Since publishing our keyboard guide, I have long intended to create a matching resource on the pointing device side of things. Like the keyboard guide, this is more focused on breadth than depth. Products I haven’t tried are included, with each being clearly indicated as such.
If you know what you’re looking for, feel free to jump to the right section:
- The Usual Suspects – You’ll recognize these, or their close cousins, if you’ve ever shopped for a mouse.
- The Arm Wrestlers – Straighten up that wrist! Many popular designs are focused on making your arm a blunt instrument.
- Let’s Go Vertical – Don’t straighten the wrist; instead, rotate it to a scientifically-calculated perfect angle.
- Trackballs and rollers – These are the ones that don’t move.
- Alternative Technologies – Why use a mouse at all?
What makes a mouse ergonomic?
If there were a device to measure the objective ergonomic benefit of a particular computer peripheral, choosing the one for you would be easy. You could simply look for the highest “ergonomic index” available, buy that, and ignore everything else. But of course this won’t work, because there is no objective standard of “ergonomicness,” anymore then there is an objective standard of comfort for shoes (or an actual English word “ergonomicness,” for that matter). Different things work for different people, and that principle is not going to change anytime soon. Your job is not to figure out what works for most people; it’s to figure out what works for you. But in doing that, it’s also helpful to have a basic understanding of the most common factors affecting user comfort.
Many ergonomic mice are designed with the idea of reducing wrist movement. The reasoning behind this, while not shared by everyone, is simple: bending your wrist is what tends to deform the channels through which nerves run, so if you can stop bending your wrist, you are less likely to impinge a nerve. It’s the same reason that people wear braces for carpal tunnel syndrome. (Not that braces are necessarily a good solution, but now we’re getting into medical territory.)
While I don’t know of an ergonomic mouse that comes with a brace to keep your wrist straight, many are designed to produce a sort of “invisible brace.” If a mouse is made large enough and shaped correctly, it becomes easier to control by moving your arm than by bending your wrist.
When the focus is on reducing wrist movement, one thing typically goes overboard: precision. While your arm is big and powerful, it is not made for doing precise tasks. For example, imagine trying to write with your arm in a cast from fingers to elbow. You could probably do it, but only in very big letters. It’s the same with mouse control. You can accomplish quite a bit using the large muscles of your arms, but you may struggle with precise tasks like pixel-perfect work in Photoshop. If your work involves many such tasks, you may prefer an ergonomic mouse design that reduces wrist movement the other way – by transferring the load to your fingers.
To understand pronation, sit down in front of a desk or table about elbow height, and lay your hands comfortably on the table in front of you. Now look at your hands. If they are totally flat, with palms straight out on the table, then you are either a very unusually shaped person, or else you didn’t really relax. Because of the way the human body is built, it requires effort to flatten your palm in a downward position. This effort isn’t very large, but the strain can build up significantly over time if you use a mouse that puts your palm straight down.
At the other end of the spectrum from pronation is the vertical mouse position. While putting your hand at 90 degrees gets it as far as possible from total pronation, it must be noted that straight vertical is not the most natural and comfortable position for most people either. Rather, the hands of most users will land somewhere between zero and 90 degrees when relaxed. Different mouse manufacturers choose different angles to proclaim the “most natural.” If you can’t decide which is right, you’ll be glad to know that at least one (Oyster) makes the angle adjustable.
Okay, enough theory. Let’s look at some products.