Comfort on the Desktop Goes Hand in Hand

The Microsoft Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 features a 12-degree split angle.

REDMOND, Wash., Sept. 6, 2005 – Today, Microsoft Hardware introduced Microsoft’s first true breakthrough in ergonomic keyboard design since the Natural keyboard came to market over 10 years ago. For Natural keyboard loyalists, this announcement is particularly significant. As this group of fans will readily attest, once you lay your hands on an ergonomically designed split keyboard, you’ll never return to the more common flat keyboard design. Recognizing the need for a variety of comfortable PC-peripheral designs, Microsoft’s Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 leads a new line of comfortable products including the Comfort Curve Keyboard 2000 and Comfort Optical Mouse 3000. With as much time as people spend on their computers these days, being comfortable is key.

Microsoft Hardware ergonomist and user researcher Dan Odell, PhD (affectionately known in the Redmond hallways as “Dr. Dan”) is one of many innovators behind the latest ergonomic advancements. PressPass sat down with this comfort doctor for an inside look at how the team developed the Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000, and their approach for designing products that make time spent on the computer a comfortable experience.

PressPass: The Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 is being called an ergonomic breakthrough. Why?

Dr. Odell: We call the Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 an “ergonomic breakthrough” because this keyboard incorporates the best ergonomic advances we’ve developed in the ten plus years since the Natural Keyboard design first launched. This latest keyboard builds on our Natural Keyboard design, which has been extremely successful. The Natural Keyboard design was the subject of two independent research projects which found that it is associated with a reduction in computer-related pain (1) and that it is associated with a reduction in carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms (2). This kind of benefit has helped the Natural design become the No. 1 best-selling ergonomic keyboard (3) and develop a loyal following among people who are concerned with comfort.

Building on the fundamentals of the Natural design, our latest keyboard includes a number of new advancements designed to help to improve wrist posture and make typing easier on your fingers.

The detachable palm lift on the bottom of the keyboard was designed to work with the cushioned wrist rest to improve typing posture by reducing wrist extension (vertical bending of the wrist). It does this by lifting up the front of the keyboard to provide a 7-degree reverse slope to the keyboard – a benefit that was recently documented by two independent studies4.

To further improve wrist posture, we also increased the keyboard gable angle to 14 degrees. This helps roll the forearms back toward a more natural handshake posture while typing. It also features the same 12-degree split angle that helped make the Natural Keyboard so successful. This should help Natural users easily transition to the new keyboard design while maintaining the same benefit for wrist deviation (motion of the wrist side-to-side).

To help make this keyboard easier on the fingers, we added curvature in two planes. The first curvature is called “gull wing” design and more closely follows the arc of your fingers. It is aimed at bringing the outside keys closer to the center of your hand – reducing the reach required to type on them. The second curvature helps to point the key faces more toward the center of your hand. This was designed to help you strike the keys more directly while typing – reducing any force that would normally be wasted in pushing the keys sideways.

PressPass: What is the reverse slope wrist rest?

Dr. Odell: The detachable palm lift provides a 7-degree reverse tilt to the keyboard, which helps even more to reduce wrist extension (bending your wrist in a vertical direction). Reverse slope is a benefit that has recently been documented by two independent studies (4).

Many traditional keyboard kickstands promote inferior wrist alignment by forcing the keyboard into a vertical position. That keyboard position is a holdover from old mechanical typewriters. We’ll be leading a major re-education effort in order to show people that reverse-tilt is a significant improvement for posture and comfort.

PressPass: How did you develop this new keyboard design?

Dr. Odell: Fellow ergonomist, Hugh McLoone, and I worked collaboratively with the University of Washington to research different keyboard forms and determine which models provide the best typing posture and are perceived as the most comfortable. As design ergonomists at Microsoft, it’s our job to constantly come up with new ideas to improve usability and comfort. The concepts that are incorporated into the Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 are some of the best that have been developed at Microsoft in the 11 or so years since the Natural line of keyboards was first released.

PressPass: Why should people care about ergonomic design for their mice and keyboards?

Dr. Odell: Are you kidding me? Comfort is one of the most important things that people should consider when purchasing input devices. People are spending huge amounts of time on the computer—for both work and play. What really hits home for me is a recent report (5) that found the average desktop computer worker spends almost six hours a day on the computer. When you’re spending that much time on a computer, any little misalignment or discomfort can really add up to a big problem in a hurry.

Repetitive Strain Injuries (RSIs), such as carpal tunnel syndrome, are a huge issue. They account for 62 percent of all U.S. worker-compensation claims and are estimated by OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration, a U.S. Government agency] to result in nearly US$15-20 billion in losses each year (6). The office environment seems relatively safe, especially when compared with industrial environments like manufacturing plants. But RSIs have been appearing in the office in increasing numbers since the early 1990s (7). This illustrates their subtle nature. RSIs aren’t traumatic injuries, but a series of many small problems that build up over time and repetition.

It is usually much easier to address these problems early on rather than trying to treat them after they’ve become full-blown disorders. So we really try to enable people to correct these problems early through education and well-designed products.

PressPass: So can using an ergonomic keyboard prevent Repetitive Stress Injuries?

Dr. Odell: Ergonomic keyboards can help address some of the risk factors for RSI – such as poor working posture and high force. These improvements can definitely help. For instance, our Natural Keyboard design has been associated with a significant reduction of carpal tunnel syndrome symptoms, according to the study of keyboards in the American Journal of Industrial Medicine1. However, there are many factors that can contribute to the development of repetitive strain injuries including individual factors, stress, and repetitive motions, among others. While the Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 and the other new products in our comfort line were certainly designed to be comfortable and encourage natural hand and wrist positioning, using them is not a sure-fire way to avoid injuries.

PressPass: Is there an ergonomic solution for those of us who don’t want to use a split keyboard?

Dr. Odell: Yes, for people who are more familiar with a straight keyboard, we announced today the new Comfort Curve Keyboard 2000. This keyboard provides a continuous six-degree arc, as opposed to the fully split 12-degree angle on the Natural Keyboard. This arc provides a posture benefit in a keyboard that remains very easy to use. We tested this design in focus groups against other best-selling flat keyboards and the Comfort Curve Keyboard 2000 was preferred three to one. So, if you’re intimidated by fully split keyboards, but are still concerned with comfort – take a look at this keyboard.

PressPass: What ergonomic research went into the design of the latest Comfort Optical Mouse?

Dr. Odell: This design focused on the metacarpophalangeal ridge. We’ve spent a lot of time studying that part of your hand (it’s the pad on the palms under your knuckles). Understanding how it responds to pressure points is key to developing a mouse that feels comfortable. The better this ridge is supported, the more comfortable the mouse. Using gloves with pressure sensors and infrared thermography, we are able to pinpoint support at this ridge in our mouse design.

The new Comfort Optical Mouse 3000 offers an ambidextrous design allowing users to switch between hands after long hours of use, and is great for people like me who mouse with the left hand. It has many of top-shelf features, such as the Magnifier (for real-time zooming and precision editing) and the Tilt Wheel (for easier sideways scrolling).

PressPass: What should we look forward to in the future from Microsoft Hardware’s ergonomics research?

Dr. Odell: I think it’s safe to say that Microsoft Hardware will continue to make comfort one of its top priorities in product design. You can be sure that we’ll continue our ergonomic research and seek to incorporate the latest innovations into our products. In this way, we’ll continue to enrich the computer experience by delivering the best blend of comfort and usability.


(1) Tittiranonda P, Rempel D, Armstrong T, Burastero S. Effect of four computer keyboards in computer users with upper extremity musculoskeletal disorders. American Journal of Industrial Medicine 1999, 35(6):647-661, 1999.

(2 ) Moore, J.S., Swanson, N., The Effect of Alternative Keyboards on Musculoskeletal Symptoms and Disorders, Human Computer Interaction, pp.103-107, 2003.

(3) The NPD Group/NPD Techworld, January 2001–December 2004

(4) Marklin and Simoneau, 2004, Hedge, et al., 1999

(5) Sommerich, C. A Survey of Desktop and Notebook Computer Use by Professionals, Proceedings of Human Factors and Ergonomics Society, 26th meeting, pp. 1124-1128, 2002.

(6) Occupational Safety and Health Administration, PR Newswire, January 18, 2005

(7) U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics

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