Tuesday, June 13, 2006

Ergonomics and Industrial Design

Yes, yes, I know, yes another long time between posts. I've just been lazy and have had other things on my mind. I've been pondering some topics to blog about and something I heard on NPR told me I finally had to post.

So NPR had a profile of an industrial design legend named Viktor Schreckengost who is turning 100 next week. This man has designed so many things it's quite amazing that he's not a household name. One of the things he said while being interviewed is that he always thought from the user's perspective and how they would feel using one of his designs. That seems pretty obvious.

So it's funny that I was thinking about the same topic and was chatting with a friend about it just a few hours earlier in the day. I brought up the topic because I just got a new Apple Macbook. While it's a great little machine and I believe it's going to serve my needs very well, I realized within a couple of hours of taking it out of the box that there was an odd flaw with the physical design of the thing. Don't get me wrong, overall, they've done a great job combining good looks with a very useable design. But there are two things which, to me, are glaring mistakes.

The first is the most annoying since my wrists won't let me forget about it. While closed, the macbook looks so sleek it just brings a twinkle to your eye. Open it up and the keyboard looks funky, but it actually works quite well and is very comfortable. In fact, I like it a bit better than the MacBook Pro's keyboard. Anyways, the problem here is not the keyboard, it's the front edge of the machine. It's got a sharp edge which just digs into your wrists while you type. Not a good thing. This is not a matter of how I type, since I believe most people lay their wrists on the space directly in front of the keyboard. When you do this on a MacBook, your wrist just scrapes along this hard, sharp edge.

So if you see me sometime and the inside of my wrists look all raw and ready to bleed, don't worry, I haven't tried to slit my wrists, I've just been using my laptop.

So in Apple's attempts at creating a truly slick (literally) laptop, they didn't think about how the clean line of the front edge would affect a user's ergonomics. For a company that's lauded for its industrial design, that's a a huge mark against them. I haven't heard of any other complaints about this, but I'd be interested to learn about other people's experiences with this.

Ok, so moving on, the other problem with this laptop is the position of the lock receptacle. If you haven't used one of those Kensington Laptop Locks, you really ought to. I've been using them for so long, it's a no brainer for me. So when I take this laptop to work, I immediately lock it up so some random person walking by my cube can't just lift my shiny new money pit. Well, as soon as I put the MacBook on my desk, I immediately recognized something wrong with where the lock receptacle is...it's on the left side of the laptop, but it's the front most thing. Check out this photo. The lock receptacle is the little hole all the way on the right side (on the black MacBook). So the problem is that with the lock in, the cable for the lock (which runs to the back of my desk) covers up ALL of the ports. Dumb. So let's say I run my lock to the side of the my desk...in that case, the cable for the lock would be smack dab in the middle of my desk and block everything else. What if I run the lock over the front edge of my desk and underneath? Well then I've got a cable hitting my knees all day. No matter where I run the cable for the lock, it's gets in the way of something else.

Every PC I've seen has the lock receptacle as far back as possible. This makes sense since the lock is really the last thing you really need to be touching once you put it on. While using the computer, chances are you're going to want to plug in USB devices, a network cable, etc. Whenever I do this with my MacBook, I've gotta push the damned lock cable out of the way. How annoying. And by placing the lock reception all the way in the back, you can just run the cable to the back of your desk and it's out of the way and doesn't impede on your knees or anything else on your desk.

Now...I'm not saying this is the result of something thinking the lock receptacle look cool in this wierdo spot, but it's definitely a sign of someone not thinking about how people use laptop locks.

Of course, Apple has done a great job thinking about other day to day problems of laptop users, like the powr plug. The MacBook and MacBook Pro have a magnetic power plug which will come out if it's tugged too hard. Sure this might mean you lose power more often since the plug comes out, but it's better than the plug staying in and dragging the laptop off your desk and onto the floor when your dog runs by and snags the cord. Believe me, I've had several heart stopping moments when I've had to catch my laptop just as it teeters on the edge of my table since it was just dragged off the edge as my dogs ran by.

Ok, so I'm going to give Apple lots of credit for how well they design so many thing, but when they miss, they miss in ways that really annoy me.

Want more examples?

The Apple Keyboard...While the laptop keyboards are quite nice, the external keyboard looks so sweet, but it's something I really can't stand. Notice the curve on it? From an ergonomic perspective, it's actually the exact opposite of what it should do. They say that you should type in such a way that your hands & wrists sort of hang limp. The Apple keyboard makes you bend your wrists backwards. On top of that, the keystrokes are so long that you have to really punch at the keys to get them going. As a result of this, they make tons of noise too. And not the nice clicky-clicky noise that old school IBM terminals make, It's a really annoying noise. So the Apple keyboard is a definite loser from an ergonomic & user perspective. Looks cool, but looks only go so far.

One more example?

The Apple mouse. Sucks. Let's not worry about the single mouse button thing since the latest Mighty Mouse actually has two buttons, they're just technological buttons instead of a separate buttons. But look at this thing. It's so cool! That should be your first sign :) This geometric design is actually quite bad for your mouse hand. Again, looks very cool, but totally wrong from an ergonomic perspective.

So which external keyboard & mice do I like best?

Microsoft. Gotta love that wave keyboard...it really keeps your hands in the right spots. And the first generation ones actually let you hang your hands in the perfect position. If you've got one of those first generation ones, lemme know and I'll buy it from you :) I also like the nice mice they make, although I don't have a favorite. I'm sure Logitech makes very nice ergonomic mice also. Bottom line though is that Apple definitely doesn't know how to make them.

It's funny...Apple does a great job at user interface from a software perspective, but I've just gone into waaay too much detail about how badly they can miss on the hardware user interface. Apple certainly isn't the only company that misses on their hardware interface, but given how much Apple puts into how much better their products are than everyone else's, they really should address these things by thinking more about the ergonomics of these devices.

In the meantime, I'll go blot my bleeding wrists.

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