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Dynamic Chiropractic – July 2, 2001, Vol. 19, Issue 14

Don't Forget the Software

By Paul Hooper, DC, MPH, MS
With the increasing use of computers in the workplace has come a tremendous increase in musculoskeletal problems that have been blamed on the computer. For obvious reasons, this has been accompanied by a growing interest in designing the most ergonomically sound workplace. Perhaps the first serious effort to reduce stress while using the computer can be seen in the early attempts to redesign the computer keyboard. Keyboard manufacturers have experimented with a variety of designs, including some pretty weird-looking split models. I've even seen a keyboard that was built into the arms of a chair, half on the right side, and half on the left.

Some manufacturers have attempted to modify the layout of the letter keys. The first typewriters had letters attached to the end of a striking arm, but the layout of the keys tended to cause the arms to tangle with fast typing. To minimize the jamming, the "QWERTY" layout was designed, and has remained the standard into modern times. There may well be a better layout for the computer keyboard than the familiar QWERTY, but it's unlikely that this will change soon.

I like my Microsoft Natural keyboard. It fits my hand nicely and I find it very comfortable to use. However, my wife, who uses a computer for eight hours a day, doesn't like my keyboard. She prefers one that's flat. So much for individual differences.

In addition to the use of various keyboards, computer manufacturers and ergonomists have tried a variety of other modifications to make computing easier and less stressful: padded wrist supports; various copyholders; adjustable video display terminal arms; and antiglare screens have become commonplace. My personal favorite is the trackball that replaces my mouse. I like it so much that I bought one also for my laptop. It makes using my laptop much easier than fiddling with the "pencil-eraser" thing my computer came with, which is at best a poor substitute for a useful mouse.

That aside, I want to discuss one of the most important and most often neglected aspects of computer use: software. It's the software that makes the computer run, and it's the software that makes the computer useful, or cumbersome. I can't remember the last time I saw an ergonomic text direct much attention to the software. I must admit that until recently I haven't paid much attention to this issue. However, it's my contention that poorly designed software is one of the primary problems encountered in computer use.

Recently, a client company updated the software on the computers used by its customer service agents. The agents spend eight hours each day in front of a computer, and the company has made a reasonable attempt to make the workstations comfortable. They have installed satisfactory chairs, headsets for the telephones, and other ergonomic devices, such as wrist pads. While not ideal, the workstations are functional and the agents appear to be satisfied. However, when the new software was installed, a variety of problems were identified. As often happens with software, the problems were not identified by the designers, but by the end-users, in this case the customer service agents. I seriously doubt that the software designers ever observed the agents at work. It always amazes me how many things are designed by people who don't have specific experience in the kind of work for which their products are designed.

Some of the problems that have been identified with the new software include:

  • The font size is too small - While the software designers may use the latest and greatest computers in their work, such as 19-inch color monitors, the customer service agents actually use a 14-inch monitor that is somewhat "color-challenged." Consequently, font size that is readable for the software developer becomes difficult to see for the agents.


  • Awkward color combinations - Instead of the customary black print on a white background, the software engineers decided to implement a shade of purple with yellow lettering. Colorful perhaps, but annoying to those who had to use the program.


  • Hot keys were eliminated - With the older version of the software, the agents had grown accustomed to using shortcut commands, that is, functions that they constantly used were accomplished simply by depressing a single key or two. For example, the F1 key confirmed an order, but the new software eliminated that and other shortcuts. Now to confirm an order, the agents had to go through four steps.


  • Highlighting was eliminated - The agents were accustomed to a highlighting feature that readily identify where they were in their tasks. The new software eliminated the highlighting and used underlining instead. Unfortunately, with the smaller font size and curious color scheme, the agents had trouble seeing what was underlined. Once again, the software engineers that developed this step were probably using large, expensive color monitors. Unfortunately, the agents did not have access to such luxuries, and the resulting software changes became annoying and counterproductive.

There were other problems with the software, but you get the idea. If you evaluate workstations, aside from the standard ergonomic considerations, don't forget to ask questions about the usefulness of the software.

Paul Hooper,DC
Diamond Bar, California

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