I'm Not a Robot: How to Design for Humans
If you’ve ever worked in an office, you’ve probably heard of and possibly experienced RSI. RSI refers to Repetitive Strain Injury and, as the name suggests, it’s generally caused by performing repetitive tasks or maintaining an unnatural posture for a prolonged period. It can result in anything from mild discomfort to severe pain, throbbing and cramps. One form of RSI that’s particularly damaging is Carpal Tunnel Syndrome, caused when nerves in the wrist become compressed due to frequent bending.
RSI can be quite serious and can even result in chronic injury if left untreated. But the good news is that it can be prevented through good design.
Ergonomics basically refers to the physical interaction between a person and the product they’re using. Understanding and considering ergonomic principles is important in order to create products that are comfortable and enjoyable to use. Many in-depth studies have been carried out, but for me there are three stand-out things to consider.
Neutral Body Position
The Neutral Body Position (NBP) was first developed by NASA during the mid 70s when twelve crew members on board the Skylab space station were photographed and measured while relaxing in the zero-gravity environment. This demonstrated that a relaxed human body, free of any external forces, automatically assumes a certain posture, and the natural angles made by the joints and limbs were subsequently recorded.
Essentially, a neutral body position places the least possible stress on joints and muscles. NASA went on to conduct more testing and the resulting data is now used to design ergonomic car interiors and much more. Designing products around a neutral body position allows the body to function in the most comfortable and natural way, just as nature intended.
Anthropometrics refers to measurement of the human body.
People come in all shapes and sizes. A product that’s perfectly suited to my hand size and shape, may be completely wrong for yours. An anthropometric study involves the systematic measurement of various parts of the human body across a suitably wide range of the population. The resulting data is usually presented by percentile. For example, a hand length shown against the 95th percentile would mean that 95% of the measured subjects had a hand length the same or less than that measurement, while a measurement shown against the 25th percentile would mean that 25% of the subjects measured had a hand length the same or less, and so forth. This data is incredibly valuable and can be used to ensure that the widest possible cross-section of users can comfortably use a product.
Method of Use
It’s important to consider how people will use the product. Having designed many control panels and electronic interfaces in the past, I know that user testing inevitably throws up curve balls and things you didn’t expect. The way I instinctively hold a new tool, or interact with a control panel may be quite different to the way someone else would naturally interact with it. So, user-testing is very important, and preferably as early as possible. Testing of a relevant population sample, allows you to see how people actually use the product – it may not be the same way you would use it and, inevitably, you’ll end up discovering something unexpected.
To avoid RSI, it’s best to use larger muscles and bigger movements, rather than smaller muscles and fine movements, so that’s ideally what you should be aiming for wherever possible.
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