Editor’s note: Michael Maddox is a Senior Scientist at HumanCentric Technologies.

CARY,The fundamental tenet of the human factors profession is to make sure to consider the capabilities and limitations of users during the product development process. It’s virtually impossible for someone in my line of work to look at a consumer product without thinking about how it accommodates the people who will use it — except, of course, if the product is really cool and I’m buying it for me.

So it came to pass that I needed to upgrade the computer for my home office near Greensboro.

Until the past few years, I owned and used PC’s with some form of Microsoft operating system. However, a few years ago, I took the plunge and bought one of the new Apple iMac desktop computers — the cool one with the white hemisphere body and the floating flat screen. I liked it so much that I also bought an Apple PowerBook laptop computer.

Well, now, Apple has a new iMac computer with really fast processors. However, it’s main claim to fame is that the entire computer is packaged with the flat panel display and the whole thing is mounted on a really nice metal pedestal.

One of the new iMac models has a huge 20-inch flat panel display. My old iMac had a 15″ display, which I thought was plenty big. However, one of my human factors colleagues waxed eloquent on how the new 20″ display was so nice. Of course, Apple has always been known for its excellent industrial design. The new iMac computer is really nice looking. What the heck — I bought the big new iMac.

Uh-oh, I Wear Glasses

Even though I ordered my new computer without actually seeing one in the flesh, I was very interested in actually putting my hands on the new iMac. On a trip before Christmas, my wife and I stopped at the new mall in Durham and I dropped into the Apple Store. They had several new iMac’s displayed on shelves that are attached to the wall of the store. These shelves allow you to stand up and use the computers. I was very impressed by the 20″ iMac. It has a very clean and elegant look — and the display is stunning. I couldn’t wait to get home and set up my new computer.

My workspace is a computer table. The work surface is about 28 inches above the floor. There’s plenty of room for my printer, a couple of small satellite speakers, a keyboard, and also room for printed material adjacent to the computer. My new computer is equipped with Bluetooth, so my keyboard and mouse are not attached to the computer with wires. When I set up my new machine, I was impressed. It was gorgeous.

I stayed impressed for several hours. Then it occurred to me that I couldn’t focus on the top half of the display without tilting my head back so I could look through the bottom part of my glasses. I came to the realization that I wear bi-focal glasses, and I need to look through the bottom part of the lenses to focus on small type within about two and a half feet — about the distance I sit from the computer display. The top of the new iMac display is about 6 inches above the top of my old iMac display — and its height can’t be adjusted without dismounting it from the nice-looking metal pedestal.

Form Over Usability

Slowly putting my human factors hat back on, I thought, “Well, gee, I wonder if other people are having this problem.”

I went to one of the iMac discussion sites and, sure enough, there were several notes from people like myself who wear bifocals and can’t focus on the top part of their new iMac display. This appears to be a classic case of putting form over function or, more accurately, form over usability. The highest priority in the design of the new iMac was apparently putting the entire computer in a single, slim case and making it look very cool. I believe the designers accomplished this goal. It’s actually quite an engineering feat.

However, the new iMac can tilt, but not raise and lower. The computer case has about 4″ to 5″ of white plastic below the display area. However, it has the functional effect of raising the display by that same 4″ to 5″.

The pedestal mount adds another few inches to the display height. Since heat dissipation is a big issue with fast processors, the designers included cool-air intake vents in the bottom edge of the case. The bottom edge also contains the built-in speakers. It wouldn’t be a good idea to remove the computer from its pedestal and place it directly on a work surface.

Home Improvements

I thought about how to solve this problem for over a week. I searched the Internet for dual-height worktables, thinking I could simply lower the height of the computer and leave the keyboard and other work surfaces at their current height. I discovered that the type of work desk I sought is called a “recessed monitor work stand”, but they’re all designed for CRTs which typically don’t have large enough cutouts for a 20″ wide display, and they are very expensive.

The more I thought about it, the more convinced I became that I could fix my existing table to accommodate the new computer. So, on the afternoon of New Year’s Eve, I built a cutout template, moved my computer table out onto the porch, hooked up my plunge router and set to work. Basically, I cut a hole in the top of the table and built a small shelf on which the pedestal now rests. I lowered the entire computer 6 inches. I also put a hole in the back of the vertical section of the table, so I could route all the cables for the printer, UPS, speakers, iPod, etc., below the table top and into the back of the computer.

As soon as I put the computer into the “improved” worktable, I knew the problem was solved. In fact, it’s just about perfect at its new display height. I can focus on the entire display surface without tilting my head back. Too bad I didn’t think of this before I bought the computer.

Too bad Apple didn’t think about it before they started selling iMacs to mature people, like myself, with bifocals.

Michael Maddox received his doctorate in industrial engineering and human factors from Virginia Tech. He is a Senior Scientist for HumanCentric Technologies (www.humancentrictech.com ), with a focus on risk analysis and human error reduction, management and education. Mike can be reached at 919-481-0565 or mmaddox@humancentrictech.com.