If laptop design is hazardous, what does this say about the iPad?

Recently SafetyAtWorkBlog received some promotional material from a laptop accessory supplier, ErgoAustralia, which stated that  laptops may be “the RSI of this decade especially for the growing bones and muscles of our children”.  The aim of the information was to show how accessories can reduce the risk of using laptop computers.

There is no doubt that this is so.  This blog is often written in a cafe through a fold away keyboard and back at the office, the laptop sits on a stand with a wireless keyboard and mouse but the laptop is not the principal PC on which work is performed.  That is a desktop PC.

When laptops are the only computer option and the work tasks rely on laptops, the complications and hazards occur.

Rick Clancy of ErgoAustralia provided the following quotes in support of the dangers of laptops:

Alan Hedge from Cornell University says the following “Guidelines for laptop use are more difficult because laptop design inherently is problematic – when the screen is at a comfortable height and distance the keyboard isn’t and vice versa. For sustained use you should consider purchasing either: An external monitor, an external keyboard, preferably with a negative-tilt keyboard, both, and a docking station and then arranging your workspace to create a good workstation layout.”

……Leon Straker from Curtin University [wrote]:

“I too am concerned that the laptops for children program – as provision of hardware without appropriate skill, and provision of inappropriate hardware is how we got into the RSI problem with adults in the 1980s. It would be a shame for Australia to repeat the mistakes with children.”

Hedge talks about reducing hazards from “sustained use” of laptops but if “laptop design inherently is problematic” shouldn’t the design of the laptop computer be reviewed in order to eliminate these risks?

Interestingly, the ergonomics of the only newly design “laptop” in years, the iPad, has not been mentioned in the excited daily media over the last few months but it has been discussed on the ergonomics blogs.

Many take the iPad as a large iPhone and consider that the uses will be similar.  This is understandable but the screen of the iPad allows for a slightly reduced QWERTY touchpad which is likely to allow the use of two hands rather than the single hand or stylus of the iPhone.  This is a significant ergonomic variation.

How the mouse-based controls are replaced on the iPad is still unclear and is likely to rely very much on the types of applications being used and the design changes of the apps for the larger screen.

In fact the apps may be the key to any ergonomic hazards presented by the iPad.  An expansion of iPhone apps to the iPad dimensions, by itself, may provide clearer images but unless the use of the apps specifically on the iPad has been considered by the designers, users may be disappointed and the software may create or exacerbate  a hazard.

The disappointment in the iPad may come from people expecting it to be more than what it is and using it as an upgrade to their laptops, rather than a possible replacement from some of the laptop/desktop uses.  Some indication of this can already be seen by the accessory manufacturers and Apple itself.  It is reasonable to ask, if accessories like external keyboards are available from the iPad manufacturer, does this imply that the design of the iPad is not suited for its intended use?

It is very early days on this “revolution” in computing and here in Australia, the iPad is not yet available for assessment.

If OHS is about the elimination and reduction of harm, “at the source” or design-phase, it may be useful for us to view new computer technology not as the “saviour” it often is but what the technology is, in reality, an extension of ourselves.  We should not expect more than it was designed for.  We should perhaps review the technology as another option for how we work.  Maybe, just maybe, we find that the technology is not really necessary………at least in its first generation.

Kevin Jones

Categories design, ergonomics, iPad, OHS, research, risk, safety, technology, Uncategorized, workplaceTags , , ,

3 thoughts on “If laptop design is hazardous, what does this say about the iPad?”

  1. Kevin, this review appeared in the New York Times last week:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/01/technology/personaltech/01pogue.html?pagewanted=1&hp

    The relevant point to your blog post is this:

    \”When the iPad is upright, typing on the on-screen keyboard is a horrible experience; when the iPad is turned 90 degrees, the keyboard is just barely usable (because it’s bigger). A $70 keyboard dock will be available in April, but then you’re carting around two pieces.\”

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