We need to rediscover ergonomics: 3 ways that ergonomics can help digital teams create better products

Written by Tom Greenwood - April 5, 2019

When I was at university, I studied product design. It wasn’t that long ago but in those days, product design meant the design of physical products rather than its increasingly common meaning in reference to the design of digital products.

Looking back and contrasting the practice of traditional product design with digital product design, there are some glaring differences; chief of which is that while ergonomics is a core principle of industrial design, in over a decade of running a digital agency, I’ve almost never heard anybody use the term.

This week however, I noticed two of our team-members, Chris and David, discussing an ergonomic issue on Slack and it reminded me of how important this is. In this post, I’ll explain what ergonomics is and how bringing it back into our vocabulary will help us to design better digital experiences.

We’ll look at what ergonomics actually is, and three ways to apply it to digital projects.

What is ergonomics?

In the 1930s, when World War II kicked off, my grandfather joined the cavalry and became a tank instructor. A friend of his, Hywel Murrell, was a Quaker and, like many, he was a conscientious objector, joining the military but refusing to use weapons. He was given the job of studying soldiers’ interactions with equipment. Legend has it that he noticed that teams manning heavy artillery guns had four men per team but that one man seemed to never do anything.

On investigation, Hywel found that the military had recently switched from horse-drawn artillery guns, eliminating the need for horses but leaving one soldier standing idle. It seems that nobody had noticed!

Hywel went on to coin the term ergonomics, referring to the scientific discipline of understanding how humans interact with systems with the objective of establishing theory, principles, data and methods to optimise human wellbeing and system performance. In essence; figuring out how we can create systems in which humans can perform at their best, whether that’s in military combat or opening a wardrobe door. Ergonomics makes life better.

So now you know what it is, how does it relate to the work that we do in digital design and development?

Brass handle on a push to open door
Ergonomics reveals simple truths in human interactions, such as the confusion arising from a pull handle on a door that must be pushed to open

How can we apply ergonomics to digital projects?

Although the word ergonomics isn’t used much in digital media, it has a lot in common with concepts that we do talk about (especially at Wholegrain), such as user experience and accessibility.

It could be argued that we don’t need to use the word ergonomics because we simply have different words to talk about the same things. While this is true to some extent, I believe that there is value in adopting the mindset of ergonomics in digital projects for the following three reasons.

1. Ergonomics applies to everyone and encourages us to design for everyone

Ergonomics looks at all humans who interact with a system and aims to streamline and improve their every interaction. It is essentially fusing the best bits of accessible design and user experience design.

Unlike typical user experience design, ergonomics encourages us to think not just about the primary user but to identify the variety of humans physically, emotionally and intellectually, and to examine each interaction in their shoes. In cases where we are not designing for everyone, it encourages us to define those boundaries and justify them objectively. Ergonomics invites us to question established design trends and understand what will work for the real people using the system.

Design for accessibility comes much closer to this but has some cultural challenges that ergonomics can help us to bypass. One of those issues is that, unfortunately, there are a lot of people who think that accessibility only applies to the minority of users with defined disabilities, which is not the case. The other issue is that, as the name suggests, it can be viewed simply as the ability to access something. Ergonomics is a field that encompasses accessible design but is more widely viewed as a holistic approach, including all applicable users and aiming to optimise their complete experience.

Ergonomics helps us to consider the needs of more users and craft experiences that work with them not against them.

2. Ergonomics transcends the screen and helps us understand the full impact of our designs

One of the great things about digital design is that it’s virtual, allowing a lot of creative freedom compared to the design of physical products or experiences. The downside however, is that digital design thinking is often limited by the confines of the screen.

When we talk about ergonomics, we tend to think about the physical human first, and the interaction second. Whereas online, we can easily forget that there’s a real human living in a very physical world trying to engage with what we create.

Smart phone showing navigation on a car dashboard
Digital experiences are only a small part of our overall experience in the physical world

Talking about ergonomics helps us to understand the web, not just as an on screen experience but as a physical, intellectual and emotional one. It prompts us to ask questions about the physical effort involved in scrolling to a key piece of information, the frustration of physically clicking on something that doesn’t respond as you would expect, the size of a person’s thumbs when navigating on a mobile device or the glare on their screen while trying to read from their screen in bright sunlight. It helps us to understand the relationship between our digital work and physical impacts on those who use them such as Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI), which is something that I have suffered from for my whole working life.

It’s notable that one of the objectives of ergonomics is to improve human wellbeing. We can only truly achieve that when we consider the human as a whole and not just as an anonymous, abstract ‘user’.

As I’ve said before in several articles and talks in regards to its environmental impact, we need to stop thinking of the web as something virtual and instead treat it as a very real part of our physical world.  Ergonomics can help us to do that.

3. Ergonomics is an applied science which helps us understand and create better experiences

Although many ergonomic principles may seem intuitive, ergonomics as a practise was established as a science in which assumptions are questioned and hypotheses are tested and validated objectively.

The world of digital marketing is something of a contradiction in this respect, with a huge amount of effort being applied to measure user behaviour in conversion funnels and pay per click campaigns where there’s money to be made but far less scientific rigour being applied in the initial creative design process of creating new websites and digital experiences, especially when there’s not a direct commercial incentive. What’s more, the focus is often more on whether people prefer option A vs B, rather than why they prefer it.

Ergonomics helps us to close this loop by encouraging us to investigate root causes, test assumptions and apply existing scientific knowledge from the outset, maximising the odds that the product works effectively for the people interacting with it from day one. With physical products, this is essential because you can’t easily go back and change the design of a chair or a bicycle after you’ve produced and sold it.

Screenshot of an eyequant analysis highlighting visual clutter on a website
Tools like EyeQuant can give us objective data about designs, such as levels of visual clutter that distract and confuse people

The ease of modifying digital experiences after they are set live for the public can foster a certain level of complacency that it’s okay to simply build something and test it later. Of course, we should test the product later, but that should come after applying good ergonomic science during the initial creation of the product. This can be aided by using tools such as EyeQuant and PerformanceBudget.io to guide the design process with objective data.

Applying ergonomic principles in our digital projects helps us to make design less subjective and gain a better understanding of why people behave the way they do.

Ergonomics can help us create better digital products

The field of ergonomics has a significant overlap with aspects of digital design such as design for accessibility, user experience and interaction design, but it also offers us something more. It offers us a way of approaching design problems with a human-centric approach, while also encouraging us to apply objective scientific principles to digital design in what is more often than not a highly subjective field of work.

When we do this, we will be able to create more effective digital products that can be operated efficiently and support the physical and mental wellbeing of the people interacting with them. That can surely only be a good thing. To recap my key points:

  1. Ergonomics applies to everyone and encourages us to design for everyone
  2. Ergonomics transcends the screen and helps us understand the full impact of our designs
  3. Ergonomics is an applied science which helps us understand and create better experiences

If you are interested in learning more about ergonomics, I highly recommend reading The Design of Everyday Things by Donald A. Norman, and getting in touch to have a chat and share ideas with our team on how ergonomics applies to the projects that we all work on.