PD101 is our series on insights and advice into the less common elements of the Product Development Process. Today we talk Ergonomics.
“We’re developing a new type of pizza. And we want it to have the most ergonomic crust in the world….
“Ergonomic” is not the buzzword most marketing materials would quite often have you believe. But the way it is used could make you think otherwise.
As designers, we understand, and in fact study, Ergonomics and Anthropometrics. Over our careers, we develop a fine understanding of human and product interaction. Ergonomics specifically looks at the relationship between a product and its user. Similarly, anthropometry is the study of the body and its movements, statistically speaking, with regard to different populations. Both play an important role in product development and drive our design decisions. So we feel we have an ability, or perhaps even a duty, to set the record straight:
‘Ergonomic’ is not synonymous with ‘comfortable’.
Think of ergonomics like speed. Speed can be fast, or slow. “Fast” could mean 100 km/h, or 10,000 km/h. The same applies to ergonomics. You can have good ergo, or bad ergo. But you can’t just have ‘ergo’. It’s an easy word to throw around, but without context it doesn’t communicate any more than the fact we are talking about a human, interacting with a product, system, or element of a system.
When designing a handle, for example, there is not only anthropometric data to guide the size of that handle, but also it’s ergonomic learnings. Clearance, shape, comfort, orientation, positioning, to name a few. These intricacies come from developing and studying successful (and unsuccessful) designs over many years.
Let’s consider a “pistol grip” style handle on a drill. The handle isn’t elliptical in cross-section. Well, it shouldn’t be, anyway. It should be triangular-elliptical, or more precisely, a single-axis symmetrical oval. Like an egg. This is to do with the way the fingers wrap around the handle, where the knuckles fold, and where the palm of the hand sits.
Even more interestingly, the profile of this handle changes throughout its height. At the top of the handle, the narrow part of the “egg” shape is pointed rearward so to allow the forefinger to actuate the trigger. As we move down, the most subtle transition occurs – we invert the egg, and point it forward, so it sits tightly inside knuckles three and four, before transitioning and reversing once more to point forward at the base of the handle, providing comfort to the little finger and a flatter rest for the palm. We know – how crazy is that!
Are we speaking the same language?
The realities of this design is that it took dozens of iterations and tests to develop, to refine and adjust, to build, the perfect drill handle. So when we create a handle now, from our library of handles, we start very quickly with the right design. The learnings also carry through to other projects, different products, and different designs. That way, when we are briefed to ensure we create an ergonomic whatever-it-may-be, we always seek to understand the client’s interpretation of ergonomic. For some, it means “I can use it without discomfort.” For others it means “It’s the most comfortable thing I’ve ever used, I don’t want to put it down. It’s better than every other competitor out there.”
Clearly one is simpler and quicker to develop, but I know which one I’d strive to have.
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