princess bride

You Keep Using That Word, I Do Not Think It Means What You Think It Means

One of my all time favorite films – Rob Reiner’s timeless Princess Bride (1987) – has many memorable lines. One of my favorites is the title of this blog post. The group’s leader, Vizzini (Played by Wallace Shawn) is a the self proclaimed ‘brilliant’ Sicilian. He keeps exclaiming “inconceivable” whenever something happens that he didn’t expect. Finally master swordsman Inigo Montoya (Mandy Patinkin) says “You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.”

The same thing can be said of many descriptions of consumer products as “ergonomic.” Take for example this sign I found recently in a local big box store.

While reducing fatigue is an admirable goal - simply adding padding to an otherwise identical tool handle does not necessarily make it any better ergonomically - does it?

While reducing fatigue is an admirable goal – simply adding padding to an otherwise identical tool handle does not necessarily make it any better ergonomically – does it?

Maybe I missed something. Have we finally reached the tipping point where good ergonomics prevails in product design? I can hear the laughter – you’re right we haven’t. But marketing has discovered “ergonomic” as a label which apparently can be applied without any evidence to support claims.

Other examples abound – especially as we consider some of the artifacts and products found in workplaces. For example some “interesting” alternatives to office workplace tools like chairs and pens.

ergo_group

Yet I find myself asking the question – what makes a design truly ergonomic? Is it possible to make seemingly simple changes to products and yield a good ergonomic design?

Referring to a definition I’ve used many times over the years: ergonomic design seeks to make the things people use and the ways and places they use them safe, easy to use, comfortable and effective (some would add “efficient” or substitute “productive”). Are these criteria sufficient? If so, what products meet those criteria?

In some cases I would argue labeling a product does not make it so. For example, claims for the benefits of alternatives to traditional office chairs (e.g., the treadmill desk or balance ball) are rationalized by arguments that go something like this:

  • Sitting can lead to discomfort and has been linked to certain negative outcomes. Often reduced to “sitting kills.” (Often missing in this discussion is the acknowledgement that it’s not sitting itself that is the culprit – but maintaining constrained postures for long periods of time – but I digress)
  • If we could let people work in positions other than sitting in a traditional chair that should be better.
  • So, let’s put people on a treadmill – or balance them on a ball while they work. The benefits are obvious- right?

Not so fast kemosabe. Despite claims to the contrary, and one or two questionable “studies” underwritten by manufacturers of these products, cognitive science tells us that fine motor skills, gross motors skills and higher order cognitive processes involve different areas of the brain and simultaneously engaging in these behaviors leads to cognitive interference. In other words doing too many things at once leads to doing nothing well.

But that doesn’t dissuade companies from marketing these products as “ergonomic”

I shouldn’t be surprised – after all in today’s world is often seems that belief is more powerful than fact and evidence is often considered a pesky and unnecessary inconvenience.

As the Princess Bride so aptly noted “You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.”

What about you? What examples have you encountered where something claims to be ergonomic with little evidence to support the claim – or worse – strong science to refute claims? I’d love to hear about them – share them here.

About the Guest Author
A researcher, educator, author, entrepreneur, and consultant, Tim Springer, PhD, is Chairman and Founder of the Human Environmental Research Organization (HERO). Tim served as department chair of Human Environment & Design at Michigan State University and has consulted for more than 35 years with businesses large and small on issues of environment, behavior, and ergonomics. He is now semiretired, living in the greater Chicago area.

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