Coding Horror

programming and human factors

Investing in a Quality Programming Chair

In A Developer's Second Most Important Asset, I described how buying a quality chair may be one of the smartest investments you can make as a software developer.

In fact, after browsing chairs for the last few years of my career, I've come to one conclusion: you can't expect to get a decent chair for less than $500. If you are spending less than that on seating – unless you are getting the deal of the century on dot-bomb bankruptcy auctions – you're probably making a mistake.

I still believe this to be true, and I urge any programmers reading this to seriously consider the value of what you're sitting in while you're on the job. In our profession, seating matters:

  • Chairs are a primary part of the programming experience. Eight hours a day, every day, for the rest of your working life – you're sitting in one. Like it or not, whatever you're sitting in has a measurable impact on your work experience.
  • Cheap chairs suck. Maybe I've become spoiled, but I have yet to sit in a single good, cheap chair. In my experience, the difference between the really great chairs and the cheap stuff is enormous. A quality chair is so comfortable and accommodating it effortlessly melts into the background, so you can focus on your work. A cheesy, cheap chair constantly reminds you how many hours of work you have left.
  • Chairs last. As I write this, I'm still sitting my original Aeron chair, which I purchased in 1998. I can't think of any other piece of equipment I use in my job that has lasted me ten full years and beyond. While the initial sticker shock of a quality chair may turn you off, try to mentally amortize that cost across the next ten years or more.

Choice of seating is as fundamental and constant as it gets in a programming career otherwise marked by relentless change. They are long term investments. Why not take the same care and consideration in selecting a chair as you would with the other strategic directions that you'll carry with you for the rest of your career? Skimping yourself on a chair just doesn't make sense.

Although I've been quite happy with my Herman Miller Aeron chair over the last 10 years, I've always been a little disenchanted with the way it became associated with dot-com excess:

In the '90s, the Aeron became an emblem of the dot-com boom; it symbolized mobility, speed, efficiency, and 24/seven work weeks. The Aeron was a must-have for hot startups precisely because it looked the least like office furniture: It was more like a piece of machinery or unadorned engineering. The black Pellide webbing was durable, and hid whatever Jolt or Red Bull stains you might get on it. Held taut by an aluminum frame, the mesh allowed air to circulate and kept your body cool. What's more, the chair came in three sizes, like a personalized tool. Assorted knobs and levers allowed you to adjust the seat height, tilt tension, tilt range, forward tilt, arm height, arm width, arm angle, lumbar depth, and lumbar height. The Aeron was high-tech but sexy – which was how the dot-commers saw themselves.

aeron chair

But baby-faced CEOs weren't drawn to the Aeron only for the way it looked. The Aeron was a visual expression of the anti-corporate zeitgeist, a non-hierarchical philosophy about the workplace. An office full of Aerons implicitly rejected the Fortune 500, coat-and-tie, brick-and-mortar model in which the boss sinks back in an overpriced, oversized, leather dinosaur while his secretary perches on an Office Max toadstool taking notes.

I recently had the opportunity to sit in a newer Herman Miller Mirra chair on a trip, and I was surprised how much more comfortable it felt than my classic Aeron.

chair-mirra

The Mirra chair was an excellent recliner, too. I've been disappointed by how poorly the Aeron reclines. I actually broke my Aeron's recline pin once and had to replace it myself. So I've retrained myself not to recline, which is awkward, as I'm a natural recliner.

All this made me wonder if I should retire my Aeron and upgrade to something better. I liked the Mirra, but the comments to my original chair post have a lot of other good seating suggestions, too. Here are pictures and links to the chairs that were most frequently mentioned as contenders, in addition to the Mirra and Aeron pictured above:

Steelcase Think Chair

steelcase think chair

Steelcase Leap Chair

steelcase leap chair

Ergohuman Mesh Chair

ergohuman chair

HumanScale Freedom Chair

humanscale freedom chair

HumanScale Liberty Chair

humanscale liberty chair

There were also some lesser known recommendations, such as the Haworth Zody chair, Nightingale CXO chair, BodyBilt ergo chairs, Hag kneeling chair, NeutralPosture ergo, the Chadwick Chair from the original designer of the Aeron, and something called the swopper.

Chair fit is, of course, a subjective thing. If you're investing $500+ in a chair, you'd understandably want to be sure it's "the one". The thing to do is find a local store that sells all these chairs and try them all out. Well, good luck with that. Don't even bother with your local big-box office supply chain. Your best bet seems to be back stores, as they tend to stock many of the more exotic chairs. Apparently they have a clientele of people who are willing to spend for comfort.

Reviews of individual chairs are relatively easy to find, but aren't particularly helpful in isolation. What we need is a multi-chair review roundup. The only notable roundup I know of is Slate's late 2005 Sit Happens: The Search for the Best Desk Chair. It's not as comprehensive as I would like, but it does have most of the main contenders. Notably, Slate's winner was the HumanScale Liberty.

Some other helpful resources I've found, both in the comments to this post, and elsewhere:

If this is all a bit too much furniture porn for your tastes, I understand. As for me, I'm headed off to my local friendly neighborhood back store to figure out which of these chairs will best replace my aging Aeron. By my calculations, the Aeron cost me about $7 per month over its ten year lifetime; I figure my continued health and comfort while programming are worth at least that much.

Update: Since people have been asking, I ultimately decided the best fit and feel for me, personally, was the Herman Miller Mirra chair. It's a huge upgrade from my ten year old Aeron. It feels like three or four revisions better. For example, the front lip of the seat is adjustable, which addresses one of the major concerns I had with my Aeron – as well as the vastly improved reclining I mentioned above. The only unexpected downside is that the plastic back is a little rough on the skin if you sit, er... shirtless. Although I am very pleased with my new shadow Mirra with citron back (pic), I urge you to do the research and try the chairs yourself before deciding.

Written by Jeff Atwood

Indoor enthusiast. Co-founder of Stack Exchange and Discourse. Disclaimer: I have no idea what I'm talking about. Find me here: http://twitter.com/codinghorror