From The Ergoweb® Learning Center

Ergonomics Roundup: Toyota, Apple and HP take on Ergonomics; Canine Ergonomics; Historical Input Designs; Laparoscopic Surgery

Not So Fast – Toyota’s Unintended Acceleration

I’ve kept my lips sealed when it comes to issues surrounding Toyota and alleged accelerator/braking problems with their vehicles, but make no mistake about it: human factors and ergonomics are core disciplines when it comes to investigating such events, and we will be core to any ultimate solutions.

There could be design problems that contribute to these complaints and accidents, but if you’ve been around awhile, you’ll recall the sudden acceleration stories that dogged Audi in the 1980’s.

There’s also an embarrassing lack of credibility when appointed and elected members of the US government, who have effectively nationalized General Motors, launch a very public Toyota bashing spree before the facts are thoroughly understood, but that’s another story.

So, I was very pleased to see this article, published at, written by colleague Richard A. Schmidt, recalling the 1980’s Audi stories. Versions of his article are appearing in many prominent news publications, including The New York Times. The article is a good summary of how the Audi problems were ultimately traced to human error; the design Audi and other manufacturers then applied to reduce human error; and discusses what might be going on with the Toyota stories, and how design modifications might be applied. Not all the answers are in, but it’s great to see human factors and ergonomics specialists stepping above the fray to investigate and solve this problem.

At the time (i.e., the 1980s), many of us who worked in fields such as human factors (or ergonomics), human performance, psychology, and kinesiology suspected that these unintended-acceleration events might have a human component. These suspicions were bolstered by several facts about these events: (1) the complaints were far more frequent among older drivers than among younger drivers (the 60-70 year-olds had six times the rate of complaints as compared to 20-30 year-olds in a GM study); (2) drivers with little experience with the specific accident vehicle (but not with little driving experience, generally) such as parking-lot attendants, car-wash workers, rental-car patrons, car-borrowers, etc., were over-represented in terms of the number of complaints; (3) women and people with shorter statures were over-represented slightly. Faced with these findings, many of us asked, “OK, if these events are caused by some electro-mechanical malfunction, why would the car “care” if the driver is old or young, is experienced or inexperienced with this car, or is a short female?” The answer, of course, is that the car simply cannot “care.” This is the sort of evidence that gives credence to the problem having a human cause of some kind.

Read the full article …

Canine Ergonomics: The need for a Science of Working Dogs

I met William "Deak" Helton by chance last fall while we both waited for planes in an airport. After some brief conversation we realized we share a few things in common. He’s a professor at Michigan Technological University, where I conducted my undergraduate studies years ago. He also wrote the book Canine Ergonomics: The need for a Science of Working Dogs. I came across this article, by The Land of Pure Gold Foundation, Inc., that highlights his book:

"While working dogs clearly have limitations, they are the best options for many work contexts. The scientific community’s recent reassessment of dogs’ cognitive capabilities and increasing recognition of dogs as legitimate workers opens new opportunities for people with dogs to solve society’s problems. We must balance the risk of excessive anthropomorphism, viewing dogs falsely as small people in furry suits, with excessive anthropocentrism, thinking only humans are smart enough to be workers or only human-designed machines are appropriate solutions to our problems."

"With proper training, for example, dogs not only match the breast cancer detection accuracy, sensitivity, and specificity of mammography performed by trained radiologists, but dogs may actually exceed them (McCulloch et al., 2006) …"

Read the full article …

HP to set up new R&D lab

Setting up an R&D lab in Singapore isn’t necessarily big news, but this statement is worth a nod:

"… will also be hiring experts in industrial design, ergonomics, and materials science to improve the look-and-feel of its printers, so they do not look out-of-place in modern designer living rooms, said Mr Joshi, a member of HP’s executive team, …"  Read the entire press release …

Hopefully they’ll recognize the need to — and support the role of the ergonomist in doing so — focus on usability issues, not just the aesthetics implied by the above statement.

"Apple Still Hasn’t Fixed The Big Problem With The iPad: It Looks Really Uncomfortable To Use"

At least that’s the opinion of lots of technology bloggers. Jay Yarow, quoted below, is one of many that is questioning the ergonomics of the soon to be released iPad. Since few have actually seen or used the device, most of the criticism is directed at the images and videos Apple has published, showing the device in use.

Apple’s iPad hardware and software are impressive. The ergonomics, we’re less sure about.

After watching Apple’s new video walkthroughs for the iPad, we’re still stumped about how we’re going to comfortably hold it for extended periods of time.

… with the iPad, it looks like you’ll almost always be holding the thing — all 1.5 pounds. And if you’re not holding it, you have to put it on your lap or a surface and hope for the best.

Read the full post …

I predict that Apple is leaving much of the iPad ergonomics to the secondary market — other manufacturers who will develop and market add-on devices, apps and accessories to improve fit and physical usability. My other prediction is that the first generation iPad, which is not expected to include a camera, phone, or even USB ports, will appeal more to casual users than intensive users. Older users and others with vision issues, for example, will appreciate the larger, full color display, and may not care as much about the weight and handling concerns, because they won’t be inclined to use the device for intensive computer tasks, or for extended periods of time. The iPad might also appeal to the Kindle (e-book reader) user demographic, stealing some of their market share. If I’m right, Apple will penetrate a new market demographic, separate from, but overlapping with, the typical iPod, iPhone and MacBook users. With an expanded demographic on board, they could then improve the appeal to their existing intensive users by adding new features and capabilities to the iPad in future releases.

Not a bad business plan, if that’s in fact their plan.

Historical Keyboard and Input/Mouse Design

All that talk about the ergonomics of future products like the iPad reminds me of how far we’ve come. Technology bloggers point us to some interesting historical bumps along the data entry / keyboard interface road.

"hipstomp", writing at, has compiled a fascinating series of images depicting keyboard designs (mechanical, typewriter style keyboards … remember those?): Early interface designs make me thankful for the modern-day keyboard

Harry McCracken, writing at, pulls together: Mouse Trouble: 20 Weird Pointing Device Patents (Note: this page has horrible ergonomics/usability — be sure to click "Next", or the numbered "Slides" to see the patents.)

Urologist Calls for Improved LRP Ergonomics

In my February 2, 2010 Ergonomics Roundup article I wrote, "I’ve wondered how long it would take for this problem to surface, and now here it is. Surgeons are finding ergonomic challenges with laparoscopic surgery tasks and equipment." Here’s more evidence attesting to the severity of the problem, and the need for solutions:

VIENNA—Efforts should be made to improve the ergonomics of laparoscopic radical prostatectomy (LRP) to relieve the physical stress of performing the procedure, according to a German urologist.

[Jens Rasseweiler, MD, Medical Director and Head of the Department of Urology at SLK Kliniken Heilbronn] noted that surgeons must operate in a craniocaudal-parallel axis to the patient. “Thus, ports are placed on both sides of the midline and operative work may necessitate reaching over the patient and across the midline,” Dr. Rassweiler observed. “Furthermore, the monitor is not located across the patient but positioned towards the lower extremities, causing secondary neck strain while the back and torso are already torqued toward the pelvis.”

"… a significant effort should be invested to improve the ergonomics of laparoscopy. This should include the design of new operating room tables, supports for the surgeon with integrated food pedals, mobile high-definition television monitors, and new instrument handles that minimize mental and physical stress for the surgeon.”

Read the full article …