focus for Industrial Designers and human centered design. It impacts us every day, whether we know it or not. Every object we interact with has an ergonomic impact to us, the user. Whether consciously chosen or a result of other decisions, it’s important to recognize ergonomics and why it matters. We’ll go over what ergonomics is, key areas of focus, why it’s important, and the dangers of not thinking about ergonomics in product design.

What is Ergonomics?

The official definition of ergonomics is the science of fitting workplaces and workplace equipment to user needs. The aim of ergonomic design is increased efficiency and productivity and a reduction in users’ discomfort. While the official definition talks about work, designers can apply ergonomics to any product that interacts with a person. This includes things like opening a can of beans or holding a mug, everyday tasks, as well as less frequent tasks, such as a thermostat control. Ergonomics does squarely rest in the physical domain, but includes how we interact with a touch screen or keyboard and mouse.

Key Focus Points of Good Ergonomics

In order to have a product with the best ergonomics, four areas should be looked at. Doing this will attract buyers to your product. A great case study of this is the OXO, a huge reason they are on the map is because they focused so intensely on ergonomics of their products for their demographic. These focus points should include:

  • Comfort
  • Convenience
  • Ease of Use
  • Safety

Why Ergonomics Is Important in Product Design

Ergonomics play a large role in how well your product is accepted by the user, and whether it’s something they use over and over again. The key focus points we just mentioned are all reasons for someone to use a product or avoid it. These are key praise points for products when they get it right. When a person picks up or touches a product for the first time, it’s a first impression. You only get one and having a good one means more sales and happier customers.

Increased product safety always comes with better ergonomics. When a product is easy and intuitive to use people want to keep using it. Designing comfortable products makes the users life better. When ergonomics is a focus in product design, it means that the user and customer are also the focus of the design. Human centered design always produces products that are best for the user, and ergonomics is a huge part of this.

Issues With Ignoring Ergonomics – Example

There are so many examples that we could give. The best example that comes to mind was one given to me in design school. When the 3-mile island power plant had a partial meltdown, the control room played a large part of the problem.

The control room was not designed for ergonomics or safety, the indicator lights were on wall and the buttons to respond were on the other. That mean in the time it took you to walk across the room to make the adjustment based on the lights you saw, other lights could have changed, making your button choice wrong now. I’ve spoken with the people who went in and redesigned that control room and helped ensure power plants didn’t have that issue anymore, it was a huge undertaking with large studies done. It cost so much more to fix it than it would have to do it right the first time. Forgetting to think about something like that, or ignoring it, is costly.

That example shows the 3 biggest issues with ignoring ergonomics, safety, ease of use, and cost. People will use uncomfortable products if they do the job safely and well. Hazmat suites are a great example, not the most comfortable, but they do their job and provide safety.

Ignoring ergonomics impacts factory floors and other large spaces as well, driving efficiency and safety down and costs and pain up. Poor ergonomics can result in higher injury rates, slowing things down and increasing employee turnover. Ergonomics impacts spaces as well as the products and equipment in those spaces. Ignoring space ergonomics can be detrimental to any business.

And of course, ignoring ergonomics in products can also lead to customers not buying the product, or using it begrudgingly because it could have been designed better for them. That impact sometimes takes a while to appear but has huge repercussions.

Ergonomic Design Process

Industrial design, the main field for product design, has a strong focus on fit, form, and function, which includes ergonomics. This expertise is what typically drives good ergonomic design in products. The methodology of human centered designed, championed by most designers, includes ergonomics. Not in the sense of efficiency in the workplace, but more by the definition the above description.

The process required to incorporate ergonomics into product design takes additional research, testing, tools, and knowledge. Because of this additional cost, ergonomic design can be overlooked.

User testing, research, and feedback can be instrumental in making a product ergonomic. Using the product, having groups of people interact with the prototypes, and analyzing feedback is a successful method and is an entire area of expertise. Good prototyping is also key as a good prototype will get you better feedback.

Knowledge and expertise are important. Depending on the product involving experts in the human body can make a radically better design. There are specialists in both how the body is at rest and the body in motion, both are valuable.

To get the ergonomic product design right, it begins with the product owner being willing to invest in the best product possible. Next, you need a designer who understands ergonomics at least at a base level. After that, you to go through the testing and feedback process. Finally, you need to be willing to bring in specialists if needed who understand the ergonomics of what you are working with.

Tools in Ergonomic Design

The standard tools of a designer are a given. 3D modeling, sketching, foam models, form prototypes, function prototypes, and more. They are all used of course, but some additional tools can be useful. For some projects, biometric sensors are helpful, showing where force, pressure, or dimensional changes may happen. Another tool that can be useful is motion capture. This primarily helps with motion, of course, but has uses in more sedentary products, such as seeing sitting positions of someone in a chair. Using motion capture can help give designers a clearer understanding of what the exact motions are for a user. Combining this with prototype testing and feedback from user testers can create a large amount of valuable data.

In the world of spaces and larger machinery, other types of data are useful. Traffic flows, for example, are useful when designing products and components in traffic areas, such as railings, doors, etc. Knowing where people will go, what side they might prefer to use the rail on, etc., all provide a clearer picture to design the right pieces.

Get the Best Results

At the end of the day, product design should be about getting the best results possible. This varies based on what your goals are for the project, as will the use of ergonomic design process. Ergonomics always impacts us you just have a choice to be aware or let it happen haphazardly. Ignoring it is a choice too.

When products follow good ergonomic practices, the product improves. User experience, comfort, ease of use, safety, and productivity all increase with good ergonomic design. This leads to better products, better sales, cost savings for companies, and most importantly, happier, and safer people.

Make sure you consider the ergonomics of your product. Next time you use something at home, maybe you’ll notice more products that aren’t well designed and a few that are. Think about why. If you can come up with a better design, then maybe it’s worth pursuing. We at Peterman Design Firm always put emphasis on human centered design and want our products to be as ergonomic as possible. We do this because we enjoy using well designed products and never want someone to hate using a product we design.

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