Hugh McLoone, CPE, CIH, is the architect of the latest version of Microsoft’s iconic ergonomic keyboard. A seal on the Natural® Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 retail box says “Ergonomist Approved.” It includes McLoone’s signature. But his work as a User Researcher in the Hardware Design Group at Microsoft encompasses more than keyboards. One project elevated “touchy-feely” design considerations to a level all but unknown in the realm of computer hardware.
The original 1994 Natural version, with its split and tented keyboard halves, was designed to minimize awkward wrist postures – a risk factor for musculoskeletal disorders linked to typing. About two years into his now 12 years at Microsoft, McLoone began to question whether the ergonomics of the 1994 model went far enough. He led the design project for its replacement, while helping the company expand other product lines.
“When I joined Microsoft, the company sold one keyboard and two mice,” he said in an interview in the Spring 2007 issue of The Professional Ergonomist. “But now we offer 20 keyboards and 23 mice. McLoone’s teams focus on user issues, such as performance, comfort, biomechanics and aesthetics.
McLoone has co-created the designs of more than 70 Microsoft products, and he is named in 40 patents taken out by the company. Asked by The Ergonomics Report® in August to rank his achievements in terms of satisfaction, McLoone gave the new Natural keyboard first place. “It took seven years of basic research and then applied research to see it to fruition,” he added. “I deliberately waited a year before I presented it to management because we already had a full product line for that year.” He waited, he said, until ideas that were on the table were already shipping so then that when the time came to think of something new he could present the new design as an open opportunity.
Straight, Natural and In-Between
The Natural keyboard is one of three distinctive Microsoft keyboard styles. The others are the straight keyboard and the Comfort Curve®. McLoone describes the Comfort Curve type as a “tweener.” The split angle is present, he explained, but the keys fill in the space. “It is a continuous key presentation in the split angle, and that is to reduce ulnar deviation.”
According to the ergonomist, the Natural® Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 features “elements to encourage a natural neutral wrist posture.” He said they are designed to minimize awkward wrist postures such as pronation or twisting of the hands palm down, ulnar deviation or twisting towards little finger and wrist extension or bending the wrist back.” The degree to which the keyboard achieves its goals depends on the user and how he or she adjusts to that presentation, he added.
The sales figures suggest that a significant number of people appreciate the special features of the new version. “It has been the best selling standalone, wired keyboard for all of 2006 and into 2007,” McLoone said. “It has really rejuvenated the Natural ergonomic keyboard market, which had been flat for a number of years.”
The company introduced a wireless version this year.
Microsoft’s retention of three keyboard styles that, ergonomically speaking, are unimproved has a lot to do with accommodating individual user needs. McLoone noted that the company has a range of products that satisfies a range of customers. “Many people … type with a fairly straight neutral posture on a straight keyboard, and they are very familiar and comfortable and up to speed with a straight keyboard.” He suggested the people who prefer the straight type are often casual users. “Many users don’t actually spend that much time on a keyboard during the day, … so for them the straight keyboard is fine.” The users who might benefit most from the Natural style, he said, are “people who spend more time on the computer during the day or type with awkward postures.
Natural Posture, Neutral Performance
As part of the development process McLoone took the Natural® Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 to researchers in the Ergonomics Lab of the University of Washington Department of Environmental and Occupational Health Sciences to help him evaluate his changes.
The UW research team set out to measure whether the new design improved typing posture without adversely affecting typing performance. Test results indicated Microsoft could increase the tenting of the keyboard from the original 8 degrees to a taller 14 degrees and increase the wrist rest height by 7 mm to keep the user’s hands in more neutral postures – all without adversely affecting typing speed or error rate.
Asked whether the converse is true – if the improvements help increase typing speed and decrease error rates – McLoone replied that performance metrics showed the speed and error rates for the new Natural model are the same as for the original natural model and the standard straight kind. “The view is that when someone moves from the straight keyboard to the Natural keyboard, either the original or this new version, the keys are physically different in space. People who are touch typists have learned both mentally as well as physically where the keys are in space, that’s how they can type without looking. If you move the keys, even if they are in the same arrangement, you have to relearn where the keys are.” With the new keyboard, the keys tend to fall where the fingers fall, so the learning curve appears to be less, he added, and it is more intuitive. “The keys are right where you expect them. … It is just seems to be a more natural presentation. People naturally gravitate towards this new presentation.” This is contrary to many new designs where the learning curve can be considerable, he added.
He remarked that he is happy people are moving from the original to the new design because it is fairly different. “People who tried the original and sort of gave up, are willing to try it again on this new one.”
The Natural® Ergonomic Keyboard 4000 with the number pad and editing controls are on the right of the QWERTY keypad is not specifically designed for left-hand users. The Ergonomics Report™ asked McLoone why the left-handed 10 percent of the population has been overlooked.
He replied that a Harvard University workplace study surveyed at least 1,000 workstations, and only 3 percent of the workstations had the mouse on the left side of the computer. “We are satisfying a huge fraction of people with the design we have. Even left-handers often place the mouse on the right side,” he added.
McLoone suggested that habits developed during childhood could explain the near-universality of right-hand mouse placement. “Thinking back to when they are children, they go to school and the mouse is on the right side. They’re in the family home and they are sharing a computer, and the mouse is most often on the right side, and they just don’t take the extra effort to move it to the left. So they accommodate, learn to use the mouse with the right hand.”
He doesn’t see a fixed number pad on the left in the company’s Natural keyboards of the future, but said there is periodic consideration of a model with a removable or moveable number pad.
Other Mice and Keyboards Too
His part in the reinvention of the Intellimouse® was in second place on his list of satisfying achievements at Microsoft. “When I started at Microsoft we had what we called Mouse 2.0, it was the benchmark mouse design of the time. We sold over 100,000,000 units of the Mouse 2.0 shape. I worked with an industrial designer to make a new and better mouse that was truly ambidextrous, and more comfortable and preferred than that shape, and that is the Intellimouse Optical, which is still being sold today.” He described it as pretty special. “It’s like changing the No. 2 pencil, and how can you improve on that.”
Another high point was his part in the development of the Office Keyboard, with the left side controls for bi-manual use with the mouse as well as hot keys for direct actions. “I was pretty much the architect of the Office Keyboard. … I worked on that in 2000 and it shipped a year later. While no longer being sold, many of the innovative attributes continue on our keyboard today.”
He recalled that his work on trackballs, the upside-down mice that are useful in confined computer workstations, was fun. “The last ones I worked on were in 1999, and those also shipped a year or two later. There was the Microsoft IntelliMouse Trackball Explorer and Microsoft IntelliMouse Trackball Optical.”
To move the pointer, the ball in the trackball is moved with the thumb, the fingers or the palm of the hand. McLoone’s research during the development of these devices yielded some surprises. “I basically studied what was comfortable and what people perceive as comfortable in the hand. And then it dawned on me that that is was also about what people like to touch. … People actually keep their hand on their mouse or their trackball, even when they are not actively moving their mouse. So I realized another way to look at it was what people enjoy touching.”
The “touchy-feely” focus in the design of hand-held computer devices was new. Previous research considerations have focused on the physical biomechanics, human performance and design aesthetics of a product. “This research extends the design criteria for hand tool and computer mouse design beyond the traditional biomechanics and avoidance of pain or injury and beyond design of hand-tool and its points of operation based on anatomy and anthropometry,” McLoone wrote in his 2003 report of the study. It was published in the journal Ergonomics.
He asked study participants to bring in objects they liked to touch and keep touching. One object could satisfy both of the touchable statements, or they could bring in two separate objects. An object could be natural or man-made. Weapons, body parts and pets were not allowed. The idea was to apply the most touchable attributes to the design of the trackballs.
The 18 participants brought in 22 objects. The selection included stone or metal spheres, squeezable balls, a basketball, stuffed toy animals, an orca art object with an ovoid body and a fin, an opalescent glass paperweight, a pink wash cloth rolled into a cylinder, a brown silk shirt, a portable chess game in a plastic box, a wood letter opener, a rectangular block of recycled plastic wood, a metal hand held Mongolian prayer wheel, a clear plastic cube, a yellow plastic pen, a Scrabble game held together with magnets, a silver wedding band and a plastic toy shaped like Goofy.
The participants were asked to share their objects with the group and say why they thought the objects were touchable for them. The discussion included the motivation of the participants for making their choice. During the study observations were made about the shape, surface, color, dimension and weight of each object. The study also looked into how each object was used and held and moved in the hand.
The selection showed brown and black with silver and cream – earth colors – predominated in the selection of touchables.
The research determined that silver and charcoal were the main touchable colors, and these were chosen as the main colors for the trackballs. The highlight color used on the trackball itself is red.
In the August interview, the ergonomist said he found the number-one touchable shape was a sphere or circle. Previously, the ball in the device was locked away by a ring to keep it from falling out or getting lost. “It made logical sense that it should be locked away,” McLoone explained, “but this was the object that people liked to touch and fondle. We deliberately made the ball easily removable so people could actually fiddle with [it] if they wanted. … It’s amazing that we had to make special fixtures in the store so people wouldn’t steal the trackballs because they were so coveted.”
The attraction of a new product for thieves could emerge as a way to predict its potential market success.
Sources: Hugh McLoone; Professional Ergonomist; McLoone, H., (2003) “Touchable Objects: attributes applied to the design of computer input devices.” Ergonomics, 46 (13/14), 1320-1331.
This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2007-08-24.