Small note: This project is part of the Design and Future studio at Srishti Manipal Institute of Art, Design, and Technology, Bangalore
We live in a super-sized smartphone era. The average size of the smartphone has been steadily rising for more than a decade. Meanwhile, the size of our wrists has not.
The first phones were so large and heavy that they were called bricks. Gradually phone sizes started getting smaller, we have seen flip phones, sliders, Blackberry, etc. Everything changed when smartphones entered the market. In early 2007 Steve Jobs announced the very first iPhone. Apple reinvented the phone game and changed the mobile world as we know it today. Smartphones started to get bigger over the past years and the display screens are getting larger.
There is now a term for such super-sized (5'’ and above)smartphones; ‘The Phablets’. The portmanteau term, a mix of phone and tablet, recently made it into the Oxford dictionary. Ever since Samsung created the large-phone market with its Galaxy Note line, people have called these devices phablets because they fill the size gap between traditional mobile phones and small tablets. Phablets are now becoming part of the new normal.
“Good design is actually a lot harder to notice than poor design, in part because good designs fit our needs so well that the design is invisible, serving us without drawing attention to itself. Bad design, on the other hand, screams out its inadequacies, making itself very noticeable.” — Don Norman (The design of everyday things)
Smartphones are made to make our lives easier. With the rise in display screen sizes, users have to adapt and learn to interact with their devices. Why should a user change their habits to adapt and perform a particular task, when the design should be seamless that it becomes invisible to notice. Users shouldn’t have to think about something as basic as how to hold their phones. As smartphone sizes get bigger, we need to focus on reachability.
Have you ever interacted with your smartphone or an app that simply didn’t play nice with your thumbs? Perhaps, you had to stretch your thumbs all the way across the length of your phone to perform a particular task, maybe tap on an icon, to pull down your top navigation drawer, to view your friend’s Instagram story. Well, I have gone through all these difficulties to perform a task. Initially, I questioned myself, “Is this because my thumbs are too small?”, “Do only I face this problem?”, “Do I need to train my thumbs to be an acrobat?”. Soon I resorted to just go along with it because I personally felt others might laugh at me if I mentioned I have a reachability issue with just a 5'’ phone when most of the people I know have bigger phones. I once brought up this topic with my friends and I got to know they too face similar concerns. Phew, I wasn’t alone. At that time I wasn’t well aware of actual researches conducted to solve reachability and thumb zone. Slowly, I started to inquire and understand the reachability concerns faced by people around me. Now I felt, this would be the right time to inquire and understand this topic on a research basis.
The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman, Nielson Norman Group articles, researches by Steven Hoober, and Luke Wroblewski inspired me to conduct my own research. Just how Steven Hoober said, “One nice thing about doing your research is that you have this giant pile of data that you can refer back to whenever something sounds worth investigating”. At a time like this, where we are all stuck at homes, I felt this would be a good challenge to find alternate methods to research remotely.
Now, what is reachability? Reachability is the ability to move from one point to another on an interface, here, the smartphone, with your fingers or your thumb (depending on the context.)
“Design Thinking cannot begin without a deeper understanding of the people you are designing for. In order to gain those insights, it is important for you as a design thinker to empathize with the people you’re designing for so that you can understand their needs, thoughts, emotions, and motivations.” -IDF
To develop a sense of empathy towards my target audience (smartphone users), to gain insights into what they need, what they want, how they feel, and think, and why they demonstrate such behaviors, feelings, and thoughts when interacting with products, I conducted a user survey remotely. I then conducted a second round of focus group study, observed phone handling patterns, researched existing articles, and data.
I conducted a user study to explore and understand the competing/conflicting interest between smartphone users and manufacturers in adopting larger phones (if it is the market interest; if it has to do with manufacturing ease or trend) to empathize with consumer behavior and to analyze the usage of existing countermeasures for reachability and accessibility.
The first user study was an online survey through Google forms. I targeted 80 participants. The main goal was to get the conversation started about their smartphone preferences. Here’s is an overview of some of the questions from the survey and a few questions that arose from analyzing the data.
My very first question was to know the smartphone sizes of the participants. It gave me insight into how smartphone sizes matter to consumers. Only four participants, out of the total eighty have a phone size less than 5.2'’. Are their choices attributable to the lesser availability of compact phones in the current market or if it is their personal preference?
49 participants prefer larger displays on their digital devices. Why do we always need a bigger and better version of something? Does buying bigger things give us a sense of power or does it associate with higher status?
Will keeping up with the trend and having the latest features decide consumer preference? Does it have to do with peer pressure or social status?
Almost 50% of the participants prefer a compact smartphone. Are manufacturers neglecting this hesitation to change? Is there an availability of smartphones that are 5.2" and less with the latest features?
42 participants prefer to use their phones one-handed. Does the interface solve reachability concerns since a majority use smartphones above 5.2"?
62 participants showed reachability concerns. Well, our thumbs aren’t an acrobat. Does size really have to do with reachability concerns?
46 participants don’t use these features regularly. Do these features really help with reachability? If the participants have reachability concerns, why haven’t they used them? Are users aware of such features? Are those who use these features regularly able to resolve their reachability concerns?
Will 82.5% of the participants stick to their decision in the future?
Focus Group Study
A focus group of 15 participants was selected from the first survey to get more insights into the underlying questions from the user study.
Phone Handling Patterns — User Observation
I chose my family and friends(five members) to diligently observe phone handling patterns.
What I have gathered from the observation:
- Users change the way they hold their phones.
- Cradling a phone in two hands gives more support than one-handed use and allows users to interact freely with their phone using either their thumb or finger. Users cradle their mobile phones between their fingers and use both thumbs to provide input.
- With one-handed usage, after a while, users added the other wrist to stabilize the phone. A smaller percentage of users employed the second type of cradling, in which they held the phone with one hand and used a finger to interact with the screen.
- Touch targets at the periphery of the screen must be larger to ensure that people can tap them accurately. Priority touch targets can be placed at easier reach.
I put together the information collected during the ‘Empathize phase’ and tried to analyze my observations and synthesize them in order to define the core problems.
Initially, the purpose of my research was to find alternate ways to combat reachability concerns, but upon further research and reflection, I wanted to do the groundwork before heading right into the topic, so I decided to further analyze why people prefer bigger displays in general? Why did smartphone manufacturers stop producing smaller phones? Are they ready to compromise usability and experience oversize?
Status and Size
From the survey and focus group study, I understood that majority of the participants prefer larger displays on their digital devices if not solely for smartphones. They like their screen, big.
According to research by Derek. R, Adam. G, professors of management and organizations at the Kellogg School in their research “Desire to Acquire” suggests that insecurity may be the driving force behind irrational behavior and demonstrates that a compensatory process partly underlies the desire to acquire status-related consumer goods. Not only there is a tendency to buy bigger things greater when we feel powerless, but greater status can also be found in ordinary objects. The increase in willingness to pay for status-related products stems from the belief that obtaining such objects will restore a lost sense of power. Rucker and Galinsky found that lacking power increased consumers' desire to purchase products that convey high status, boosting their willingness to pay for them.
But this above research is only true for a few people as it is a small research and we can’t generalize everyone's behavior. In every society, people, in general, are categorized into “ haves” and “have not’s” based on their standard of living. People are judged by their belongings. But not everyone is driven by the possession of status-related goods.
Studies on People and their buying habits have shown that a majority of consumers, in general, follow the top brands even if they are not affordable. They are very influenced by it even though it could be subconscious or direct, through media and marketing.
The top brands started producing larger phones in the last decade and smaller brands started replicating the specs. A majority of the consumers like to be up to date with the trend. They would like to have the latest features on their devices and these come in the form of super-sized smartphones. The large and sleek design, the bigger display, the advertisements, attract the consumers.
“Everyone wants an iPhone, but will settle for a look-alike until they can afford the real thing,” Jayanth Kolla, partner at telecom research firm Convergence Catalyst, adding that his firm’s research has found that Indian consumers often upgrade to a “premium smartphone”, most likely an Apple or Samsung mobile, as soon as their disposable income rises. “The way they approached their pricing helps explain their popularity in India — consumers were getting better features than before but at rock-bottom prices,” Mr. Kolla said.
“Speculative design zooms out beyond user-centered design and asks what the effects of our designs could be on future societies. It’s not necessarily problem-solving (prototyping); it’s not trying to predict the future (forecasting), and it’s not pure criticism. It’s concerned with possibilities, not probabilities, pushing us to consider our preferences over a set of possible futures and the ways in which the objects we design help or hinder our attempts to build those futures.”
Here is an artifact, a satirical video that speculates how brands influence their consumers to purchase a smartphone and the bizarre demands consumers have towards smartphones. It potentially offers insights in a comical way as to what could happen if we actually embrace size over practicality and how the manufacturers have compromised user experience over its performance and features. The video reviews a newly launched smartphone by Tanmi — The T3000 (made up brand).
Mindmap, Affinity diagrams, Brain dump, sketching are the ideation tools I used to conceptualize my video. I was inspired by a youtube video that shows a satirical take on a newly launched phone. So I thought, why not make up a whole new fictional brand that is the most popular smartphone seller. Hence, Tanmi (a portmanteau of Taneesha my sister, the vlogger in the video, who helped me a lot during the process, and myself, Namita) was formed. A low-fidelity prototype of the Tanmi T3000 smartphone and the case were made using cardboard. I tried to visualize a set of affordances that consumers who use a HUGE phone might do, things that the designer never imagined in a comical way.
When smartphones were initially introduced, they were smaller screens and users could use the phone with one hand. There is no middle ground between smartphones and smaller tablets, smartphones have paved the way through the middle ground and grown bigger in the process.
In the meantime, this migration for bigger-the-better presented app makers and designers with opportunities to utilize the screen real estate to serve more content and functions. From physical buttons to a touchscreen, bezels to notches, everything evolved in a matter of 10 years. We have witnessed the bezels shrinking over time. The benefits to users are clear — extra screen size with almost no additional bulk. The top-notch smartphones were just a theory until this impossible was made possible by Sharp Electronics Corp, one of the world’s first bezel-less or edgeless display smartphones in August 2014 which is way back before any smartphone company had even started to show such design language in their smartphones. Yes, Apple wasn’t the first to do it, it wasn’t even the second. It just did it differently, and now everyone’s copying.
We have had Bezel-less phones. But these phones can’t help but draw us in, even if it means a few mistaken presses. Perhaps because they look like all the futuristic tech we imagined when we were kids, with their super thin, super sleek, and super minimalist design. In fact, as the all-screen phone increases, there are chances that you’ll accidentally touch the display while you’re holding the phone. Some people may choose to give up durability and comfort for a bezel-less beauty. Will manufacturers keep with the trend in the future? Not every manufacturer is following the thin-bezel trend, and that is always good. With that said, I doubt manufacturers are doing away with thin bezels any time soon. The phones have curved edges, polished and rounded frames, and sometimes the frame provided little to no grip.
Phablets gained popularity owing to their bigger screens.
According to the statistics from 91mobiles, Chinese tech company Xiaomi has come to dominate India’s massive low-cost smartphone market in a few short years, followed by Samsung and Realme are the top brands of choice by the consumers in India. I further investigated Xiaomi to see the trend of smartphone sizes they have released from 2017 to 2020.
The graph speaks for itself. It depicts the sizes of phones launched by Xiaomi over the past three years and if you look closely, after the year 2019, we only see an upward trend in phone sizes. Xiaomi has been increasing the size of their phones from 5'’ to 7.2'’ since 2019. Similar trends are shown in other brands where the majority of the phones released are above 6'’. The availability of smartphones less than 6'’ is less in the market and there is a limitation of choices. From the focus study, several participants desired compact phones, some are forced to resort to bigger phones due to low availability, others stick to their old 5'’ and wait for new releases, or are unable to find compact phones that offer the latest features. But this would be up to the manufactures if they want to cater to all the groups of people because out of 80 participants, almost 40 prefer compact phones.
With each passing year, smartphone manufacturers strive to develop new ways to keep customers interested. Flip phones made a comeback the past year and now we have foldable and tri-folds. These phones entered the market to get consumers more screen real-estate. But are they really solving reachability concerns? Flip phones do solve the “fit into the pocket” concern but they unfold to a larger display. TCL came with a pair of foldable and rollable prototypes that imagine what the future of phones could look like. Are foldable phones going to be our future smartphones? They give the consumers a large display that they want but when they are unfolded, the screen has a visible crease — an eyesore compared with the seamless displays on our smartphones and tablets. It’s too early to tell whether foldable phones will succeed. In a few years, technology will probably become cheaper and more robust. How will reachability concerns be solved with such large interfaces when we are still struggling with the current phone sizes? What will be the interaction model of smartphones be like in the future? Why don't’ manufacturers produce a bezeless 5'’ phone with the latest features?
In addition to a bigger size, all these factors do account for the user's experience. Add the finger-stretching and the struggle to hold it right, and we are on the path to disaster. We have already reached a place where we started accepting that bigger screens are the future.
From the first user study, I found out that one of the biggest pain points in using the smartphone is reachability. The majority of the participants were unable to reach the notification drawer on the top of the screen where most buttons like search, menu, and settings are placed. They found stretching the thumb difficult without moving the wrist from their comfortable position.
Steven Hoober, president at 4ourth mobile conducted a user study on how people hold their devices and replotted the charted positions of taps for a 5.1-inch phone (a small phablet). He found that about 75% of people rely on their thumb and 49% rely on a one-handed grip to perform a task. On larger screens, those kinds of behaviors can stretch people’s thumbs well past their comfort zone as they try to reach controls positioned at the top of their device. He coined the phrase “The Thumb Region” in his book “Designing Mobile Interfaces” (2011), which is the most comfortable place for one-handed contact. The average size of a smartphone has risen since the book was released, and “the dead zone,” an area that is incredibly difficult to reach with a thumb of one-hand, has also grown larger.
People can comfortably touch anything within the arc of the area that the thumb can naturally reach, but as users stretch to reach other parts of the screen, it causes them discomfort. We don’t have stretchy fingers, so reaching further doesn’t hurt, it simply becomes impossible! There are limits to what people can reach. — Steven Hoober
The touchscreen is the primary form of input on a smartphone. So the interaction model of a typical phone app relies on single/multi-finger gestures. This includes gestures such as tap, double-tap, swipe, pinch open or closed, double-finger tap, etc. and they can be performed on different elements positioned in different parts of the screen. Since we have to hold the phone with 1 or 2 hands whilst using it, we automatically restrict the number of fingers that are free to interact with the screen. This in turn restricts the number and type of gestures and depending on how we hold the phone, the area of the screen that is reachable.
From my user research and findings, I found out that, users are comfortable navigating the bottom-middle regions of their phones when restricted to one-hand use. Interactions beyond the region involved using the other hand for support or trying to move the one-hand slowly along the length of the phone.
In Steven Hoober’s research, he observed phone handling patterns of 1,333 people and found out that they mainly hold their phones in three ways; One-handed (49%), cradled(36%), and two-handed(15%). He pointed out that the way in which people hold their phones is not in a static state. User changes the way they held the phone, sometimes every few seconds.
If we take a look at one-handed usage, the users hold their phones with one hand where the thumb interacts with the screen while the rest of the fingers grip the device. This limits the interaction model to one-finger gestures. The length of the thumb is another factor that could restrict the area reachable on the screen, depending on the size of the phone. To reach objects on the far side of the screen, the user has to resort to using both hands, changing their grip, or end up abandoning the task. Through my user study, I observed a handling pattern where, when the user had to interact with elements on top of the Interface, they resorted to a climbing pattern. For example, if their left wrist was used as a support for the phone, the right hand’s wrist would move up the length of the phone and grab it. If the right wrist was used as a support, the left wrist would move up/ down the length of the phone and grab it. This interaction model would be very different from one where the user places the phone on a surface to interact. The number of possible gestures increases by several factors and the entire screen is now reachable.
The thumb moves in a sweeping range — of extension and flexion — not from the point where it connects with the rest of your hand, but at the carpometacarpal joint way down by your wrist. The other joints on your thumb let it bend toward the screen, but provide no extra sweep motion. Bending is important because, while the free range of the thumb’s movement is in three-dimensional space, touchscreens are flat, so a limited part of the thumb’s range of movement gets mapped onto the phone’s screen. If your fingers are grasping a handset, there is a more limited range of motion available to the thumb. But moving your fingers lets you change the area your thumb can reach. — Steven Hoober
There are also studies that suggest, over-stretching the thumb and awkward phone handling patterns of a user could be a factor that could develop into a Carpal tunnel syndrome ( I am yet to research more on that).
The limitations in usability due to these large displays need to be understood. We must begin to develop user interfaces that are seamless to use with one hand. Google’s Product Director, Luke Wrobleski, terms these short bursts as ‘one thumb, one eyeball’ mobile-usage experience. It reflects how a distracting environment forces users to engage in single-handed usage within short spans of partial attention. According to him, the most optimal type of smartphone usage with a single hand is one where quick interaction is supported by smooth functionality.
The context of use keeps changing where variables in the environment could influence how people hold the phone and interact with the applications. For example, people try to use their phone working out, eating, on a bus ride home, cooking, jogging which results in varying levels of concentration and availability of fingers. Usability becomes an important issue when combined with the big screen.
The “Six Thinking Hats” by Edward De Bono guided me to look at the problems from different perspectives, but one at a time, to avoid confusion from too many angles that crowded my thinking.
It forced me to move outside my habitual thinking style and to look at things from a number of different perspectives. This allowed me to get a more rounded view of the situation.
Does size really matter?
Designers are forced to find a balance between usability and functionality, with usability often compromised. The idea of restricted “reachability” in one-hand mode is known as an industry problem and is currently being solved.
A majority of consumers prefer larger displays it would impossible to restrict them to the smaller screen as they are so used to it. So it is important to find alternative solutions to reachability concerns.
Flip phones made a comeback, the past year and now we have foldable and tri-folds. These phones entered the market to get consumers more screen real-estate. But are they really solving reachability concerns? Flip phones do solve the “fit into the pocket” concern but they unfold to a larger display. TCL came with a pair of foldable and rollable prototypes that imagine what the future of phones could look like. Are foldable phones really going to be our future smartphones? They give the consumers a large display that they want but when they are unfolded, the screen has a visible crease — an eyesore compared with the seamless displays on our smartphones and tablets. It’s too early to tell whether foldable phones will succeed.
How will reachability concerns be solved with large interfaces when we are still struggling with the current phone sizes? What will be the interaction model of smartphones be like in the future?
Brands have come with alternate solutions to tackle reachability and accessibility concerns. We have a voice-to-text, voice assistant, assistive touch, Quick ball, reachability cursors, one-handed mode, and so on.
It’s important to keep in mind that reachability changes from phone to phone and from user to user. That’s why thorough user research is essential. From the user survey, 46 participants don’t use these features regularly. Do these features really help with reachability? If the participants have reachability concerns, why haven’t they used them?
One of the major reasons why consumers don’t use these extra features is that they don’t want a feature that doesn’t feel seamless while performing a task. In my opinion, reachability cursors are pretty impressive compared to one-handed mode, as one-handed mode shrinks down the screen, wastes valuable real estate, and decreases the size of touch targets, which not all users would prefer. Reachability cursors, on the other hand, helps to interact with the elements on top of the screen, but the majority might not use it, as it requires the user to swipe for the function making the user perform an extra task. Similarly, other features like ‘Voice to Text, Voice assistance, etc’ has their own merits and demerits. All these factors take away from having enjoyable experiences. Wouldn’t it better to integrate and solve reachability concerns within the mobile’s user interface?
Brands have tried and are trying to work around reachability concerns within their user interface which is a positive move and should be followed by designers. Reachability should not be thrown under the bus just to accommodate features and aesthetics.
The foundation of a great app is a good navigation design. Good navigation helps users discover the features faster and find what’s important to them in a thumb’s reach.
Consumers have smartphone size preferences. From the survey majority preferred larger displays for their digital devices. Out of 80 participants, almost 40 prefer smartphones lesser than 5.2'’. Brands play a major role as a deciding factor while purchasing smartphones. Consumers are used to reachability issues and they do have a frustrating experience. The bigger the screen size, the interface should follow the thumb zone and reachability heatmaps while designing user interfaces and applications so that the users can perform their tasks seamlessly.
Although reachability is a big part of designing for one-handed usage, it is not just about ensuring everything close to users’ reach. When we make the tasks seamless to the user by placing elements that are easily reachable, we save the time of users, remove friction, take out unnecessary steps, and most importantly focus on quickening the “one thumb, one eyeball” of apps. By gathering user data, practicing good design, and leveraging the thumb zone, I hope to make better UI interfaces that could be alternative solutions to reachability concerns.
Screen sizes are changing. UX and UI design must change too. Users may not consciously consider the reachability of the app components, but they sure know a frustrating experience when they see it. I will be inquiring on:
- Alternative Ui/UX solutions and conducting user research.
- A study on phone handling patterns has observed a rise in strain around the carpal tunnel region and fingers.
- Exploring reachability and understanding interaction model in upcoming phablets and smartphones of the future.
References and Extra readings
LukeW | Designing for Large Screen Smartphones
As smartphones continue to get larger but our hands don't, what kinds of design solutions can ensure mobile…
Mobile User Experience: Limitations and Strengths
Mobile devices have transformed the way we live and conduct everyday activities. Not only can we access almost any type…
Reachability Cursor makes it easy to use tall Android phones One-Handed
Every day, many developers post new apps or games on our Apps and Games forum. We scour the XDA forums for interest…
Opera Touch: the fast, new web browser - Apps on Google Play
The Opera Touch browser is built for people on the go, which is why the app won a Red Dot Award for its user interface…
How smartphone ownership in India is changing: 91mobiles Smartphone Buyer Insights Survey 2020
The smartphone ecosystem is an exciting segment to track, given how dynamic it is and the innovation it sees on a…
India - smartphone brands preference 2020 | Statista
Learn more about how Statista can support your business. 91mobiles.com. (July 9, 2020). Switching preference of…
Are All Of My Devices Giving Me Wrist Pain? - Featured, Health Topics, Orthopedics - Hackensack…
Ever wonder if all that typing, texting, swiping and scrolling is making your hands and wrists hurt? The simple answer…
Everyone Uses Smartphones, But Have You Ever Noticed This Negative Side Effect? - Buzzing Lives
For millennia, humans have evolved to work with our hands and use non-digital devices. Was there any question that if…
Is Your Smartphone Giving You Carpal Tunnel?
FRIDAY, June 23, 2017 (HealthDay News) -- People who spend lots of time on their smartphones may be scrolling, tapping…
Don't Prioritize Efficiency Over Expectations
Perhaps the most important goal of usability is that of minimizing the interaction cost, and it's common for many…
Spatial Memory: Why It Matters for UX Design
The ability to recall the location of things is an important aspect of human memory. In graphical user interfaces…
The Halo Effect in UX Design (Video)
The Halo Effect says that any one element in a user's experience with a company will rub off on their interpretation of…
Survey Response Biases in User Research (Video)
Users' answers to survey questions are often biased and not the literal truth. Examples include acquiescence bias…
Thank you for reading!