Friday, 26 June 2009

Armchair ergonomists

I’ve been to a couple of events this week that have inspired me to think more about how to engage a wider public with ergonomics and human-centred design issues.

The first was the British Science Association’s Science Communication Conference, an excellent event with a star-studded list of presenters, including Lord Professor Robert Winston, Professor Kathy Sykes, and Professor Jim Al-Khalili. One of the key principles of this whole area is that we (as scientists) don’t just sit in our ivory towers and assume everyone’s stupid and that we have to teach them. Science Communication is a two-way process, and actually most (non-scientist) people are starting from a baseline with a bit of knowledge about a lot of things.

This is something I think wholeheartedly applies to ergonomics. In fact, most people are amateur ergonomists – everyone knows, on some level, when they’ve used a product or system that has been well (or badly) designed. A lot of them would have a good idea of how they want it fixed, too. I mean, that’s the whole point, isn’t it? A human-centred design process starts with identifying the users’ needs, and who best to tell us about them? So the only problem, as far as I see it, is that these amateur ergonomists just don’t call it ergonomics – and consequently might not think to turn to ‘professional’ ergonomists or The Ergonomics Society.

And that brings me onto my second point – which was inspired by discussions at The Ergonomics Society’s awayday, where Council met up to discuss our vision and strategy for the future. The old ‘ergonomically designed product’ chestnut was rolled out (which I’ve blogged on before – and will come back to later), and that set my train of thought off on armchair ergonomists again. Because it’s about understanding what ergonomics is really about – so not only are people sometimes acting as ergonomists without knowing it, they’re also being sold a perception of ergonomics which is inaccurate.

There’s a great little anecdote from our experience at Cheltenham which illustrates this nicely. I got talking to a little girl and her family about our stand and what ergonomics is all about, and they told me a story about a design exercise the girl did at school recently, to design a pencil that’s easier to use for people. She explained how she made it slightly bigger so it’s easier to hold, shaped for the hand, and grip areas for the fingers. I told her she was being an ergonomist without even realising it! The best bit was that she refrained from just putting a bit of rubber on the pencil…

No comments:

Post a Comment