Ergonomics in computer science


In computer science we often care about computational complexity. How long will an algorithm take to run? How will it perform on average? In essence, how fast can we go? Though this is an important consideration, it omits a crucial implementation detail: the human factor. Is the algorithm painful or tedious to write? Is it overly complicated for the average programmer? That is, is it ergonomic to use? It is easy to demand that performance trumps all, but this is a costly mistake. Tools and environments must account for human factors; programming languages are no exception.

Ergonomics is the study of human relationship with work. It seeks to make necessary burdens easier and more enjoyable. This goal is based upon the observation that “long faces are not always efficient, nor are smiling ones idle”1. Ergonomics considers physical and psychological human factors, such as comfort and stress, respectively. It may, for example, suggest appropriate levels and types of lighting for the workplace to improve morale, or recommend chairs with a certain amount of back support to avoid long-term injury. This is all to improve the human condition and workplace efficiency.

Ergonomics is not confined to study physical factors. Beginning in the 1970s, researchers in ergonomics began to study mental workload. Roughly, this is how mentally taxing certain tasks are. If a worker’s mental workload is too high, they are likely to make mistakes or “burnout” faster than a relaxed employee. The following is a more technical definition:

[Mental workload is] the relation between the function relating the mental resources demanded by a task and those resources available to be supplied by the human operator2.

This problem is not constrained to office workers. Two studies in aviation accidents found that as much as 18% of pilot errors were due to confusing instrument design that made it difficult for pilots to understand their readouts3.

This is all to say that the tools we use and the tasks we complete should be easy to understand. We should not be satisfied that clear design happens by accident; we should deliberately strive for it. The consequences of ignoring this can range from decreased worker productivity and longevity, to grave, avoidable mistakes.

Consideration of mental workload is especially important in programming language design. Programming, more than other activities, is centered around thought. Its primary tool, the programming language, is a means to express computational thought in a way that the computer can understand. The task of the programmer is to mentally construct a solution to a problem, then translate this mental solution into a concrete programming language4. It is this translation step that increases mental workload.

As an example, consider a student beginning to learn programming. They must learn the mantra that computers are “stupid,” and will only do exactly as they are told, and no more. They must learn to translate their mental solutions into mechanical steps. Along the way they learn how to think in terms of this translation. The successful student will overcome this initial hurdle, but the mental workload of translation is always present. The mental workload that remains is largely a function of the programming language a programmer uses.

In the context of software, I call the contributions to this mental workload expressive complexity, in opposition to traditional computational complexity. Expressive complexity, then, measures how complicated algorithms are to implement, how difficult a language is to use, and how much mental strain is imposed on a programmer by these objects.


Consider the following task: Sum the integers from 1 to 100. Here are three solutions:


sum [1..100]




int sum = 0;
for(int k = 0; k <= 100; k++) {
    sum += k;

All three solutions have the same computational complexity. However, they clearly differ in their expressive complexity. The Haskell and Python solutions are almost exact 1-1 translations of the obvious solution: Just sum the integers from 1 to 100. In particular, the programmer does not have to think about explicit iteration, which is how computers think. Instead, they can essentially write down their mental solution.

In comparison, the C solution is very mechanical. It shows how the computer thinks of the process of summing integers, rather than how the programmer thinks of it. A separate sum variable must be accounted for, because computers must do such things, not because humans must do such things.

This example shows that expressive complexity is not just a feature of a particular algorithm, but rather a feature of particular languages. We may thus compare languages by their expressive complexity and decide which best suit our purpose.

There are a number of ways to measure expressive complexity. The earliest is the Halstead metrics, a set of metrics invented by Maurice Halstead to put this type of comparison on firmer footing. These metrics include measures such as “difficulty,” “effort,” and “vocabulary.”

Looking forward

My undergraduate thesis compares the expressive complexity of certain popular computer algebra systems. I chose this topic because I am deeply interested in the applications of computers to mathematics, and hope to develop a framework to help choose the “best” computer system.

Outside of my own efforts, it seems clear that ergonomically-minded languages are on the rise. Though languages like C and Java are the most popular right now, they are losing some ground. Many programming language research groups are focusing on newer, functional languages like Haskell and F#. Python is becoming an increasingly popular first language for people to learn, and has an enormous community with a great set of ergonomic libraries. The historical trend of improvement will hopefully continue.

  1. “On the Future of Work.” Peter Hancock, 1997. 

  2. “Situation Awareness, Mental Workload, and Trust in Automation.” Parasuraman et al., 2008. 

  3. Handbook of Human Factors and Ergonomics, 4th edition, pg. 244. 

  4. Of course, in actuality the lines are blurred. The programmer may have an idea of how to solve the problem in a mechanical way, and then later build a complete mental solution. That is, once a programmer becomes adept at thinking “like the machine,” they can use that intuition to build solutions.