The Future of Computer Ergonomics
Looking at the typical mouse and the conventional keyboard, there is room for extensive improvement.
- By Emil Jacob
- Sep 01, 2010
Since the dotcom boom, an increasing part of the workforce spends its workday typing or clicking. While computers have improved by leaps and bounds, their ergonomic features have not progressed in any significant way. Essentially, the mouse and keyboard are the same as they were 10 or even 20 years ago. But repetitive stress injury (RSI) incidents are growing at a fast pace.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 1981 (when the IBM PC was released) only 18 percent of all occupational illnesses reported were due to repetitive stress injury (RSIs). In 1984, that figure grew to 28 percent; in 1992, to 52 percent; and by the year 2000, estimates were that 70 percent of all occupational illnesses reported would be RSIs. This rapid increase in RSIs coincides with the increase of personal computer use.
Starting with a typical computer mouse, there are three essential problems: The plastic surface is too hard for the human hand to be pressing it for a full workday. The shape of the mouse does not enable the joints of the fingers to bend when clicking (when exerting force, it is more natural and comfortable for the fingers to bend into a grasping position rather than remaining straight). Another shortcoming of the average mouse is the lack of support for the wrist, hence the large market for wrist supports.
Some of the most serious injuries Dr. Emil Pascarelli (a specialist in RSI treatment) has seen have come from mouse use. The mouse strains the hand by forcing repetitive use of one finger and is awkward to hold.
Add-on silicon pads can help to correct hand position. Finger pads can allow the joints to bend when clicking while providing a softer surface to press against. They also increase the total surface of contact between the finger and mouse, which results in less strain for each click. For a worker who spends more than eight hours per day clicking, this brings relief, according to reviews posted by customers and various articles. A palm pad can lift the wrist and allows the hand curve into a more grasping position -- as the hand is designed to function in the natural world -- grabbing, holding, etc.
Similarly, the development of a new mouse incorporating these benefits and additional ergonomic features is helping users. Gel pads are a short-term solution and correction of a typical mouse; in the future, we envision mouse that has soft silicon built into it, as well as an additional button for the thumb to duplicate the index finger. This allows alternate use of the index finger and the thumb. A double click, for example, can be alternated with a click with the index finger and one with the thumb. This feature reduces the repetitive stress on the index finger currently resulting from the typical mouse.
Looking at the conventional keyboard, there is room for extensive improvement. The current computer keyboard, to the detriment of millions of users, is quite the same as the initial typewriter (QWERTY) keyboard. The QWERTY keyboard was designed, or rather redesigned, to slow down the typist. Initially, the order of the letters starting in the top left corner was ABCD, but this made typing too fast and caused the keys to jam when the typist worked quickly. To solve the problem, inventor Christopher Sholes in 1875 patented a new keyboard placing the commonest letters further away from each other, in order to slow down the typist and avoid jamming.
While the QWERTY arrangement helped to reduce the jamming problem for typewriters, it is slowing down typing today and is detrimental computer ergonomics. The order of the keys is not the main problem, however. The main ergonomic impediment with a computer keyboard is requiring the fingers to be held up in the air while typing. In other words, if the hand could rest on a rounded surface while activating the keys, the RSI would be greatly reduced. This is very difficult with a typical keyboard because the hands and fingers need to be held up in the air to move across the keys, which are spread over too large an area.
One new keyboard design places almost all keys at the tip of each finger, requiring minimal movement and pressure for each activation. The FingerTip keyboard is designed to have the hands rest on a round/convex surface in the most natural, curved position, and each finger presses only the specific keys assigned to it at its tip. This ensures all 10 fingers are used and that no typing classes are required to learn which finger should press a specific key. The keys are designed and placed in slightly concave areas at the tip of each finger, which ensures only the assigned keys can be pressed by each finger.
One of the main goals of this keyboard is to create as much as possible a grasping/inward turning of the hands and fingers while typing, because this position and movement are more natural (as the hand was design to hold and grab). The new keyboard also may have a touchpad for basic mouse functions, which ideally should be alternated with a regular mouse to encourage change in hand position and movement.
The growing use of handheld computers has increased the number of RSIs. Becausee all functions are performed by using the thumbs alone, there is a great exposure to RSI -- hence even new terms such as "Blackberry Thumb." Given the number of workers who are often on the road and need to use handheld devices for extensive e-mailing, RSIs and required surgeries from handheld computer use are growing.
A new design for handhelds can help to reduce the strain on the thumbs. The goal of the new design is to make use of not only the thumbs, but also all 10 fingers. The new keyboard for handheld computers provides keys in the rear of the handheld as an alternative to the front keys activated by the thumbs. (The keys in the rear are only an alternative to the keyboard in the front.) Users have the option of using the rear keys only when facing pain in their thumbs. This design will have small buttons assigned for the tip of each finger. In order to know where each key is in the rear of the keyboard, there is a "map" in the front where the user can see the buttons assigned to each finger. This design helps not only to reduce repetitive stress injury, but also to type faster. The rear of the new handheld may also have a touchpad that enables more effective scrolling.
Changes Are Coming
The number of surgeries required due to damage from RSIs goes into the hundreds of thousands. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, RSIs of all types account for 60 percent of all reported occupational illnesses. The estimated direct cost to businesses was more than $25 billion in 1993 just in the United States.
The vast majority of RSIs are a result of computer use. The question remains why there have not been serious changes in computer ergonomics to date. Perhaps this results from the effort required to make the change or the switch to newer and different designs, or the problem has not reached a critical point to be reviewed more thoroughly. But as the number of RSIs grows, the likelihood of change and of new standards can be expected to increase in the not-so-distant future.
This article originally appeared in the September 2010 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.
Emil Jacob is an inventor and ergonomics designer in Cambridge, Mass., and the president and owner of design and development firm Jacob Innovations, LLC. (www.PADandCLICK.com, 617-605-0100) In addition to solutions for computer ergonomics, he has developed new design concepts in airline seating that improve passenger comfort by taking advantage of unused vertical space. He is also developing a new shoe sole concept designed to bring relief in particular to sufferers of reduced blood circulation.