Monday, November 15, 2010


Why, if contemporary tools and technologies are so refined, capable, and readily available to fully flesh out concepts before production, do consumers still have to suffer poor design? Along with substandard visual appeal, the largest victim of inferior design is the ergonomics of products. From textiles and clothing to vehicles and appliances, and everything else in between, chances are that throughout the course of your normal daily activities you will encounter an object whose design gives a back seat to the principles of ergonomics, or doesn’t consider them whatsoever. When I think of ergonomically poor designs that I frequently encounter, headphones are at the top of the list; in fact I have been using various headphones that suffer ergonomically in the 15 or so months since my deluxe ones disintegrated and I have refused to shell out hundreds of dollars for another pair.

I am, while writing this, listening to music through white Apple iPod earbud headphones, one of several pairs of crappy headphones in my apartment that fall into the $20-$40 price range. While Apple clearly spends a lot of time in the design of their products, the headphones that I am using suffer in that area, and in my opinion do not stand up well to many of the five principles of ergonomic research: aesthetics, performance, safety, comfort, and ease of use.

Apple iPod earbuds

First, what Apple is doing completely right with these earbud headphones in regards to ergonomics: aesthetics. The visual appeal of the earbud is obvious; it is compact, streamlined, and inconspicuous yet being manufactured in an eye-catching clean white. The color made for very appealing marketing, helped establish brand identity, and is mild and neutral such as not to clash with anything else the owner of the headphones is wearing. After their aesthetic appeal, however, the attractiveness of these Apple earbuds falls off sharply.
The other four principles of ergonomic research are reflected as a jumbled mess of sub-standard ideas in these earphones. Regarding their performance, the iPod headsets play the music just fine, without crackling or static, but they can fall out of my ears rather easily. Furthermore, the volume control included on the headphones is redundant, causing irritating needs frequently to adjust the sound level on either the headphones or the device it’s plugged into. This unnecessary volume control also affects the safety, comfort, and ease of use of these earbuds. It’s annoying to have to constantly be adjusting two different volume controls, and uncomfortable if the sound blasts too loud; I have to rip the headphones out of my ears or frantically hit the volume down button as quickly as I can It happens semi-frequently with these headphones that my music is either significantly too loud or too quiet because of the volume levels on my earbuds and the different devices that I use them with.

Headphones in general, and earbuds specifically, which lack any noise-cancellation technology, aren’t the best for auditory health. Despite being buried in my ear, I can hear even very faint surrounding noises unless the volume is cranked way up, and on a bus or in a car the volume has to be higher still. Even at relatively low volumes, I can occasionally feel the sound waves bouncing around in my ear canal. They feel uncomfortable being jammed into my ears, they get lost easily, the cord is too short, and they, like all earbuds, tangle much more frequently and severely than traditional headphones.

Skullcandy headphones priced at $149.95

Readers of this blog may ask themselves “why is she still using these headphones?” Well, they aren’t broken. They aren’t (currently) lost. Most importantly, headphones are incredibly overpriced and over-marketed, even with their state of the art technology it is completely unreasonable that the only well functioning headphones cost well over $100. Designers must take it upon themselves, whether they are creating haute couture or employed by a low-price driven corporation such as Wal-Mart, to design green, quality, appealing, and ergonomically thoughtful products; otherwise they are poor designers, or at best, designers producing sub-par designs. For those curious, my ideal headphones from an ergonomic standpoint-jet black, wireless, noise-cancelling earmuff-style headphones connected with a thin, collapsible headband, sourced as much as possible from glucose-based plastics.

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