Why is it so hard to find a good office chair?

[Content warning: body weight]

Most office chairs aren’t made for people under about 5’5″, especially if they’re skinny.

I spend most of my workday at a computer, like you probably do. Sitting in one position all day isn’t the best for you, but if you get your desk and chair and computer stuff set up right, you can avoid a lot of the pain and strain common to people who work on computers all day. I have a pretty ergonomic setup, but I have struggled to find a good office chair.

Everybody needs a good office chair because sitting all weird at your desk will fuck you up. I have added incentive because basically anything that goes wrong in my body is likely to trigger a migraine. It’s like trying to cook in a house with an overactive fire alarm. IT’S JUST TOAST/a slight shoulder ache OMG SHUT UP.

My difficulty finding an office chair that fits, let alone feels good, has surprised me. While I have mild scoliosis, my body size and shape is otherwise utterly unremarkable – I’m almost exactly the average height of a North American woman and my BMI is right where my doctor says it should be.

Almost all chairs I try have at least 2 of these flaws:

  1. The seat pan is too deep
  2. The armrests are too wide
  3. The armrests are too tall
  4. The chair is too tall

The 4th can be fixed with a footstool, but the other flaws are deal breakers because it’s impossible to sit properly in them – and they cause pain in very short order because of it.

Today, in desperation, I visited a Herman Miller showroom. Herman Miller is famous for design and ergonomics and their price tag shows it. Even if you’re not a design nerd (I’m not), you probably recognize their most famous products – the Aeron and the Eames chairs.

I expected to be spoiled for choice in such a fancy store, but there were only two chairs that even came close to fitting me.

The Aeron in its “average” size had a seatpan too deep for me, but could have been ordered in small. The armrests didn’t really adjust inwards either, though you could pivot them inwards and kind of cheat. Aerons are a very common office chair and can be had used for about $600 in my city. But in several years of looking, I’ve never seen the small size for sale on Craigslist.

The Embody chair was able to be adjusted to fit me – at its limit. This chair didn’t just fit according to ergonomic guidelines – it actually felt good to sit in, which was a delightful novelty. The Embody, however, puts you on a slight backward incline with your butt below your knees. I (and most women) find the opposite angle much more comfortable. Sitting with a backward angle like that leads to extremely tight hip flexors and lower back pain for me.

Both the Embody and the Aeron are over $1000, which feels like an awful lot to pay for an office chair when every big box store sells office chairs for $70-$300.

But I couldn’t find any office chair that could be adjusted to fit my body at Ikea, Staples, Costco, Canadian Tire, Walmart, or at a multitude of online office furniture stores.

The chairs seem too big for me – and a lot of other people!

I’m about the median height for a woman in North America, but most office chairs can’t even be adjusted downwards enough for me to put my feet flat on the floor. That means that pretty much all office chairs are too big for fully half of all women and 5-10% of men. If you’re counting, that’s more than half the market*.

A too tall seat can easily be fixed with a footstool, but a bad seat depth and arm rests don’t have easy fixes. Unfortunately, it’s even harder to find a chair that doesn’t dig into the back of my knees or that lets me rest my arms anywhere near my body than it is to find one the right height.

If I’m a completely typical height, why is it so hard to find a chair that fits me?

When I noticed how hard it was to find chairs, I thought it was just that chairs are made to fit typical male heights instead of typical female heights. Human height and weight are bimodal – women are typically smaller than men. This makes for a pretty hard design problem because if you design for the center of a bimodal distribution, it’ll fit most people badly. I still think chair makers might be biased towards male sizes in their chair designs and that the ill-fittingness of many office chairs is because of the bimodal problem.

But there are a lot of women using office chairs and I think there would be more options at the low end if they were truly that ill fitting.

While my body size and shape are medically unremarkable, they aren’t typical. Most people are overweight now. 85% of women weigh more than I do – and at least 75% have a higher BMI. If I were heavier my body would fill out the chair enough to reach the armrests and get my legs comfortably over the edge of the seat.

I think the fact that most women are overweight means that chair makers get to fit more people with fewer adjustments/smaller range of adjustments – and thus lower costs. I don’t know the right search terms to find research that looks at the range of adjustment needed to accommodate different percentiles of height and weight, but I’d be interested if you are a chair expert!

Who’s screwed?

Guestimating from the chairs I’ve tried, I think that finding an affordable office chair that fits will be very hard if you are:

  • under 4’11
  • under 5’5″ and less than 160 pounds

And based on the complaints of my larger friends and the typical sizes of North Americans, I bet it’s also really hard if

  • over 5’9″ and 250 pounds
  • over 300 pounds
  • over 6’1″

Basically, there is a big hole in the affordable chair market if

  • you’re moderately smaller or larger than typical in height and weight
  • or much smaller or larger than is typical in height or weight

So if you know of an office chair with a seatpan depth of 15-16″, armrests that are adjustable in height and width, and has a full back for less than $500 CAD, let me know! Alternatively, if you have a Steelcase Gesture or Herman Miller Embody you want to give me, I will send you a really nice thank you card and write a review.

* assuming men and women need office chairs at the same rate.