It’s strange how we can invest so much time and effort pursuing something as ephemeral as the exhilaration of a ski run through the trees in perfect powder snow under a blue sky even though the reality all too often is icy pistes and poor visibility. Yet still we go back every year.
The ergonomics of ski equipment is generally very good. Ski bindings accommodate an extremely broad target audience, not only in terms of physical size and strength, but also skill and skiing style. Skis are ever easier to turn, more stable at speed, and better able to cope with different snow conditions. Goggles fit every different face and head, and avoid misting up.
Seasoned ski bums and boarders appreciate the improved thermal environment provided by enclosed gondola lifts that you sit inside, instead of totally exposed ‘all-weather’ chairlifts. Or the way that manual dexterity problems have been overcome by the installation of automated lift pass systems where an electronic chip in the card is detected by the machine from a distance. This means that you can go straight through the turnstile without having to root around in the wrong pocket for a swipe card. (The combination of gloved fingers and a slippery card often resulted in a stinging slap from the recoil of the elastic cord attaching the lift pass to your jacket!)
With most people either steadfast skiers or snowboarders but not usually both, does the design of equipment have any bearing on which method of sliding down a mountain people prefer?
Firstly, let’s look at the differences in posture. The neutral, forward-facing stance adopted by skiers as they carve their turns down the mountain comes more naturally to most; it eases the burden on the joints and muscles, working with more natural movements. The posture of a boarder, with one shoulder leading the way, puts more strain on the upper body due to the twisted position. And having the head always turned so you can look down the slope, can lead to muscular fatigue in the neck.
There are, of course, differences in the equipment for each sport too. The one area where snowboarding can take a point away from skiing is the design of the boots. Snowboarders have the luxury of soft boots, something that after a full day on the slopes has a lot going for it. The external hard shell of ski boots makes them much more difficult to walk in. Ski boots have a huge array of adjustments that help you to get just the right fit to transfer your weight to the right part of the ski. These include the pressure strap, the clips and buckles, flex adjuster and cant adjuster. Boarders’ boots have laces.
Ski bindings hold your boots on the skis, and transfer the pressure you put on your boots to the skis, allowing you to control their direction. Modern skis are fitted with safety bindings so that the boot releases quickly from the ski when excess pressure is exerted or when the foot twists; ultimately helping to avoid injury when you fall. Ski bindings also offer good adjustability, not only to accommodate people with different boot sizes, but they are also set to accommodate the skier’s weight, strength and skiing ability – important points if you’re to avoid knee ligament injuries. Snowboards do have adjustability but it is much more limited, enabling users to change the angle of their feet on the board according to their preference but not much else. Without a quick release mechanism it means that snowboarders are attached to their boards until the bindings are manually undone – not a desirable prospect if you find yourself tumbling down the mountainside or sliding uncontrolled on a patch of ice. However, knee injuries are less common in boarders than skiers because their legs can’t slide apart.
If you’re a boarder or a skier, avalanche transceivers are a vital piece of kit if you intend to ski off-piste. They are radio transmitters that help rescuers locate you if you’re caught in an avalanche, and which can be switched to ‘receive’ to allow you to search for others. Whilst practising with one of these (minutes make a difference to survival, being buried under an avalanche is not the time to be fumbling with a new device trying to remember how it works), it was apparent how much design effort has gone into a user interface likely to be operated under extreme stress. For example, switching between transmit mode (the default state) and search mode is easy to do wearing gloves, it can’t be accidentally operated, and it clearly indicates its mode. There’s simple and clear visual and audible indication of direction and distance to a buried beacon, and the number of beacons. It’s easy to hold, and permanently attached to the harness.
Why should the ergonomics of the design be so good? Why should the designers have put so much effort into optimising it? Transceivers tend to be bought by a discerning consumer, by which we mean someone who thinks carefully about fitness for purpose and how it will be used. And ease of use becomes a product differentiator. This applies market forces to the design process.
The winter sports holiday experience has undoubtedly improved dramatically over the last 20 years thanks to the consideration given to the anatomical limitations of skiers and the subsequent effects on design of the equipment. It’s just a pity that fitness and ability are then left entirely to us!
If the designers of ski safety equipment can get it right, how can consumers in other contexts be helped to encourage good design? If you look at most leisure pursuits, equipment and clothing tends to embody good ergonomics. Whether it’s the design of a golf club, or the winch on a racing yacht, huge amounts of effort goes into optimising the interaction between person and device. Again, it seems to me that it’s driven, in part, by a discerning consumer. You may not know precisely why something works well, but you can recognise the benefit of the good design.
Good ergonomics is more prevalent than we sometimes acknowledge.
Adapted from articles by Jon Berman and Alexandra Lang.