Why include ergonomics in a design?
Ergonomics is often seen as something that is “nice to have” rather than an essential part of a design process. Usually, when I see clients who have employees suffering musculoskeletal problems it is because there’s been no thought given to the usability of the workstation at the design stage. Or something about it has changed and not added in the best way. Looking at the ergonomics or usability after a new workplace is in use can be costly.
Why usability is just as important as aesthetics
One of the cases that I will always remember clearly was working with a clothing retailer who had had very beautiful new cash desks designed and put into their flagship stores.
The counters had glass surfaces and had been designed to be kept clear. Staff were supposed to use them to fold and pack purchases for customers. The designer had decided that the whole computer system would be hidden from customer’s view, so as not to be distracting, under the counter top.
It looked great. Of course it did! It was an aluminum, glass and grey counter. There was no clutter. It was spotless. All the equipment was tidily on shelves and out of the way. There were no obstructions between staff and customers. Unfortunately, in the first weeks of using the slick new counters there were complaints from the staff using them. And complaints kept on coming. There were sore backs, sore necks, sore shoulders and aches and pains.
Correctly identifying ergonomics problems
The retailer decided they’d better see what was causing the problem. Before it got worse. Or they ended up in court. They asked us to take a look. I went to a store to see what was going on. From an ergonomics perspective, it didn’t take long to figure it out.
The counter was low to begin with (35.4 inches) which would have been ok for folding and packing unless you were particularly tall. But having all the checkout equipment under the glass surface made things even worse. Trying to view the screen was undoubtedly causing the biggest problem. Because it was completely under the counter glass it had to be almost horizontal. This made things really difficult – it was too low and the glass over it had a lot of reflection from the store lighting above.
I spoke with the client while I was in the store and sent them a report reiterating my points. The counters had to be changed – there was no way to improve the usability with everything under the glass. Moving the screen and mouse up on to the counter – in the more traditional location was going to be the best way to address the staff problems. It would eliminate the reflections, place the screen where it could be more easily reached and – best of all, ergonomically speaking – allow different users to adjust the screen to where they wanted to use it.
Why usability is critical in the initial design process
Although the counter had met the original aesthetically pleasing design brief – it lacked usability; in a big way! The client ended up having to move the checkout equipment in stores where the counter was already rolled out, and have the counter redesigned for future rollouts. If the retailer had insisted that an ergonomist or usability expert be involved at the start of the project, working with the designer, time and money could have been saved. And the dissatisfaction of the staff could have been avoided.
The lesson here is that while the looks are undoubtedly important… it’s at least as important to make sure that the finished workstation is ergonomically correct too.