User Experience – the challenge to satisfy left and right handed consumers

It's hard to define “user experience” but they say “you know it when you see it”. I say, “you know it when you feel it”. User experience is more than visual. Perhaps the best urban description it to say it is visceral.

Recently, I was reviewing ideas with a group do user interface designers. We were discussing software applications for smartphones.

While the design patterns being discussed were important, what was missing was attention to the person who would eventually hold a device in their hand. All of us in the meeting had a smartphone and yet, there was very little thought to “would I like to use'this thing we are designing?”

Precision vs non-precision gestures

Mobile devices support a number of different input. While shaking, bumping, and rotating the phone can be used, the majority of input comes from tapping and swiping. Tapping is typically a precision gesture – tapping a button, selecting from a list, typing on a virtual keyboard. The user must hit a specific target for a specific amount of time and not move while doing it. Contrast this with a swiping gesture where the user can typically start in any of a large part of the screen and only needs to slide the finger (or thumb) in the general desired direction. Thus, swiping is a non-precision gesture – scrolling a list, sliding between two screens, opening a menu at the side or bottom, exposing a drop-down from the top (for examplr the iPhone notifications page).

When given the choice of implementing a precision vs non-precision gesture, it is “kinder to the user” to go with the non-precision choice.

Left vs right handed users

A smartphone is not a large device – even the comparatively huge 5″ devices. Most smartphones are designed to be usable with one hand (as seen in the photo). The user is cradling the phone and only has their thumb for interaction. The thumb naturally follows an arch from the upper corner closest to the hand to the lower corner farthest from the hand. The challenge is that these locations are dependent on which hand hold the phone. In the right hand, the ease of access starts with the upper right, then lower left, then upper left, and finishing with the lower right as the most difficult location to reach. A user holding a phone in the left hand would reverse these to upper left, lower right, upper right, and then lower left.

So where do you put input control when you have both left and right handed users?

Part of the answer flows back to precision vs non-precision input. The more non-precision input you achieve, the less challenging to left and right handed users. Next, the comfort of top buttons exceeds that of bottom buttons.


There is no perfect answer. However, by thinking about “how” a user will interact with a mobile application, (in addition to why and what-for) you will achieve a better user experience and a happier user.


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