Ergonomics and Other Gooey Messes

Written by Bill Leebens

In my teen years, my reading was wide-ranging and varied, aided by access to the million-volume Morris Library at Southern Illinois University. It was originally a handsome building done in the Chicago style of architecture, but recent generic “updates” have left it unremarkable and unrecognizable.

Back then, I struggled through Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, and  breezed through Thomas McGuane’s quirky Ninety-two in the Shade, alongside such varied gems as Laurence Klauber’s massive monograph, Rattlesnakes, Pauline Kael’s The Citizen Kane Book, and George Lois’ memoir,  George, Be Careful— from the genius who dreamed up the great Esquire covers of the ’60s and ’70s.

But if there was a single book from that period  that transformed the way I looked at things, it was Victor Papanek’s Design for the Real World —still in print 45 years after its initial publication, which should tell you something about the book’s influence and worth. Papanek viewed the design of everything—houses, cars, kitchenware, appliances—as part of a mission to make life better by improving the functionality of our surroundings.

Papanek’s vision of design encompassed everything from the readability of typefaces and the choice of materials for home furnishings to the biomechanics involved in operating switches, controls, steering wheels—pretty much every kind of human interaction with devices and environs. To the dismay of my friends, Papanek hammered the term “ergonomics” into my brain. Ergonomics is often referred to as “human factors design”, making sure that designed environments can be utilized in safety, comfort, and with low risk of injury. If you’ve ever suffered from carpal tunnel syndrome, you probably are familiar with non-ergonomic design.

The teenage me would encounter something poorly-designed and would pontificate, “well, that’s clearly an ergonomic nightmare“—accompanied by the eye-rolls of friends who came to repeat the words as I spoke them, echoing my outraged tone. In spite of the chiding, ergonomic design became a bit of an obsession for me. As I entered engineering courses, I read everything I could find on the subject—which in the mid-’70s, wasn’t much.

If you look at interiors of cars of that period and earlier, you’ll encounter controls that seemed to have been strewn randomly about, some hidden behind the steering wheel, others placed beyond the reach of all but orangutans, with knobs and toggles protruding dangerously from the dash. God help you if an untethered you was thrown against the dash by an abrupt stop. Jay Leno used to talk about the unyielding sheet-metal dashboard of his ’55 Buick: “no sissy padding on the dash here (thump, thump)—somebody dies in a wreck, ya just hose off the blood and sell it to the next guy.” Ah, the good old days….

These days the phrase “ergonomically-designed” is all too often thrown around meaninglessly, just another buzzphrase like “European-inspired” or “rack and pinion”, and it’s sometimes used as a lame excuse as to why something is really ugly. If there were ever a field in which Mies’ axiom of “form follows function” held true, it’s in ergonomically-aware design. That doesn’t mean such designs have to be ugly; in the audio world we know that from old B&O designs, Dieter Rams’ Braun work, and many others.

As we morph from a hard-edged, finite  physical world to a digital one of infinite changeability and those damned “soft” buttons, there is, astonishingly enough, a lot more attention being paid to exactly how well things work for and with the human beings using them. We can thank or blame video games and smartphones: when your hyper-addicted users are playing Runescape or tweeting for 14 hours at a crack, you don’t want them sent in agony to the ER.

These days, you’ll encounter folks who specialize in UX and GUI: the former is a misspelled abbreviation for “user experience”, and combines code-writing, old-school engineering, and graphic design. Every aspect of interaction between device and user are considered and mastered. —Or so they’ll tell you: it’s not just a work in progress, it’s a whole school of design in progress, and like most coding, there will be bugs. Why do you think  there are so many operating system updates from virtually everyone?

That second term stands for Graphical User Interface, and usually isn’t pronounced gee-you-eye, but “gooey”. The first time I heard, “but how’re we doing with the GOOEY??” in a meeting, I wondered if the speaker had problems with hygiene. Like a true cynic, I kept my lack of knowledge to myself, nodded sagely, and said, “good question!”

All those cluttered touch-screens and icons and symbols and pictures used to interact with a computer or similar device—those are all elements of GUI. All the ways that you tell a thing how to do something without using hard mechanical switches or keyboards: GUI. Gooey is everywhere, unavoidable, inescapable—until we get into voice control. And what do we call that?

“Owie”? Auditory User Interface? “Vooey?” Verbal User Interface? I think I like FUI, pronounced “PHOOEY”—Frustrated User Interface, when the damn thing can’t understand what you’re saying??

Ah, technology: the more we know, the more there is we don’t know….

Leonardo examined ergonomics centuries before the term existed.
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