One of the reasons that Apple has always been reluctant to release a large-screened phone was because you couldn’t reach all parts of the screen with one hand while holding the device. That’s a very important aspect of mobile phone usability. When we’re mobile, we’re often carrying something in one hand while walking with our legs and we may need to use a phone with one hand to make a call, send an email, look at a map, etc. That’s the whole reason that Steve Jobs was so adamant that the original iPhone’s screen size was the perfect size.
Then screen sizes started getting bigger on the Android side of things, and somehow people actually liked them. The Samsung Galaxy Note is one of the most popular tablet-sized-phones. Sorry I’m not down with the word “phablet”. Of course Android isn’t designed very well for one-handed usage on larger screens so Samsung came up with a one-handed usability mode that shrinks the interface down to a smaller corner of the screen that can be easily reached with one thumb. (In Japan this problem can also be solved by purchasing a giant thumb.) That leaves a significant portion of the screen completely blank. It’s absolutely ridiculous looking and clearly demonstrates how badly designed the whole operating system’s interface actually is. As Jesus Diaz of Gizmodo says, “It’s so dumb, it’s offensive.”
That was years ago, at a time when Apple was airing commercials about how a smartphone’s screen size should only be as big as what’s within the reach of your thumb. They called it a dazzling display of common sense, and that was true. It should be common sense that a phone should be usable with one hand.
Now, only two years later, Apple is throwing common sense out the window and doing the exact same thing as Samsung with their ridiculously large-screened iPhone 6 Plus! On iOS 8, you can double touch the home button to make the whole application interface slide down so that you can reach buttons that were placed at the top of the screen by some negligent UI designer. This is clearly a hack. It’s a work-around that’s trying to make up for the fact that iOS and all of the apps developed for the operating system do not work as a one-handed interface on large screens. Take a look at it in action:
How do you like that big empty square at the top of your screen? If you’re using an iPhone because you think it’s intuitive and simple and well-designed, then you should probably start looking elsewhere because it isn’t.
What else could they have done about it?
There have been a few other mobile phone interface designers that were much smarter than this. First you have to understand what parts of the screen are reachable by a thumb that’s holding the phone, and then you have to understand which parts of the screen might get larger or smaller depending on the manufacturer. In general, it’s a pretty good idea to design a touch screen interface such that the interactive elements appear where your fingers can reach them.
Microsoft was pretty smart about this back when they designed Windows Phone 7. This operating system was designed such that the lower part of the screen housed just about all of the buttons, menus, and controls that you would need to interact with the device while the upper part of the screen included the pertinent content and information that you might need to see. Unfortunately with Windows Phone 8.1, Microsoft has started neglecting these general rules of smartphone interface design by putting important elements (like the notifications center) completely out of reach just like iOS and Android already do.
HTC was also really good at designing a one-handed usable interface many years ago when they were able to create highly customized GUI’s on top of Windows Mobile. Touch Flo 3D had a slider at the bottom of the screen that was a great way to quickly navigate between user interface panels with only one gesture. The length of your sliding gesture determined which panel you would navigate to, but no matter how many panels were available, all of them were only one swipe away and all were accessible without reaching to the top of the screen. Very well done.
Palm’s webOS on the Palm Pre was also very well designed for one handed usage. Besides the menu button in the upper left and a few other interactive elements at the top of the screen, just about everything else could be accomplished by touch gestures at the bottom end of the device, as it should be. Unfortunately, some of those unlabeled icons and mystery meat gestures were not discoverable at all.
Of course, the best way to make a smartphone usable with one hand is to move all of the controls off the screen completely, thus giving you full visibility of the screen at all times. This HTC p3300 from 2006 takes the interface off of the touch screen very nicely.
Clearly Apple’s ease-of-use breaks down significantly when their phone UI is blown up to a large-screened phone. iPhone app interface designs were never made to be scalable like this unless, of course, you’re going to use two hands like you would with an iPad. The whole ecosystem is based on the “dazzling display of common sense” that puts the entire touch screen within reach of your thumb while holding the device. Maybe these days people are content to use their phones with two hands though. Perhaps the whole one-handed ease-of-use thing is overrated and society is more interested in a more-difficult, less-efficient way of getting things done. I hope not.