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[ The PC Guide | The PC Buyer's Guide | Designing and Specifying PC Systems and Components | Key Non-Performance Issues In PC System Design ]

Ergonomics and Usability

Ergonomics and usability both refer to how the user interacts with the PC, and conversely, how the PC interacts with the user. More specifically, an ergonomic PC is one that is designed to allow the user to operate it comfortably, without causing injury, stress, pain and fatigue. A PC that is easily usable is one that feels enjoyable to the user to interact with.

Ergonomics and usability are probably amongst the least-considered factors in the design of the typical PC, but if you use your system a lot they can be very important. That's especially the case with repetitive stress injuries becoming more prevalent in our increasingly computerized society. A common stress injury is carpal tunnel syndrome, a painful condition caused by inflammation of the tissues in the carpal tunnel of the wrist, often caused by the repeated motion associated with typing on a keyboard.

Ergonomics and usability issues manifest themselves primarily through the PC's video subsystem and input devices. They are seen through questions such as these: how comfortable is the keyboard to use? How does the pointing device (mouse or other) fit in your hand? And perhaps most importantly, how does the monitor screen look to your eyes? Will you be using the PC for 8+ hours a day, making these comfort considerations critical, or only 30 minutes a day, making them less worthy of concern?

There are individuals and companies that have dedicated their careers to analyzing the ergonomics of PCs, and devising recommendations, exercises and specific products geared towards ensuring comfortable and safe computer use. I am not among these people. :^) If ergonomics are essentially important to you, you should take the time to research these issues much more thoroughly than I can cover here. I would definitely include in this category anyone who has had back, eye, arm or hand problems in the past, or anyone who has a history of repetitive stress injury.

However, every user, regardless of background, should consider carefully the environment where the PC will be used, to reduce the chances of pain, soreness or injury. Again, I am not an expert on this subject. I do know, however, that the basics of a proper PC workstation include the following:

  • A desk or table that will allow the monitor to be placed at a level where you are not straining your eyes, head or neck to view it;
  • A place for the keyboard and mouse, either on the desk/table or a pull-out keyboard tray, that will let you use these input devices comfortably.
  • A comfortable chair that will provide support for your back and legs.
  • Ergonomic aids such as wrist rests, monitor tilts and the like to help support your body where appropriate and ensure that your posture is correct. Cable extensions for the mouse, keyboard or monitor can also be of assistance.
  • Placement of the PC where it can be easily reached if needed. If you work with disks a great deal, you don't want to have to stoop over or reach around the side of the desk to access your removable storage drives.

As for the design of the PC itself, the input and output devices are key, as mentioned above. It is virtually impossible to determine how a particular PC design will feel to your hands and eyes unless you use it in person before you buy, which is why shopping in person is so advantageous. Monitors tend to be particularly "personal" items: in terms of size, sharpness, color level, glare and other attributes, a monitor can seem "great" to one person and terrible to another. Some people find a monitor that is too small unusable; others feel the same way about one that is too big, and so on. Keyboards and mice are the same way--for example, I personally only use one specific type of keyboard, on all of my systems. Some people love trackballs; I can't use them for more than a few minutes.

While you should definitely pay attention to all of these matters when shopping for a new PC, there is good news: the devices that are most involved in ergonomics are also the ones that are easiest to change in a system. Almost any PC can use almost any monitor, keyboard or mouse. If you find a PC you like but don't care for the monitor sold with it, get the monitor subtracted from the deal and buy one you like that is compatible. Keyboards and mice are so cheap that the PC manufacturer might not give credit for deleting them from the order, but it may not matter to you anyway--compared to the cost of the system as a whole, a few extra dollars for a pointing device or keyboard you really like is a small price to pay.

Tip: Also see the discussion of selecting input/output components such as the system case, monitor, keyboard and pointing devices for more selection issues.

Next: Data Integrity and Reliability

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