Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Bicycle ergonomics

I've been getting back on my bike lately, after a long absence that I'd like to say was enforced through some sort of heroic injury, but it's really just down to laziness. Anyway, it's been getting me thinking about the ergonomics of my bike, and bicycles in general. Apart from the obvious pain in the bummular region when you've been out of the saddle for a while, there are other physical and cognitive ergonomics issues on your bike that can impact on safety, efficiency, and satisfaction.

First up, let's look at the handlebars – a company called Ergon position themselves as specialising in bike ergonomics, with their flagship product being a range of ergonomic bar grips. The "anatomically optimised grip shape" is designed to relieve pressure on the ulnar nerves in the wrist, reducing pain and numbness by, it seems, supporting the heel of the hand. In my experience, and I'll agree that this is an unscientific sample size of one, I've never found this to be an issue. Possibly a cheaper and simpler alternative, as recommended to me by a keen cycling colleague I used to share an office with, is to adjust the standard setup of the brake levers that bikes are often sold with. Rather than having them at the horizontal (i.e., parallel to the ground), just droop them a bit for a more neutral hand position, eliminating the unnatural dorsiflexion which the standard setup enforces. I don't want to take too much away from Ergon's bar grips - I'd like to be clear that I haven't reviewed the evidence myself, and although I have a bugbear about claims of 'ergonomically designed' products, these guys seem to have a bit more credence than most.

On the cognitive side, I recently read Richard Guise's enjoyable and laid back novel, 'From the Mull to the Cape', charting his bicycle travelogue up the West Coast of Scotland. I was enthused to find that he'd picked up on an ergonomic issue with the gear levers on the handlebars – an issue I wholeheartedly agree with, having experienced it on my own Shimano set. There is inconsistency between the switches for the front and rear mech, which are controlled by levers on the left and right handlebar respectively. On the left, a flick of the thumb lever will take you up a gear, while the opposing lever takes you down; on the right, this arrangement is reversed. It sounds trivial, and if I understood the mechanics I'm sure there'd be a very good technical reason for it being this way. But from the user's perspective, it does make you think harder than you probably need to – and, even after much experience on the bike, this still confuses me from time to time (I even had to check my bike to make sure I had it the right way around before posting this).

Next up is the LightLane virtual bike lane, an innovative laser light mounted on your bicycle, which projects your own personal bike lane around you while you ride. It looks good, but I think the jury's out on its effectiveness. Potential ergonomic issues include drivers' perceptions as they approach you – this being quite an unusual product at present, and so they might not know what they're dealing with. Perhaps more insidiously, I've read comments on biking forums that cycle lanes actually serve to marginalise cyclists as 'non-traffic', creating a false sense of security and almost ratifying some drivers' attitudes of only giving cyclists the room they've been allocated (which is often less than they might otherwise allow if they were sharing the same tarmac).

Finally, something of a plea for my own personal ergonomics, now that I am back on my bike. Until our British weather finally sorts itself out – if anyone can recommend me a decent, windproof, breathable and high-visibility soft shell (most of my commuting is on-road), I'd be a much safer, more comfortable, and, I'm sure, efficient rider. As for the pain in the rear, I'll just ride it out thanks.

Friday, 15 January 2010

Driver distractons - the next generation

Hot on the heels (well, at least warm on the heels) of my last post about texting and driving, news from the Consumer Electronics Show in Vegas is that Ford is blazing a trail with a whole new raft of potentially distracting technologies.  "MyFord" essentially offers mobile phone apps through the car using wifi or 3G technology.

I don't need to go into detail about why this might be bad - partly because I don't want to invite trouble (at least until we get the libel reform through), but mainly because the points have been well made elsewhere.  In this article, parallels are drawn with the mobile phone problem, which we already know so much about.  Meanwhile, the Consumer Reports Blog makes some excellent points about how MyFord has been designed according to principles learned from household and consumer products.  But, and I'll quote, "should portable electronics and home appliances really be the benchmark for automotive interface design?"

In all fairness, I haven't even seen the interface myself, so I'm just speculating, and I could therefore add a little balance to the argument.  Perhaps, if the interface is well designed, it might reduce distraction by bringing all the drivers' in-car infotainment interactions in one place.  The ergonomic view argues that an integrated interface is better than lots of disparate systems dotted all over the car, vying for attention with their bells and whistles.  And if, as we might as well accept, drivers aren't going to stop using their phones and will invariably bring other nomadic devices into the car, maybe it's better that we have a bit of control over that and design it into the car?

Probably this is clutching at straws.  But who am I to say - we should let the research sort it out.  And for that, maybe we should thank Ford for putting more research opportunities out there...

Monday, 4 January 2010

Texting while driving

Okay, so I'm catching up on stuff after the Christmas break, but this is one paper that's made quite a splash - I'm certainly not the first to be blogging about it.  The latest issue of the journal Human Factors features a paper by Frank Drews and colleagues which, I gather, is the first peer-reviewed study on the effects of texting on driver performance.

As you might expect, texting and driving is bad.  Worse, in fact, than talking on the phone - and we already know that's bad enough, having been equated to serious drink-driving.  Texting slows brake reactions, impairs longitudinal and lateral control, and increases crash risk.

The study has already attracted some critcism for only involving young drivers - but I'd say that if young people can't text and drive, then the effects would be worse for older drivers.  The research will, I'm sure, be done in time, and this paper will no doubt become very heavily cited.

One other implication in the media coverage which concerns me is the potential for this to drown the effects of talking on the phone while driving - some of the articles I've seen are spun to suggest that because texting is so bad, phoning isn't so bad after all.  We (as a community) need to make sure that we don't forget how bad phoning and driving is - whether handheld or hands-free.

Surprisingly, you can download this paper for free here - though how long this will be available I don't know.

Review of the decade

At the end of every year, there always seems to be a contagion of top 10 (or 100, or 1000) lists in the media reviewing the previous 12 months - usually on TV, featuring various rent-a-quote nonentities.  Naturally, at the end of 2009, there were even more of these to ensure we'd covered the last 10 years.  However, a couple of websites have caught my eye as they've been reviewing the technological progress in the 'noughties'.

I must have a short memory, as I was quite surprised to see just how many gadgets that we now take for granted are less than a decade old.  The iPod and iPhone, Freeview and flatscreen TVs, and more recently the Kindle and other e-book readers have all been born since 2000.  Perhaps with even more impact, the rise of the social web started in 2000 with the launch of Friends Reunited.

Obviously I'm interested in the human-centred design implications of such advances.  It all serves to reinforce my long-held conviction that with the world getting more technological, the implications for cognitive ergonomics are ever more significant.  I'm sure I said somewhere that the 21st century is the century of the user...