Vendors need lessons in usability

Despite decades of ‘upgrades’, much high-tech office equipment remains woefully difficult to operate.

Kelvyn Taylor- IT Week 13 Feb 2006

Ergonomics and usability are two topics that should be very closely linked. Yet, when you look at much of the technology in a modern IT-rich office, you realise that although a lot of it might be plastered with the stickers that signify regulatory approval of one sort or another, in terms of ergonomics and usability the kit might as well have been designed for a 12-fingered, two-headed, seven-eyed inhabitant of some remote planet.

Let’s take the average flat-screen TFT monitor as an example. It continues a long heritage of poor usability that was honed to a fine art in its predecessor, the CRT.

Convoluted menu systems and impossible-to-read or awkwardly-positioned control buttons may technically not be illegal (UK legislation merely states that “brightness and contrast … shall be easily adjustable”), but they have driven many employees to distraction – surely something that’s not in the spirit of the regulations. Actually, the “unlabelled button” syndrome is probably an unintended consequence of other regulatory bodies that have traditionally disapproved of “distracting” labels on the bezels of monitors.

But more worrying is the lack of attention paid by TFT manufacturers to monitor mounts – an ergonomic rather than a usability issue. The Health and Safety (Display Screen Equipment) regulations of 1992 merely state that a monitor must tilt and swivel easily, which most new TFTs do.

Unfortunately, height adjustment isn’t specifically mentioned, though there is a vague reference to “It shall be possible to use a separate base… or an adjustable table”, which gives the monitor manufacturers a neat escape hole.

Those models out there that can be adjusted for height usually only allow a very limited adjustment of a few inches. I haven’t seen many that will allow the screen to drop to desk level – a shortcoming that doesn’t endear them to people who, for example, wear varifocal spectacles where the close-focus reading area is usually in the bottom third of the lenses (separate “computer spectacles” is a great idea in theory, but only if you’re manacled to your workstation). A notable exception is Samsung’s MagicStand pedestal, which is a three-hinge pivot arrangement, a bit like an Anglepoise lamp, and allows almost unlimited adjustment.

Of course, you can retrofit Vesa mounting arms to give you much better adjustment, but a decent one will cost you as much as the monitor itself.

This is only the tip of the iceberg: the arcane instructions on printers and photocopiers have been standing jokes for years, yet there’s little sign of any improvement despite millions being spent on “human factors” research by manufacturers. And I’m not even going to mention software interfaces.

Perhaps the only hope is that coming through the ranks is a new generation of iPod-influenced engineers and designers who realise that clever technology can also be simple and easy to use.