If you wanted an ergonomic keyboard in 1993, you didn’t have a lot of options. Computing’s migration from the office to the home in that year was turning more and more of us into non-stop typists, opening the door for an epidemic of Carpal Tunnel Syndrome. But the keyboards that might help alleviate it were specialized, tricky to adjust and spectacularly expensive.
Microsoft knew that the future lay in home computing, and they also knew it wouldn’t happen if millions of their consumers were getting injured using their products. So they came to Ziba to help make the ergonomic keyboard as accessible to home users as the word processing program.
Technology Empowering People
The Keyboard Reliant
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This wasn’t Microsoft’s first attempt at making hardware, nor was it their first creative partnership with Ziba. Years before creating blockbusters like the XBox, the software juggernaut began by wading into the consumer electronics market with its own mouse and other peripherals, and quickly found a solid partner in Ziba.
Standard keyboards of the day were still mostly based on mechanical typewriters.
Looking at the landscape of peripherals available at the time, the two collaborators agreed that ergonomic keyboards presented a unique opportunity. Standard keyboards of the day were still mostly based on mechanical typewriters; they pointed users’ hands at awkward angles and put damaging pressure on their wrists. Alternatives existed, but were considered therapeutic device rather than home computing accessories — more akin to a knee brace than a peripheral. That meant hours of adjustment to get them right, an aesthetic that looked completely out of place in the home, and a price tag in the hundreds of dollars. If Ziba could help Microsoft break that trend, they’d have a market-changer on their hands, and their customers would have fewer trips to the doctor.
What wrists really need.
When designing an ergonomic keyboard, the first thing you have to get right is the ergonomics, and for a technology-driven company like Microsoft, that meant lots of testing and analysis. Fortunately, the labs and the research were already there. Careful review of existing ergonomic studies revealed a simple but powerful way to solve the adjustability problem: height variations mean different people need different vertical tilts in their keyboards, but the correct lateral angle of their wrists is more or less constant. The fussy two-part keyboards of the day, it turned out, were unnecessary.
Instead, the Ziba team began pursuing a design that split the keys into two angled groups, but captured them in a single frame. This decision also made it easier to incorporate “gable slope”, allowing the typist’s palms to gently face each other, further reducing strain. Adjustability was limited to a tilt rail on the keyboard’s front underside, making it comfortable whether the typist was 5’0” and perched on a stool, or 6’3” and standing. Integrated wrist pads were another innovation, providing a soft resting place that stayed with the keyboard, rather than tacking them on as other manufacturers demanded.
Dollars, cents and surfaces.
Despite all the research and references, getting the angles and surfaces right largely came down to trial and error. Sketches became models, rough-cut out of urethane foam, which were then carved and sanded to match a proposed form. The most promising models were driven up to Microsoft’s labs near Seattle, where test subjects would simulate typing, sometimes for hours, under the watchful eye of ergonomics experts and a suite of pressure sensors.
The design that finally went to production was more than just the sum of the best scientific knowledge; it was as carefully shaped and contoured as a sports coupe, boasting surfaces that pushed the capabilities of early 90s Computer Aided Design software to its limits.
The design cut production costs dramatically by using existing standard key caps, but mounting them in a two-part keyboard body that could be molded with no undercuts or side-pulls. And the decision to limit the materials to just two kinds of plastic didn’t just reduce costs, it also made recycling far easier.
Success: A new category and a lasting collaboration.
The resulting product, released in 1994 as the Microsoft Natural Keyboard, quickly became the best-selling ergonomic keyboard in history. With a retail price under $100, it transformed market perceptions by putting thoughtful design within the reach of home consumers, who responded by purchasing upwards of 600,000 of them per month at the peak of the keyboard’s popularity. Although other manufacturers eventually jumped in and made the category more competitive, the Natural Keyboard’s resounding success led the way for Microsoft’s expansion into hardware production, and cemented a creative relationship with Ziba that lasts to this day.