REDMOND, Wash., April 9, 2003 — Software developer, product manager, director of sales and marketing are all titles you would expect to find at Microsoft. But bump into an ergonomist at the water cooler? In the halls of the Microsoft Hardware division, it could happen.
As a product ergonomist and usability researcher, Hugh McLoone designs and tests mice, trackballs and keyboards to help create devices that are as comfortable and help customers be more productive. McLoone also conducts usability studies of the company’s desktop peripherals, working to better understand how people use these devices in real life and how Microsoft can make their experience better.
Microsoft Hardware is one of the few peripheral manufacturers to employ an in-house ergonomist, making their development of ergonomic mice and keyboards a benchmark in the industry. Besides consumer products, ergonomics is used in the design of industrial workplaces, transportation systems, office spaces and aerospace systems.
With more than 30 design and utility patents to his name, McLoone has nearly a decade of experience in the field. PressPass spoke with McLoone about about the role of ergonomics in computer peripherals, the future of PC and peripheral design and how people can be more comfortable at work or play.
PressPass: What exactly is ergonomics?
McLoone: Ergonomics is the study of the workplace, with the goal to make people more productive and products more comfortable, particularly during extended use. Ergonomics first emerged as a widely used discipline during the 1940s to reduce errors from new, complex military systems, specifically to reduce the number of “human errors” caused by poor equipment design. Today, ergonomists such as myself design and test everything from industry assembly lines to sports equipment, from chairs to computer peripherals.
PressPass: Why should people care if their tennis racket, chair or keyboard is ergonomically sound?
McLoone : How you choose to do everyday activities, whether it’s sitting at your desk, typing on your computer or exercising, can affect your performance and long-term health. Ergonomists know the risk factors for occupational injuries, such as Repetitive Strain Injuries (RSIs), and understand how to reduce the likelihood of developing these injuries. When used properly, ergonomic products help the user be more healthy, comfortable and productive. And who doesn’t want that?
PressPass: Why does a company such as Microsoft focus so closely on the ergonomic integrity of their hardware products?
McLoone: The Carnegie Mellon Institute found that 70 million people in the U.S. use a mouse or keyboard while at work — nearly a quarter of the population. Our research shows that a majority of the people using computers have their hands on a mouse or keyboard for a large part of the day. Microsoft knows products used with such regularity should be as comfortable and productive as possible.
PressPass: So if I use an ergonomic product, will it ensure I won’t get carpal tunnel syndrome?
McLoone: The use of an ergonomic product alone does not guarantee prevention of carpal tunnel syndrome, which is a form of RSI Personal factors also play a large role, such as age, hobbies and other activities. However, research has shown that using certain products designed for how your body naturally functions can minimize pain and discomfort and decrease the chances of developing RSI.
For example, the Microsoft Natural Keyboard design has been found to significantly reduce one of the risk factors associated with RSI: awkward posture. Biomechanic research revealed the split keyboard and arched wrist rest encourages ergonomic benefits by influencing natural wrist and arm positioning. Additional research shows that users are able to type just as quickly on a split keyboard as they can on a straight keyboard.
PressPass: Are there any U.S. federal mandates on ergonomics?
McLoone: Except for the meatpacking industry, there are no U. S. federal mandates in place that require employers to use ergonomics products or equipment. However, individual states such as Minnesota do require ergonomic products and devices in the workplace. And, the general occupational health and safety laws require employers to provide safe and health workplaces – ergonomic hazards are no exception.
That said, ergonomics has been shown to be a benefit to businesses. A complete ergonomic program can reduce the number of health-related injuries and the costs associated with time away from work and retraining new workers. It can also improve employee productivity and morale, as well as overall product quality.
To help ensure that employees are healthy and comfortable at work, employers should implement a dedicated ergonomics program that encompasses management commitment, evaluation of high risk jobs, engineering controls and work practices, training and education of workers and medical management of injuries.
PressPass: How has the design of Microsoft mice and keyboards evolved with the progression of ergonomics?
McLoone: The shape of the mouse has changed significantly as ergonomics have become more of an integral component of product design. One of the major examples is the findings on the “metacarpophalangeal ridge” – the pad on the palm under the knuckles. Microsoft researchers found that this portion of the hand was a key area people used to judge comfort. As the amount of support is increased at this ridge, users find a mouse more suitable for use. Using infrared thermography, we are able to design mice that will fit hands like a glove, therefore making them as comfortable as possible. Infrared thermography is a special camera system that sees invisible heat patterns – in this case, the heat pattern left by a warm hand on cool mice.
And most people are familiar with the Microsoft Natural Keyboard design, the split or ergonomic version of our keyboards. This design, which we first introduced in 1994, has been found to significantly reduce awkward posture, one of the risk factors associated with RSI. The design of Natural Keyboard encourages natural wrist postures, keeping the wrist straight and less twisted. We’re continuing to test and evolve the Natural Keyboard design to make sure it is as useful and again as comfortable as possible.
Some guidelines to make sure youre in a good pointing and typing position.
PressPass: How do you see the design of computer peripherals evolving over the next three to five years? How will ergonomics affect how these products look and feel?
McLoone: We will continue to work to create mice and keyboards that improve the experience that users have with their desktop software. This allows us to add innovative features that make products more intuitive and efficient than ever before, from easy installation to reducing the number of keystrokes that are made. We’ll also work to use the latest technology and research methods available to continue to improve the form factors of both the mouse and the keyboard, ensuring that they fit both the natural posture of people, as well as conform to the shape of the hand.
In terms of the look of the products, Microsoft Hardware will continue to design computer peripherals that reflect each user’s personality by offering new colors and finishes. These will give people more options and allow them to think of their device as an extension of their own self – similar to how cell phones are viewed today.
PressPass: Do you have any quick tips that people can quickly implement to make their workplace more comfortable and ergonomic?
McLoone: The most important thing I always tell people is to be aware of your posture. Some guidelines to make sure you’re in a good pointing and typing position include:
Make sure you’re feet are reach the floor, with a chair that supports your back.
Place your keyboard and mouse or trackball at the same height; these should be at about elbow level. Your upper arms should fall relaxed at your sides.
When typing, center your keyboard in front of you with your mouse or trackball located close to it as possible.
Keep your wrists straight. Use natural, relaxed posture for arms, hands and fingers.
Position your monitor so that top of screen is about eye level.
Depress keys and buttons and grip your mouse with a light touch.