From Design

Large screen phones: a challenge for UX design (and human hands)

I’m pretty sure my hands are not too small compared to the average human. I went as far as researching that, in a quest to answer the question “Is it me?”. The average length of an adult male’s hand is 7.6 inches (19,3 cm). For females, the average drops to 6.8 inches (17,2 cm). Let’s say I’m well within those averages. This has brought me some comfort: it’s not my fault that I’ve dropped my phone 26 times until the screen looked like Schwarzenegger when he removed his skin in Terminator. It was both scary and disturbing.

If then the 7 most promising small smartphones for 2020 have an average diagonal distance of more or less 6.3’’ (16 cm), and the average human thumb is more or less 3.11’’ (7,8 cm), there’s clearly an issue here. The smallest smartphone of 2020 is the iPhone 11 Pro with 5.8’’(14,7 cm) and the biggest phone is somewhere around 6.8’’ (17,2 cm).

A representation of the average human thumb vs a small average smartphone

I can’t be the only person to have dropped the phone thanks to this, and polls confirmed this other suspicion of mine: the average american, for example, will drop their phone on the ground four times per week, being that a third say that they drop it even more than that. Some services have tackled this issue by selling phone straps, just so you can feel safer while holding your phone with just one hand.

To add insult to injury, there’s a clear tendency for bigger and bigger phones. “Phablets” do exist and it’s bad enough that one can’t necessarily tell them apart from “normal” smartphones. Not just bigger phones, but bigger screens.

Why are phone screens getting larger?

When trying to get an answer for this question, several reasons pop up.

  1. Manufacturers need to cram more battery into the device, making the whole thing necessarily bigger.
  2. Phones are becoming media centers for many, aside from a workplace for many others. If we look beyond all the content we get from Instagram, Youtube, etc., we have reached the point where Netflix and other similar services are also invested in the mobile streaming market, even though they admit that 70% of their streams end up connected to a TV after more or less 6 months of usage.
Netflix viewing statistics on different devices (Vox)

These media and work requirements don’t just demand larger screens but also lead us to other reason as to why phones are getting bigger:

3. Users need more processing power and storage memory. Logically, when adding greater processors, RAM, more megapixels, or two extra cameras, phones will need space. Not just for these elements, but for bigger batteries. This closes the loop: we’re not just greedy for bigger screens after all.

But still, the big screen obsession has led to phone designs that defy their borders, removing frontal cameras that are taking away display space by hiding them under the screen, or making them pop out of the phone - say bye-bye to stealthy selfies on the subway.

The pop-up camera innovation (Xiaomi, Techgoondu) 

There’s more: UX mobile design then joined the party and found a way to remove all the system buttons that are also taking up space on the screen. You don’t need a bottom navigation anymore, you need to swipe in a myriad of different ways, to take you back, to an overview or to close.

It was a friend of mine who helped me pick my new phone after my last one ended up with a monstrous broken screen, and he pointed me towards a model with a pop-out camera because “yay, an extra centimetre of display”. I didn’t think about it at the time but didn’t this just make my “small hand” problem worse? It did, it totally did.

When I spoke to him about writing this article, he advised me to try the gestures that replaced the bottom navigation, because it would require less precision when hitting the bottom buttons. This meant I didn’t need to have my hand supporting my phone all the way down, but a bit upwards towards the middle.

Are Android Gestures a solution?

I resisted this android gestures thing, saying my memory is way too awful to memorize all those swipes and drags. I didn’t feel like they were intuitive enough. I did end up learning how to use it in one day, but I still get stuck sometimes, not knowing what to do to go back or whatever. These movements many times don’t truly match the motion of the elements on screen. It did help me to become faster at navigating between apps, but it hardly solved my problem.

It did bring up some questions concerning these movements though. If I swipe from right to left, how does it make sense that this motion takes me back? In western society our brains read from left to right, and that’s how we normally sequence things. If I drag something from right to left, I’m moving that element back and the next one will take its place. In spite of it being very illogical to me, right to left is my operational system's (OS) default movement to go back.

But what if this movement represents a push instead of a pull? As in, I’m not swiping left, I am pushing the app / page away towards the left. I would say it doesn’t really represent our current logic of screens disposition, but if that’s the case, then the animation needs to match that.

An example of a gesture navigation (c.mi.com)

Each OS version ends up having their own UX animations but at the end of the day, the truth is, many navigation elements are still situated at the top part of the screen, with emphasis on the top left corner. Where are these giant handed UX designers? Can’t we solve that?

Whatsapp has a top navigation, and Facebook doesn’t seem to care about my hand size either. Instagram is on my side though. The navigation at the bottom is truly the one that people most use. The elements placed at the top are the stories, which count as content in my opinion, since scrolling through stories instead of watching them in an automatic sequence is not that common.

New products should take inspiration on Instagram. Sure, keep your “back” buttons on the top left, I guess I’ll use gestures instead. But mostly, if you're a designer, ask yourself what is truly most important for the usability of an app: extra 30px of content, or being able to move around without the imminent threat of dropping your phone? Aren’t the extra 50px that the camera freed up on the top of the screen enough?

I know it might sound like I have more questions than answers, but it seems to me that we are missing out on a very basic solution for the screen size problem. Manufacturers did so much to increase the screen size, computational power and battery capacity whilst keeping phones thin, that switching the apps navigation to the bottom should have been the automatic response to this new paradigm.

Maybe all I truly have to add to the discussion is to note how scandalous the discrepancy between average hands and screen sizes has become, but I’m willing to admit that there’s no hardware solution for that... yet.

I miss you, tiny Motorolas from the past.

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