Almost a year ago I posted a design challenge that was aimed at reducing lower back pain for a friend.
It turns out there has been some progress!
Before mass production, most items were made to order. You either made them yourself or hoped to find a craftsman who would do a good job for a price you could afford. If the person was good, you would get something to your specifications (which hopefully were good too).
Mass production allowed for a large number of items to be made to the same specification. Goods were made and the customer usually only details with a retailer who has items in stock. The rub is people come in a variety of sizes and shapes. The apparel industry has "solved" that through the creation of sizings, but there is much to desire. Other items are usually made to fit a range of people - the important variables might be height, reach, grip strength, weight, range of motion ... the list goes on and on. A general rule of thumb is the target population for a product, or range of products, is the five percent female to the ninety five percent male population. For adult height in the US the five percent female height is about sixty inches and the ninety five percent male height is about seventy three and a half inches There are similar ranges for the other variables, which may or may not be important to all products.
Some products exceed these ranges, some try to meet them and many fall short. Things get very complicated when several variables are required as they may be loosely coupled. A tall man is usually heavier than a short woman, but a five foot eight guy might weigh much more than a six foot guy. Given the challange car designers do a remarkable job. There is some variability among cars, but they generally accommodate a wide range of people. Here is an ergonomic note on the cockpit design of a multi-level railcar that New Jersey Transit uses (I rode on one two days ago).
I'm not particular tall, but I'm close to the ninety five percent male. Like most other people some things fit and others don't, but you get used to it. I had an early interest in the problem of fit that goes back almost fifteen years when a few of us looked at body scanners and how they might be used to provide better fitting clothing, but that is another story.
To think about a problem it is often useful to consider the extremes. A close friend turns out be be a target rich environment. Some of her measurements are different enough that many mass produced items just don't fit. That provides a lot of motivation motivation.
Colleen is seriously taller than the ninety five percent male and too many things just don't fit. She adjusts and makes do with a considerable amount of grace. An ok solution would be to be for her to be wealthy so everything she uses would be custom made and she could always afford to travel First Class, but it is wrong for someone to pay a tax for her height. Besides - there are other people who have problems and more general solutions need to be found.
She loves to cook.
The original challenge came about because she gets back pain when she bends to prepare food. Some people answered the challenge with good ideas, but it is difficult to get three attributes: stable, inexpensive and adjustable in the same design (any good designers out there are certainly welcome to try - and I will award five thousand tingilinde points to the best design and two thousand points to the runner up!)
It turns out the standard countertop in the US is three feet tall. Standardization happened shortly after WWII during the buildout of the suburbs. It became desirable to have off-the-shelf cabinets from a variety of manufacturers so homes could be finished rapidly. Ergonomic studies have been done since and it turns out a three foot counter top is close to ideal for someone who is about sixty four and a half inches tall with standard proportions - very close to the average American women.
Of course not everyone has the same height as an average American woman. Shorter people have problems and use stools or work at a table. People who are somewhat taller might use a few inches of chopping board, or more commonly, or bend.
Colleen bends a lot. The smile is from the cooking, not the posture. Try her altitude for awhile and see what it feels like. Stand on a stool that takes you to her height and try working in your kitchen. *
In addition to the folks who answered the challenge, I talked to faculty at several design schools. All of them basically said it was silly to design for the outliers. This is very frustrating as this is not exactly rocket science and one of those outliers happens to be a good friend. Their mentality is very fixed to production.
I became occupied with too many other things and the project fell by the wayside for a few months until she visited last July.
The two of us worked in the kitchen a bit and she talked about some of the challenges she faces. This rekindled the project, but I was still thinking "adjustable".. This time, rather than focus on the design, I started to look at the ergonomic literature on proper work surface heights for a variety of tasks - including cooking. Quite a bit of interesting work has been done over the past forty years and I was able to correspond with several of the researchers. It became clear that you could easily specify a working surface height for Colleen as well as most of the rest of us.
A bit of measuring showed a two inch height increase over our counter would be perfect for my wife Sukie. It turned out she had already adapted and uses a chopping board of about that height. At the same time it was frustrating that almost a year had gone by and no progress had been made for Colleen.
Then the "you haven't been thinking about this properly" moment came. It may not be easy to get something with all three attributes, but you can have any two. Adjustability was thrown out. Now there was a simple design and a way to make a few measurements and predict the height of the surface. We searched and found a shop that was willing to make custom prototypes. Production tailored to different heights would be straightforward.
Mine came yesterday - it is made to the proper size for me. After five minutes of chopping it became clear that my lower back was much more comfortable than any time I have worked in the kitchen - it is the best food preparation surface I've used. I think a case can be made that this is very useful for anyone over about five foot ten who uses a standard American countertop.
In a few days Colleen will post on hers and more details will be given - where you can get one. You could build one yourself, but construction quality on mine is excellent and it happens to be beautiful - something that looks very good in a kitchen. I couldn't build something this nice. Plus the company has been really excellent to work with.
So what is colleen-i-fication?
Colleen talks about making products fit people instead of the other way around. Her body works just fine and her height happens to be perfect for her, but there are issues. Lots of things can be done and maybe the coming revolution in mass personalization will address these issues.
a target-rich environment indeed
* we are not responsible for any pain, injury, altitude sickness, or embarrassment that may result from the experiment
hmmm ... perhaps it is: