The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Friday, February 26, 2010

RSI Day Part 1: Cross-eyed

With International RSI Awareness Day falling over the weekend (the last day of February), I've been thinking about what to write in my annual RSI nag. Every year, I try to write a blog post and/or shamelessly email everyone I know to remind them about the basics when it comes to avoiding RSI, but I do get a bit bored of repeating (ha!) the same old stuff about posture, work station set-up and the importance of regular breaks (check my archives under Feb 2008 for a good overview).

Then I realised that over the past few days I've been getting rotten headaches from working at my computer and I thought I'd broaden my topic out into general computer-related health issues - seeing as they're all linked anyway. As someone who's got a great work station set-up (screen at the right height and distance, good lighting, etc.) and who takes regular breaks, I really shouldn't be getting headaches from looking at my screen and for most of the time, I don't. When I sat back and thought about it though, I realised it makes a huge difference what I'm looking at on my screen.

Up until Wednesday of this week, I'd been mostly working on an editing job. I'd been printing out the pages of manuscript to read and make notes on away from my computer - not a very efficient technique, but a really useful one when too much computer time has such a bad effect on your health - then I'd been dictating my comments and feedback into a Word document. Generally, I like to work in Word as much as I can, partly because it's the application in which my voice recognition software is most effective, but also because it's generally easy to look at. You've got lots of white space on the screen, you can have reasonably large print and you can use nice fonts, bolding, underlining, etc. for variety. In short, it tends to be easy on the eye.

For the past couple of days though I've gone back to a corpus research job. I don't know if you've ever seen corpus software, but generally it involves scrolling through screens and screens of lines of text. That text is in a horrible, old-fashioned Courier or Times New Roman font with your key search word highlighted down the middle of the screen. Research generally involves searching for a word, then sorting the lines of text to the left or the right and scrolling up and down to try and spot patterns emerging. It's perhaps not surprising then that you soon find yourself going rather cross-eyed and with a stinking headache. [Please don't try to read the below or you really will give yourself a headache!!]

I know the advice is that you should look away from the screen regularly and focus on something in the middle distance so that the muscles in your eyes don't get stuck in one position rather in the same way that keeping your hand clamped on the mouse in the same position is bad for you. But you still can't get away from the fact of having to look at those ugly lines for hours on end. I wonder whether the folks who design software for professional use should put a bit more attention into the way their screens look? Do other people using specialist software applications suffer in the same way? I've certainly seen some of the spreadsheets that my accountant boyfriend spends his day staring at and they don't look great either. Perhaps we need some of the designers who make (good) websites look attractive and user-friendly to be put to use in some of the less sexy areas of software design?

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