Repetitive Stress Injury

My problems with Repetitive Stress Injury (RSI) started at NeXT Developer Camp. By the fourth day, my left wrist felt like a piece of surgically implanted corrugated aluminum. My fingers felt like pins and needles. My tendons felt like tightropes.

Does the root of my ailment lie with NeXTs old keyboard? Probably not. "People are suffering RSI from using all kinds of keyboards," says Jane Fulton, a human factors consultant at IDEO Product Development, which worked with NeXT to design the new keyboard. The NeXT keyboard "wasn't any worse than any other keyboard on the market," she adds.

Still, everything can be made better. When NeXT contacted IDEO to help design its new keyboard, the first thing the company did was interview a dozen users, then videotape six of them typing away at NeXTstations for hours. The results of the studies showed four main points:

Despite the fact that the old keyboard had two Command keys, their position on either side of the space bar made it awkard to type command-key equivalents.

Users frequently had to overextend their fingers to reach the backslash(\), vertical bar (|), backquote (`), and tilde (~) keys on the keypad.

People were nervous about accidentally hitting the volume, brightness, and Power controls, and altered their typing because of the position of these keys.

The size and shape of the mouse was causing finger strain.

"A lot of NeXT users are power users," says Bill Verplank, the lead human factors engineer at IDEO. "They use the Command keys and the Control key. They don't use the mouse all the time."

Making things better
My personal complaint with NeXT's old keyboard was its feel. The keys had a lot of resistance at the top of their travel but virtually no resistance at the bottom. The result: After my fingers overcame the initial resistance and started moving down, they crashed into the backstop transmitting repeated trauma up my fingers and into my hand. NeXT's new keyboard solves this problem by using conductive rubber in its switch technology.

Another problem with NeXT's old keyboard was the tilt. You could use it in a flat position or put on the rubber feet for a tilt of roughly 15 degrees. The new keyboard allows four different tilt positions, and it only takes a moment to change from one to another. That's important, because ergonomics experts say that changing your position on a regular basis is almost as important as having a good position from which to start.

Of course, the biggest change with the new keyboard is the Command bar, located beneath the space bar. The idea, says Verplank, is to make it easier for people to type command-key combinations. With both the old and the new keyboards, people tend to press either Command key with a thumb. But with the new keyboard, "people twist their wrist less" ,says Verplank, who adds that IDEO is applying for a patent on the invention.

But how does it feel?
I felt an immediate difference within the first ten minutes of using the new keyboard. I suffered none of the usual needles of pain shooting up my fingers. Using the Command bar felt natural after another five minutes, although I still mistake it for the space bar from time to time.

The mouse also felt better. It forms a "V" between its body and buttons; this spot gave me a comfortable place to rest my fingers and control the mouse's movement.

The new NeXT keyboard and mouse may have the best ergonomic design on the market. But it is important to remember that no keyboard, no matter how well it is designed, will let you type 20 hours a day for two years without problems. Still, if I'm going to be using a NeXT keyboard, I'd rather use the new one than the old one.

by Simson Garfinkel