Kevin Cheng  

Office Space

October 24th, 2003 by Kevin Cheng :: see related comic

Ergonomics at the workplace, especially the computer-centric workplace, used to be quite a hot topic. At times, it seems like the most ergonomic positions are simultaneously the most awkward. Have you ever been told a cure for the hiccups? All of them feel like cruel jokes to see what circus stunts you?ll perform to rid you *hic* rself *hic* of your *hic* ups.

“Stand on your head.”
“Hold your breath.”
“Drink from the other side of the cup.” (This actually works for me every time)
“Pinch your nose, dance on one foot and let me scare you.”

Often, ergonomics feels like hiccup cures. Perhaps that’s the reason many people in usability and interaction design seem to ignore the science. We understand a fundamental principle of Human-Computer Interaction (HCI): even good software can fail without a usable interface. Similarly, one can apply a corollary: no matter how usable an interface is, a user in pain won’t enjoy using it.

Despite the fact that many of HCI’s roots stem from ergonomics, many professionals seem to have placed its significance on the sidelines…While we don’t need to be expert witnesses that can be subpoenaed in a court hearings, I think having a basic understanding of ergonomic issues, especially in computer workspaces, is important.

Earlier this week, I had the opportunity to visit the new offices of Loot, a classifieds magazine in the UK. Loot had recently moved offices to a new location. In addition to a geographical change, the magazine had also recently been purchased by the Daily Mirror and was undergoing some fairly major cultural shifts.

Around 1992, Loot conducted a 2 year long study and determined that the cost of implementing an injury prevention plan would outweigh the continual cost of absentees and replacement staff. The magazine received a great deal of press for their proactive approach to employee injury prevention. This attitude was described by some as a parental corporate culture, where the company mimics the role of a parent watching over their children.

With the change in ownership and location, Loot made a conscious decision to radically change its approach from a parental role to a more typical corporate model. Interestingly, the shift in corporate culture also affected their attitude towards health and safety. Rather than continue their active parental approach, they adopted a more reactive stance. This radical shift provides an excellent case study into the differences in corporate culture and how they affect ergonomics:

Parental Control - The Active Caregiver
During and after conducting their study, Loot became a company ahead of its time. The company took on the responsibility to actively ensure comfort and safety in the workplace. For example, a masseuse was brought on to give free massages to the employees. They also carried out meetings with employees to help select new equipment for ergonomic safety and adjustability. Training was provided on taking breaks, exercises, etc. Surveys and questionnaires were given out to actively solicit feedback from the employees. The environment was described as a ?hand-holding? environment where managers would go so far as to inquire about their team member?s family or pets and fostered a feeling of family at the workplace.

Advantages: Low turnover, less training cost and time, easily meet legal requirements, minimized cost due to absentees.

Disadvantages: High maintenance for managers, employees take the benefits for granted and become more demanding, may not suit the personality type needed to perform high volume calls.

Fast and Furious - The Passive Energizer
The newer environment is spread across several floors of similar layout. Each area consists of multiple aisles of desks, all perpendicular to the window. With this layout, Loot has managed to provide natural lighting to nearly all work areas. A number of flat panel televisions were hung from the ceiling, displaying MTV channels.

Immediately noticeable was the overall energy level of the employees. One of the call centre representatives described his need for a fast paced job that passed time quickly. Creative incentives, such as ?roulette day?, were used to motivate employees to achieve and exceed their targets on an hourly basis.

From an ergonomics perspective, the major shift seemed to be one from active prevention to a more reactive approach. Foot rests and wrist rests were provided upon request but few seemed to take advantage of these. Training materials still detailed RSI prevention techniques but the responsibility was squarely on the individual to practice the recommended exercises. Instead of questionnaires, Loot now asks their employees to report early warning signs.

Stylishly designed break rooms were provided with a complement of leisure peripherals: foosball table, personal use internet stations, coffee machines and books. Interestingly, activities such as foosball and personal internet usage could easily negate the benefits of taking a rest from constant data entry. Loot has opted to prioritize employee satisfaction over RSI prevention.

Advantages: Low maintenance, highly charged and motivated staff, employee satisfaction.

Disadvantages: High turnover, high sick leave rate, possible burn out.

For HCI, ergonomics may not be a direct part of our everyday activities but they certainly factor into our work. When evaluating the work environment of potential or existing users, having the ability to recognize ergonomic issues can help the design of the application. Understanding how different companies approach ergonomics will then help an HCI consultant recognize how to affect any changes. Some examples of application:

  • Keyboard vs Mouse usage: At Loot, their data entry software was specifically designed to minimize mouse usage as that was believed to be the main cause behind RSI cases. In addition, advanced hotkeys were introduced so that more experienced operators could operate the application with fewer keystrokes.
  • Positioning of supporting documentation: Minimize the amount a user needs to twist and turn. Observe if they have reference manuals they frequently refer to or notepads they use often to jot down information. Perhaps some of that information can be provided in the application. Alternatively, ensure the information is readily accessible and positioned to require minimal adjustment to upper body posture (e.g., standing up a manual next to the monitor).
  • Observe the processes. What communications are happening between the user and their peers, managers and direct reports? How often are paper documents involved in the process? Loot provided barcode readers to read in advertisement identification numbers directly. This allowed for less typing and avoided the potential errors in data entry.
  • Take the work hours and habits into account. Does the environment encourage frequent breaks? If so, a desirable feature of an application may be one that doesn?t time out too easily or has an easily saved state.
  • Sensorial feedback considerations: How noisy is the work environment? In the new Loot offices, a lot of things are happening at the same time. Providing the minimal level of information necessary to do the job and removing extraneous information may help the users focus. Similarly, audio alerts would be fairly useless in that environment.
  • Do users own their desks or does the company employ ?Hot Desks?? Loot uses a combination of part time and full timer workers. Full timers have their assigned desks whilst part timers share desks. Shared desks often do not offer a lot of room for customization. Consider that such users may not want to reset settings such as font size when they log on each time.
  • How adjustable are the furniture in the workspace? If the company has not provided easily adjustable furniture, users may not always be in the best position to read your screens.

    Ergonomics may seem as mystical as a cure for hiccups but a lot of science and statistics are behind the discipline. When applied correctly, they can play an important role in making the overall user experience more pleasant and efficient. Next time you try to do a contextual inquiry, think about how the company is dealing with ergonomics and how that affects your goals.

  • 4 Responses to “Office Space”
    Tereza Snyder wrote:

    ”Drink from the other side of the cup.” (This actually works for me every time)

    Show me! I can’t figure out just what it means. Are you upside down? Pouring water up your nose? Down your shirt? Into your ear?

    amanda wrote:

    I think that it means drinking from the bottom (outside of a cup). That was something I was taught to do with a glass. Basically it involves sucking something, which regulates your breathing to an extent, which helps cure the hiccups. wrote:

    Ergonomie heute

    Was so einige Leute unter Ergonomie verstehen erkennt man auf dem unten eingefügten Bild. Auf der Quellseite werden ErgonomieTipps mit den Tipps verglichen, die man bekommt, wenn man Schluckauf hat. Wenn es wirklich so läuft, wie auf diesem Bild, ist

    MeriBlog : Meri Williams' Weblog wrote:


    This week’s OK/Cancel is all about ergonomics. It’s a great article and the case study where Loot and their changing approach is considered is really excellent. I agree that there are still major issues with the “right” way to sit…

    Leave a Reply

    OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?