Why your TV remote is annoying

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THE LAST time you visited the dentist, did you feel comfortable in the chair? You should have - it is designed to be more like a bed. But the last time you ate in a fast-food outlet, you were probably not able to sit on the chairs for more than a few minutes without finding yourself sliding off. That is no surprise: uncomfortable chairs mean a faster turnover for such organisations.

Such subtle elements of design - the "ergonomics" of products - are the focus of a new exhibition that starts today, the beginning of Science Week, in the Science Museum in London.

Yet although the importance of ergonomics has become increasingly recognised in the past 50 years, many products are still marketed without posing essential questions about their final use, said Tom Stewart, managing director of System Concepts, a London-based ergonomics consultancy.

"The classic one is the video recorder," he said. "The problem is that it is trying to squeeze too much functionality into too small a space on the remote control, so it ends up impossible to use.

"It's the same thing with washing machines that have 25 programmes - in fact, after three months you will find you only use three or four. But when buying, we have a tendency to think that more must be better."

Although the term "ergonomics" was coined in 1857, when it appeared in a Polish newspaper, it was mostly applied to people at work until the Second World War. Then designers became interested in aircraft cockpit design, after which their expertise was applied in a wide range of other fields.

It is now 50 years since the United Kingdom's Ergonomics Society, which is a co-sponsor of the new exhibition, was formed. Even so, Mr Stewart said, companies still ignore the lessons of ergonomics in product design.

The exhibition will feature interactive exhibits such as the British Standard Dog (whose measurements are used for designing objects which will affect dogs) and a buttock measurer, which lets visitors see how their nether ends compare to industry standards.

Mr Stewart was due to attend the opening but instead will be watching milkmen at work as part of a project which could redesign the traditional milkfloat. What lessons has he learnt from it so far? "First, it's different in different cities but they all work at night," he said, "and secondly, it's bloody cold."