Ergonomorama

Ergonomorama

I have hardcore tennis elbow. I’ve spent a couple grand accommodating this. Maybe you can learn from my ergonomic expenditures.

My ergonomic backstory

In 2008, the job market was not so hot. I had worked my first ever tech contract, which felt kind of terrifying to me since I was basically guaranteeing future unemployment by taking a short-term (but career-advancing) role. The recession hit, my contract ended, it predictably took forever to find re-employment, and so I took an interim job in a chiropractic clinic that needed someone bilingual to help out. Big mistake!

When I started hooking patients into their traction weights, I suffered a very bad repetitive stress injury that left me with permanent chronic tendinitis (tennis elbow) in both arms. Multiple courses of physical therapy haven’t helped the issue. My RSI constantly gets flared up whenever I use keyboards, mice, touch screens, game controllers, and a whole host of other real-world objects now, and increased flare-ups have spread the pain and injury from my hands to my shoulders and back. It’s difficult to manage because of how severe and sudden the injury was, and how many regular activities (all tech usage plus brushing hair and teeth, pouring water jugs, carrying groceries, shifting gears, etc.) can flare it right back up again.

However, the upside is that the pain has given me license to spring for any ergonomic upgrades that I need to keep it manageable. I hope these annotations on my various ergonomic purchases over the years are helpful to those of you who are considering a more ergonomic workstation. Some purchases have definitely been more worthwhile than others!

Sit/stand desk

I’ve got a GeekDesk v2, which is no longer offered but is similar-ish to the v3. I got the smaller frame size with the relatively larger desktop size, which no longer seems to be an option, but was in between the small and large sizes that are currently offered. My frame is silvers and my desktop is black. I’m mostly happy with it, but I might do more research and make a different purchase today if I got a do-over.

My main complaint is the desktop surface itself. I recommend getting your own desktop, or covering their laminate one in a material that doesn’t so readily accept water and finger oil marks. I see my clients surreptitiously scrubbing to remove marks all the time, I and I feel bad! I want to tell them not to worry and that it happens all the time on my side too, but I don’t want to make them uncomfortable. This probably seems silly, but if you have even a drop of obsessive tendencies (or design snobbery) in you, I urge you to procure your own desktop. GeekDesk marks do scrub out with the right cleaner, but it’s annoying to have to do that more often than actual cleanliness concerns would dictate.

Also note that if you screw or clamp anything into your GeekDesk, you need to make sure its thickness is acceptable—it’s too thin for a lot of hardware, so I’ve had to get special screws or jury-rig a spacer in some clamps. Furthermore, GeekDesk is a little dicey when it comes to weight management and overall stability compared to some of its competitors. I’ve tightened the frame every few months (hang on to that allen wrench), but I worry about all the weight I currently have on it. I don’t think I’d be able to add a giant second external monitor, for example.

Lastly, the GeekDesk doesn’t have any memory presets for height. This isn’t wildly important if your desk is pushed against a wall where you can make a little mark or something, but my desk floats in the middle of the room so I don’t have that option. I kinda wish there were a few presets even though I mostly get by just going by what feels best. I don’t love having to press two buttons to lift and lower it, either—I get that it’s a safety mechanism, but I’d like to be able to one-hand it.

Oh, and I’m not a treadmill desk person, but if I wanted to be I don’t think the GeekDesk would be tall enough for me (I’m 5’11”). Unless you got really fancy and set your treadmill into your floor, the height of the treadmill would make the tallest possible position of the GeekDesk too short to comfortably type while maintaining a good monitor height, even with a pretty darn tall monitor arm. Granted, I haven’t actually tested this setup, but my sense from the height presets I currently use is that it wouldn’t work out. (I generally max out the desk’s height when I’m standing at it, with my keyboard tray in a low position.)

The GeekDesk was the right price point at the time I made the purchase, but I’d consider getting a different brand if I were in the market for a sit/stand desk today.  At the very least, I’d say do more research than I did; there are far more options available today as standing desks gain popularity.

Monitor arm and accessories

I’ve got my 13″ MacBook Pro and external monitor in an ESI dual monitor holder and laptop tray. I love the arm 90% of the time, but it’s just barely too short for my desired ergonomic viewing angle and FaceTime webcam height. (I’m 5’11” with a fairly long torso; a monitor with an integrated webcam at the top would help with the latter point.) Test and measure to make sure the arm you get goes as high or low as you need, especially if you’re tall and/or you use an adjustable height desk. Mine definitely doesn’t have enough flexibility for my preferences; I could also use some monitor pitch tilting which it doesn’t offer. Some brands allow for a setup that let you buy a separate “raiser” piece; even if you don’t spring for that at the beginning, it’s a nice option to have if you discover you need more flexibility.

I strongly dislike my ESI laptop tray. The knobs on the bottom are insanely difficult to adjust, and the tray only slides small enough to snugly fit a 15″ laptop. The rubberized strips don’t actually hold a smaller laptop in place, so I have to jam something in there (currently two decks of cards) to space my 13″ laptop farther up in order to get an acceptable FaceTime camera height for video chats. (Vain, but come on; that’s how I spend 80% of my client interaction time. No one needs to see me with nine chins while we talk.)

If I were to make this purchase over again, I’d find something that was better compatible with my smaller hardware, but that still used a VESA bracket. (Note that the Humanscale laptop trays use their own proprietary latching system, while ESI uses the more standard VESA bracket system. I think other brands do the proprietary connector thing too; double check the connection hardware before you purchase.) Some better cord disguising in the laptop tray also wouldn’t hurt.

When I was researching monitor arms, I found that Ergotron arms are often way cheaper, but ultimately inferior. After reading reviews and checking measurements and weight limits, I determined that they weren’t right for my needs. But I pinned a zillion of them on my ergonomics board, in case you find that data helpful. I found it very helpful to check out monitor arms in person, though, as the overall build quality becomes much more apparent with a floor model you can move and swivel.

My ESI monitor arm system works well enough with my desk thickness, but just barely. You may actually need shims or spacers if you have  a very slim desk surface, which may end up looking ugly or compromising stability. These arms add a ton of weight, which may be a problem for some hydraulic sit/stand desks. And lastly, my model doesn’t handle super-huge heavy monitors like the older 27″ iMac, or possibly the Thunderbolt Display (much to my dismay). Check the weight limits of your desk itself as well as each arm of any monitor support systems before you get too deep into designing your setup.

Keyboad tray

I modded my GeekDesk with a custom ISE brand pull-out keyboard tray wide enough for a left and right mouse as well as a keyboard. (Because it’s custom there’s no retail link for it, but I purchased it and had it further customized at Keeney’s Office Supplies.)

My tray, while very wide, is just narrow enough that I need to get numpadless keyboard models in order to comfortably mouse both left and right. (These are a good idea anyway for proper ergonomics.) Most keyboard trays aren’t wide enough for dual mousing, but most users don’t need them to be. If you’re pro numpad; you may want to look for a model that has a separate mousing tray attached. Just be careful to minimize the distance your dominant hand has to travel to reach the mouse—I find that keyboard trays with a dedicated mouse platform often place the mouse way too far from the keyboard for my comfort.

Commence maximum type muffling!
<tray:width = 100%>

A huge advantage of the keyboard tray is greater flexibility with sit/stand setups. I opted for a tray with fairly complex swiveling and pivoting features that allow for different heights as well as depths and angles. This is better for keeping a neutral wrist position (especially when standing), as well as for compensating for the relatively low height of almost all monitor arms. You want your keyboard fairly low and your monitor fairly high (if you’re me and/or tall or slouchy), but sometimes you want a different height when you’re sitting than standing. I recommend springing for a more robust tray that gives you more options. I actually see that ISE makes a dedicated sit/stand desk version now, though I get by just fine with my less swoopy version.

If you opt for a dedicated keyboard tray, especially if you’re pairing a tray with an adjustable desk, I recommend finding a local office supply shop that can cut and/or otherwise customize things for you. You should also measure like crazy. The crossbar on GeekDesks is so far forward that it blocks a full keyboard tray brace installation. (I don’t really know the proper name for the piece I’m calling a brace, but it’s the long metal track that you screw directly into the desktop to mount the tray.) It’s really nice to test all the movements out anyway, so it’s worth the effort of finding an in-person shop.

You’ll also need to possibly use different hardware than what comes with your tray, depending on the thickness of your desk. If you cut down your brace length, I recommend finding or drilling more spots for screws to compensate for any brace length removed, just to make sure it’s very well attached to your desk. Can’t be too careful with super heavy and expensive equipment, ya know?

Oh, here’s my only real annoyance with the ISE tray: the whole thing is super high quality solid and HEAVY hardware, but then the little plastic doo-hickey that acts as a stopper is cheap and flimsy. (Not crazy about the fact that the stopper is a few millimeters taller than my GeekDesk is thick, either!) So when I adjust my tray a little too aggressively, especially when pulling it forward, a) the little ISE thing falls out, and b) sometimes the entire tray piece pops out of its track. I have to immediately stop whatever I’m doing, lift the heavy tray, and guide it carefully back into place.

The connection to hold the plastic thing also wears out with frequent removal and replacement, so the issue only becomes more pronounced over time. This is a problem I’ve been meaning to solve with creativity and possibly glue, but it’s an annoying design flaw that will probably irritate the sort of person who is interested in this blog post.

Keyboard and mouse

On that keyboard tray is an Evoluent vertical mouse, a Matias Laptop Pro keyboard, and a cheap Logitech wireless mouse on the left. Here is more detail on those, plus notes from my extensive keyboard research.

Evoluent vertical mouse

This mouse has totally sucky drivers, but good ergonomics in the hardware itself and good enough mouse functionality. It definitely takes a while to get used to, and isn’t great for activities like PC gaming where you need to have super fast response times. But it gets the job done, there are craploads of buttons if you’re a custom button person, and definitely reduces carpal tunnel type wrist strain. That isn’t my primary ergonomic concern, so it still sometimes hurts to use this mouse when my tennis elbow is flared up—which is why I keep a left hand mouse too.

I haven’t tried Evoluent’s wireless or Bluetooth vertical mice, but I’d like to upgrade to the latter eventually to free up a USB slot. However, their software is so crappy (half the button bindings don’t work at all in Windows 8.1, and they sometimes mysteriously reset themselves on any OS) that I’m reluctant to trust that the wireless models have successful Bluetooth or even proprietary wireless connectivity. If I ever bought one of these, I’d do so from a shop to which I could return easily if necessary.

Note that Evoluent does make a Mac-specific version of their mice, although I find that the PC one works fine on Mac (and actually works better on Mac than PC if you’re rocking a recent Windows OS). The company also makes right- and left-handed versions,  and  small and large sizes. I haven’t tried the left or small options in person, but I find the large to be perfect and can’t imagine that the small would be an improvement. (I mouse with my right hand dominantly, but have learned to mouse left to better manage my RSI. I don’t think I could fairly evaluate a dedicated left-handed mouse, though.)

One note of Evoluent ownership is that you should probably keep a cheap “guest mouse” available if anyone else uses your computer, like, ever. People unfamiliar with the Vertical Mouse tend to find it very intimidating. A cheap wireless Logitech that you can swap out does the job. (The Logitech I use for left-handed mousing is unremarkable and doesn’t merit elaboration here, except that I find symmetrical designs easier to manage with my non-dominant hand.)

I like that the Evoluent Vertical Mouse doesn’t need a dedicated mouse pad. It does just fine on bare surfaces, which I can’t say for Logitech or even some pricey dedicated gaming mice.

Matias Laptop Pro keyboard

The Laptop Pro was a stopgap solution for me—I needed a new keyboard FAST, ideally mechanical, ideally somewhat portable, and ideally a split ergonomic layout with some tenting options for comfort. The Laptop Pro really only checked the mechanical box; I intend to upgrade again eventually.

This thing is not as quiet as Matias advertises, so it’s just as clacky and distracting on mic as a deliberately noisy Das Keyboard. At least to my ear. Maybe you don’t mind that? Great!

The Laptop Pro is deceptively thick, heavy, and awkward to travel with. So while it has a smaller footprint than most keyboards, it isn’t actually a good portable keyboard at all (an Apple Bluetooth would be far superior, and neither offers any protection of the keys). I also sometimes have trouble with the Bluetooth connectivity even when it’s right in front of the target machine, but it’s hard to isolate the issue there.

That said, the battery life is amazing, and the fully powered charging ports are pretty darn cool too. It’s a very solid piece of hardware that feels well constructed. I’ve  had poor experiences with Matias’s customer support, but you probably won’t need it. I’ve always been able to solve wonky connectivity issues by just trying over and over again, unpairing and repairing, etc.

As I mentioned, though, I strongly prefer a split ergonomic layout, so I’ll probably pick up the Matias Ergo Pro when it finally releases. However, the ship date for this has changed four times since this spring, so if you’re desperate for ergonomic relief, you may not be able to wait. (That was the reason I sprung for the Laptop Pro even though it didn’t meet all of my needs.)

For a non-split keyboard with no tenting, I find the Laptop Pro astoundingly comfortable, and I do feel like I got my money’s worth. I can see it being a fantastic piece of hardware for people with less picky ergonomic needs than my own!

Other ergonomic keyboard options

Here are my conclusions on the other keyboards I’ve considered and rejected, in case you find those helpful:

Mechanical vs. not—I had been meaning to try a mechanical keyboard for years, and the folks at Geekhack.org finally got me to take the plunge. I’m completely sold and ruined for any membrane or rubber dome switch keyboard ever again. Not into the Apple-style ones, either, whatever those are called.

I found this link helpful in learning about which type of switches I like (Cherry MX Brown was my conclusion, although the Matias I eventually went with has its own proprietary switch type that’s similar in feel to the Cherry MX Brown). There’s also this Lifehacker piece, if you prefer hacking life over just reading web pages. And I learned a ton from MechanicalKeyboards.com even though I ultimately wound up purchasing elsewhere. They have GREAT options if your needs aren’t quite as picky and specific as mine; I’m still bummed I couldn’t pick up one of their cool backlit options!

Truly Ergonomic Keyboard—This keyboard was intriguing, but there were too many complaints about customer service to make me trust they’d handle a return well. The lack of tenting concerned me, because a tented keyboard I had tested while working at Amazon was far more comfortable, and I found their justification for no tenting pretty weak. More importantly, the special keyboard layout just seemed like too much to demand of users. I knew I’d be switching back and forth between this and a standard keyboard layout, which slows down my otherwise awesome typing speed. I also already have several international keyboard layouts kicking around in my brain, plus Mac and PC Ctrl vs. Cmd issues. I didn’t think I wanted to take on yet another one just because this one company said I should (with no tenting). :)

Goldtouch Go! Bluetooth—For the longest time this thing was incompatible with MacBooks (WHAT?!) yet worked with other Bluetooth hardware like iPhones, PCs, and Android phones. This made no sense to me, but a number of enraged Amazon reviews convinced me it was true. So I got on their mailing list and periodically harassed them every few months for over a year waiting for the updated version, only to eventually realize that I shouldn’t be trying so hard to snag a basic membrane keyboard anyway.

Well, GoldTouch never did email me when the redesign launched as promised , but they appear to have gone live with the fully Mac-compatible version. You can check that out and let me know if you like it. Its superior portability enticed me, even though it doesn’t seem as good for everyday typing. The folded-up factor seemed like a big help for travel, and the pseudo-tenting is a better ergonomic position than most travel keyboards offer. I may eventually get one of these if I end up doing loads more travel down the road, because it seems like the easiest to slip into my purse with an iPad Mini or even an iPhone.

Kinesis Advantage—this keyboard has different models ranging from expensive and complicated to really expensive and really complicated with foot pedals and everything. I’ve met people who swear by them, and I’ve tested them out for short periods of time, but the large space in between the two hands never felt like an advantage (hey-o!) to me. The expense and immense learning burden didn’t help, either. Definitely buy, borrow, or rent one of these from a place you can return it to if you give it a solid try and it doesn’t work for you. That said, bear in mind that anything that requires this drastic a relearning should get a lengthy trial period. I don’t feel that I gave it a full try, but I’m OK with that. I don’t believe it would fit on most keyboard trays because it’s quite deep compared to even most curved/split ergonomic keyboards.

Kinesis Freestyle + Ascent—The Kinesis Freestyle is another beloved ergonomic keyboard, but I found two major problems with it. 1) It’s got rubber dome switches instead of the vastly springier mechanical which I find way more comfortable. 2) It’s only comfortable with the Ascent hardware piece, which drastically increases the price and is just SO MUCH hardware. The Ascent also doesn’t fit well in some settings, such as in the distance between a keyboard tray and the top of a desk. All in all, it was just too much futzing and money for not a comfortable enough experience, at least for me. But I do find the Ascent’s tenting mechanism to be the most comfortable and versatile I’ve ever experienced in terms of hand/arm/wrist positioning. If this existed with mechanical key switches, and I had a few hundred extra bucks to blow, I might go back to this someday.

Chair and mat

Many ergonomic office shops sell dedicated standing desk mats, but I find those to be too hard on my feet. (It probably doesn’t help that I like to work barefoot or in socks/slippers.) I prefer my cushier Wellness Mat, which I stole from our kitchen sink area. My sense is that if you stand all the time, the firmer mats from an office store are better, but if you switch it up a ton like I do, or you’re just a shoe-hating hippie, a softer mat is your friend. See if you can test it out and return it if it doesn’t work for you.

When I elect to sit, I now use a HAG Capisco. This is the best task chair I’ve ever found for my needs, but it sure is weird! It’s made by a Danish company, and the idea is to promote “active sitting” which essentially means moving your ass around a lot.

You'd think it would be annoying to have the casters right on top of the mat, but it doesn't bug me. (Much.)
You’d think it would be annoying to have the casters right on top of the mat, but it doesn’t bug me. (Much.)

The seat contains a saddle-like lump in the middle that forces you to keep your legs apart, which can be tricky in a narrow skirt but I don’t tend to wear those. It also allows you to turn it around and sit backwards, leaning your torso forward on the back and armrests. I really like this option for longer phone calls when I don’t need to do much typing, but I can finagle typing in this position too if I need it which is nice.

I do still sometimes get weird issues in this chair, as with any chair—if I get super focused on a task for too long without shifting positions, I’m prone to some weird part of me falling asleep or feeling pinched. (But I’m not at a very healthy weight for my frame, so this tends to happen in any task chair.) I do find that the lumbar support plus saddle lump help me move around quite a bit, and the various pieces adjust just enough to help me switch up my positioning for good support.

There are a few options—you can elect to get a flat seat, but that removes the primary benefit so I wouldn’t recommend that route. You can also add on a headrest, footrest, foot ring, and different heights of pneumatic lift. I got the tallest lift in case I ever want to use it as a standing desk “perch”—not something I tend to do now, but I like the option. And I got the footring because when I tested it out in the store, that was the most comfortable at any height, but I’m finding that I don’t use it at all when sitting at a normal low height, only when I “perch” at my standing height which is very rare for me. It’s also very easy to add on later so maybe skip it in your initial purchase and see if you want to upgrade later. The headrest I would skip; I find it cumbersome and it doesn’t let you stretch out backwards or sit in the seat backwards. But generally, find a local showroom that lets you test out all the components before you spend.

Oh, another great thing about this chair is that it comes with many custom upholstery options, including several leathers and wool or hemp fabrics that are SO much more attractive than your average Corporate Polyester Bullshit Fabric. I got mine done in this bright red wool, which my cat and I both adore. You can’t tell a huge difference online, but the softer fashion-derived textile makes it read as a much less office-y chair in person, in my opinion.

Microphones and telephones

When I’m recording audio for a podcast, I use the Rode Podcaster in a boom and shock mount. It mostly stays out of the way during my day-to-day work, and I can pull it over to get right up close during audio sessions. The boom and shock are integral for me, but the boom arm I got as a kit from B&H Video is inferior (the arm slips all the time on my GeekDesk, and I’d like an easy-to-rig external pop filter, as I’ve noticed I kinda need it) so I wish I’d just bought this kit instead for less money. Either way, a boom arm is super helpful for allowing me to maintain a comfortable position while I’m recording, which sometimes takes ages. Even if you don’t get a boom for sound reasons, you’ll want to get one for ergonomic reasons so you don’t crane your neck in an awkward mic-kissing position for what can easily be two hours with prep and wrap-up. This is especially true if you type and/or reference materials on the screen while you’re recording.

Oh, and if you spend a long time on land line phone calls like it’s 1997 (I sure do), get a decent hands-free headset. I got this AT&T headset which works fine with my Panasonic cordless phone even though Panasonic claims it won’t. LIES. This thing works with Skype and Microsoft Lync too, although not FaceTime I don’t think (haven’t tried). Don’t be the idiot who gets a neck crick because you cradle the phone between your ear and shoulder!

And of course, for you old-school phone people, remember to put your phone close enough to your arms to minimize ergonomic strain. If you’re like me, you use the thing more than your brain admits, so be realistic about your phone frequency to distance calculations. :)

My weird office constraints

I use my home office for writing, recording, remote video conferencing, and in-person meetings with clients. While the bulk of my clientele is now remote, I see enough folks on site that I feel the need to keep my space attractive, professional, and functional for that purpose.

Because of this, and also because of the general layout of my office, my GeekDesk floats in the middle of the room, facing the door to my office. That can make cable management and disguising much more difficult than if I had a wall to help hide things. It’s still better for me this way, but it means that cords and cables can be kind of nightmarish.

So pretty, but for all those cords!
Pretty enough office, but for all those cords!

It also means that I have to kind of awkwardly swivel my monitors in order to see what I need while keeping a chunk of my desk clear to have line of sight with my in-person clients. (Not that I’m, like, casting ranged spells or anything, haha. But I want to be able to actually look at them instead of having a giant display blocking eye contact.)

I have to balance these client-friendly setup factors with my own ability to write and record comfortably the rest of the time. This is not a common set of constraints, but I’m listing my needs in case it helps anyone else figure out the right setup for their own office. For the most part, I spend enough energy beautifying the other elements in my office (cool wall color/art, nice rug, pretty objects displayed in bookshelves) that I think my on-site clients are forgiving of my existing cable and monitor ugliness. But it’s still something I’m always seeking to improve. Let me know if you’ve successfully solved these sorts of problems in a similar setup!

See? I'm distracting you with pretty-ish bookshelves.
See? I’m distracting you with pretty-ish bookshelves and of course cat pictures.

Where to buy ergonomic stuff

Whenever possible, I order my stuff from Fully (formerly Ergo Depot), which has showrooms in Portland and San Francisco. I can’t recommend them enough—shockingly great prices, no tax, free shipping, helpful employees who give great customer service, well stocked showrooms where you can play and test, and good return policies on non-custom stuff. They don’t give me a cent to shill for them, but it’s rare that I recommend a company this enthusiastically. Go give them your money.

ErgoDepot has the most complete upholstery options I’ve seen for the HAG Capisco, too. They’ll also send you swatches for free, though be warned those can take a while. Wherever you are, definitely find a place like this to try out the bigger-ticket items like desks and chairs, and possibly monitor arms too. Those you really don’t want to purchase sight unseen.

As for keyboard trays, as I mentioned, you’ll likely have to mod them out to fit your desk so you should buy them from a shop you can visit in person. Keeney’s was that shop for me, but if you’re not in my area, don’t be afraid to call around the more corporate-driven office supply operations to find a place with the right selection and ability to customize. It can be hard to find what you need in a consumer-facing office supply store, but you can even call tech companies in your area and ask them who does ergonomic assessments and/or provides office furniture, and go from there.

Keyboards and mice I’ve bought online, but I’m often torn between sites like Amazon and Newegg that have better pricing and shipping, and original manufacturer sites that are guaranteed to have the correct version of a product. When possible, I check the SKU and the critical reviews and their dates on Amazon/Newegg to see how likely it is that I’ll get burned by being sent the wrong product. But usually, if it’s the site or seller’s fault, you can get a return processed with no shipping fee, it just might slow you down a bit.

For this level of ergonomic wizardry, don’t even bother with normal office supply stores like Staples, Office Depot/Max, etc. They don’t stock a high enough quality level or a large enough selection with deep enough customization to be worth your time. Find the dedicated, nerdy shop nearest you that sells sit/stand desks, and ask them for resources if they don’t stock everything you need.

I think that about covers everything I have to weigh in about ergonomic equipment. What did I miss? Got any questions I can answer? I wish you all comfortable and healthy tech usage!