Ergonomic Product Design: Marketing Hype vs. Real Ergonomics…and Does it Matter?

It seems as though every company under the sun has jumped on the “ergonomics bandwagon” by releasing new and improved “ergonomic” versions of the same old products. By releasing a new “ergonomically” designed product, a company not only catches consumers’ attentions with a colorful and curvy new design, companies are also showing consumers that they care about our well being. They want us to have a more pleasant and healthy relationship with their product.

The problem is, most of these ergonomically designed products are just hype with little or no ergonomic science behind them, designed to evoke a certain emotion from the consumer so we’ll get excited about tired old products and buy them again.

Bryce Rutter, founder and CEO of Metaphase Design Group, an award winning product design group backed by sound ergonomics warns, “don’t believe the hype. Rutter estimates that 70 percent of products labeled “ergonomic” are really little more than marketing hype.”
Unlike many product design companies, Metaphase makes ergonomics a top priority. Here’s a little history about Bryce Rutter and Metaphase:

The company’s philosophy was born when its founder, Bryce Rutter, was working as a young industrial designer in Toronto. A client of his pointed at a feature on a seating cushion Mr. Rutter developed and asked, “Why did you do that?” Mr. Rutter didn’t have a good answer. “It was clear to me that if I wanted to be a great designer and develop products that were going to be honest to the consumer, then I needed more content” behind the style — every aspect of a product had to be justified by functionality.

Mr. Rutter went back to school and pursued a doctorate in kinesiology — the study of the mechanics of human movement — from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He moved away from the “warm and fuzzy feelings” he had once had about product design and focused solely on ergonomics, or the fitting of designs to people’s bodies, behavior and expectations. In 1991, he founded Metaphase in Clayton, Missouri.

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Although Metaphase designs products that really are ergonomically sound, my question is, for what purpose? Are we going to get carpal tunnel or tendonitis from picking up a bottle of mouthwash once a day? Most likely not. For the safety of our bodies, ergonomic design is most important for products that we interact with for hours at a time every day. Ergonomically designed consumer products like sports drinks and shampoo bottles, whether or not they are backed by ergonomic science, are designed to boost sales. Consider what Keith Wilmot, Pfizer’s director of sales innovation, has to say about the Listerine bottle designed by Metaphase:

The grip makes the bottle easier to lift, while the big mouth encourages buyers to chug straight from the container. It used to take about six months for consumers to finish off jumbo bottles of mouthwash. Now they empty them more quickly—which means more frequent trips to the store to restock. “There’s been an actual change in usage behavior,” Wilmot says.

So what do you think? Is ergonomic design important for consumer products?
Information here draws from these articles on Metaphase and ergonomic product design:

Ergoweb, WSJ, Business 2.0