04.What we found
There is a need for much clearer documentation with most of the devices we tested. Quite often the devices will work in a standard manner with just plug and play, but require the installation of software to enable special features, such as function buttons or customising controls. But few of the devices on trial came with detailed information on their particular ergonomic benefits.
The effectiveness of a well thought out ergonomic device can be reduced if the user doesn’t know how to best set it up, or to adjust and configure it. We gave the devices to our trialists to set up and use without additional instructions or training, just as a consumer would do if they ordered one online. Here’s what we found from their experiences:
Typing skills — Despite the flexibility of split keyboards in being able to have a better angle for more comfortable positioning of the hands, some of our trialists found the placement of certain keys a problem. Not everyone has perfect touch typing skills and having a key that you usually press with the right hand being on the other side of the ‘split’ and now requiring the left hand takes some relearning.
Numeric input — In the interests of being compact and keeping the hands centred in front of the body, some keyboards don’t have a numeric keypad. Instead, numbers are overlaid on letter keys and activated by selecting a Function key. This means the numbers don’t line up in straight rows as they do on a dedicated numeric keypad, and can slow down those who enter a lot of numeric data.
Patience — You might take longer to get used to a new device, depending on how often you use it. One trialist noted: “ I don’t type all day, everyday so it takes time to get used to something new”. Another said: “I need to overcome years of conditioning to normal keyboards”. We found that while many devices were easy to learn, few could be mastered in less than a week of normal use to match the speed and accuracy of a traditional keyboard or pointing device. You will need to spend a number of weeks adjusting to become comfortable with a new device. For our trial, at the end of a week’s use a common comment was: “I’m still getting used to it”.
- Size — Size does matter, especially with ergonomic devices. Being able to fit the device comfortably into your normal workspace and being able to reach and use the controls in a natural manner is important to its effectiveness. Several of the devices were considered by some to be too big or bulky. Trialists generally found the Evoluent Vertical Mouse, ExpertMouse Trackball and Nomus Mouse in particular a little on the large side.
Cost — While some trialists felt favourably towards particular devices, few found the difference great enough to make them willing to part with more money for it. There would have to be a significant benefit to purchase a so-called ergonomic version at much higher cost. The devices tested were most commonly rated with the comment “I’d pay a bit more” or “I wouldn’t pay any more”. The Logitech Wave Keyboard was the only device for which several trialists indicated “I’d pay quite a bit more”.
Do you need one?
Any long-term computer use, especially for extended periods at a time, can put you at risk of developing overuse related injuries (such as repetitive strain injury). How well people cope with frequent computer use is individual, and the same goes with the use of ergonomic devices. If you have a pre-existing condition, you may find an ergonomically designed device provides relief, while someone without any issues may find they don’t provide an immediate benefit. Among our trialists, only one user had a pre-existing condition, and the results of our trial reflect how healthy users find ergonomically designed devices.
As with any medical condition, self-diagnosis or treatment of ergonomic-related injuries is not advised. If you experience any pain while using a mouse or keyboard, listen to it and seek professional help — pain is an indicator something is wrong and shouldn’t be ignored. Keep in mind also that ergonomic devices are only one component of a healthy workstation and can’t make up for bad posture or bad work habits.
Finally, if you’re interested in buying an ergonomic device, we advise trying them out in person before buying, preferably with the help of an ergonomic specialist who can point out all the features and correct usage and may be able to advise on which device might best fit your needs.
Tip: When first trying out a new device, it’s a good idea to not do it when the pressure is on — give yourself time to ease into it while processing a lighter workload. New devices can take some getting used to and the added pressure of trying to meet a deadline can create tension and possibly contribute to the very injury you’re trying to avoid. For example, one trialist said she woke up with a slightly sore wrist on the first day of the trial, but only noticed it when using the new keyboard.
For extensive information on ergonomics topics, downloadable fact sheets and other reference material, check out Safe Work Australia.
The QWERTY curse
Standard ‘flat’ style keyboards are still the norm for most of us, as is the QWERTY key configuration. Taken from the first six keys on the top-left letter row, QWERTY is a hangover from the early days of manual typewriters. The keys were largely arranged that way to actually make it easier for the typewriter, not the typist, in order to help prevent the machine from jamming up. This design was used in the first commercial typewriter, manufactured in 1874 by Remington & Sons.
By the time typewriter engineering eliminated the problem of jamming, the QWERTY layout had become the standard and remains the norm today, despite claims that alternatives such as the Dvorak layout (named after its creator August Dvorak, not the way the keys are arranged) make typing easier, faster and more accurate.
The flat shape of a keyboard can also trace it’s origins to the first typewriters, but ergonomic designers have experimented with split and angled keyboards to help take the strain off wrists and make it more comfortable and easier to type.