“Is this product ergonomic?” I get asked this question all the time. The answer is, “maybe”. Almost any product might be ‘ergonomic’ for a certain person in a certain situation. Unfortunately, many products are not used by the same population or in the same environment that the product designer intended. One of my favorite examples of this is a man who cut off his fingers when he picked up a lawn mower and tried to trim a hedge. The designers of the lawnmower never tested such a situation before releasing the product. They assumed that everyone knew what environment and situation a lawn mower should be used in. One of the principle rules in ergonomics is to specifically identify a population and environment of use that fits your product. When this has not been done, the outcome may be a lawsuit followed by warning labels placed on the product.
In recognition of those who may have neglected usability testing, and those who managed what was thought to be impossible, the Michigan Lawsuit Abuse Watch (MLAW) annually holds the Wacky Warning Label Contest. This years winner was the product warning label that read, “Do not use the Ultradisc2000 as a projectile in a catapult. ” Apparently, common sense may not be that common.
The runner up winner was a warning label on fireplace logs, which read, “Caution — Risk of Fire.” Third place went to the label, “DO NOT use soft wax as ear plugs or for any other function that involves insertion into a body cavity.” This was on a box of birthday cake candles. Honorable mention went to 4th grader Jaren Frantz, who found this warning on a 35mm camera, “When operating the selector dial with your eye to the viewfinder, care should be taken not to put your finger in your eye accidentally.” Jaren may be a bit more on top of this than your average 4th grader as his father is Dr. Paul Frantz, an expert on warning labels at Applied Safety and Ergonomics in Ann Arbor.
Some past winners include: “Recycled flush water unsafe for drinking’, and on an electric router made for carpenters, “This product not intended for use as a dental drill’, “Never iron clothes while they are being worn’ on a household iron, and previous Grand Prize winner on a child stroller, “Remove child before folding.’
To keep wacky warning label off your product, you must specifically define and test the intended user population and environment of use. It may also be appropriate to warn of common misuses. Take for example plastic bags, many come with the warning ‘do not use as a toy’. Remember, just because it may seem like common sense to you as the product designer, it may not be to your potential users.