Thursday, 19 February 2009

Ergonomically designed!

The title says it all for the point of this post – the use of the phrase ‘ergonomically designed’ in adverts. It’s one of my big bugbears, and I’m sure it’ll crop up time and again in this blog. Typically associated with consumer products, what we usually find is that it’s got a rubberised grip or somesuch, but more often than not you could put safe money on there never having been an ergonomist within a hundred yards of it.

But if I’m taking issue over whether there’s been any ‘proper’ ergonomics on the product, I should say what it means to be ‘properly’ ergonomically designed. Really, it can be anything from a relatively small focus group or user testing trials, right the way through to structured scientific studies and full-on analyses. It all depends on the context (you might not want to spend a huge amount of money and time on a tape measure, but if it’s a complex safety-critical system you’ll probably be more inclined to invest in it), the key point being that it has been designed with users, or with users in mind.

The latest one I’ve seen is the JML ‘Ped-egg’, essentially a cheese grater but for getting dead skin off your feet (charming, of course). Halfway through the TV ad (which streams on their website) they show off how it’s ‘ergonomically designed’, with someone showcasing how it fits in their hand (ironically, their hand actually looks rather big for it).

Now, before the JML legal eagles come down on me, or I unknowingly upset the chief ergonomist at JML, I’m not necessarily saying this is a false claim - they may well have done some ‘proper’ ergonomics on it (make your own mind up). But, to step away from the Ped-egg and return to the general case, there are two things going on with this kind of advert. First, there’s the potential abuse of the term - it's like ‘knock-off ergonomics’. That’s not just us being precious as ergonomists - it's the kind of thing that can give the whole field a bad name, if such an ‘ergonomically designed’ product ends up giving someone RSI or something. All our hard work to convince people of the cost-benefit equation in ergonomics down the drain.

But on the other hand, there’s something of a silver lining here. For manufacturers to be making these claims in such a high-profile way suggests that they see it as adding value to their product. Ergonomics as a marketing tool - fancy that! Naturally I’m biased, but I think that should be the case for anything. Ergonomics should add value, and it should be a selling point - but only if it’s done properly.

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