Why a top screen edge gesture doesn’t belong on a smartphone

We’ve seen some leaks of the new Windows Phone action center that will be coming to Windows Phone 8.1 recently.  It’s basically a screen where you can find all of the missed notifications, but also quickly access toggle buttons for things like WiFi power, Driving mode, etc.  The method to access this new action center is exactly the same as Android, which Apple also copied for iOS… swipe down from the top edge of the screen.

Now, I am of the opinion that copying bad design is bad. Just because everyone else is doing it, doesn’t make it right.  What’s bad about swiping down from the top edge of the screen you say?  Well, I’ll tell you.

The top screen-edge gesture is the worst place to put controls for a touch-screen phone. It’s the furthest distance away from your fingers when you’re holding the phone.  It wasn’t so bad when smartphones all had 2.8-3.5 inch screens. At least back then the screens were small enough that you could reach all corners with the thumb of the hand you’re using to hold the phone. That’s the screen size range that Android was originally designed for and of course iOS was only ever designed for a 3.5″ screen (until the iPhone 5).  These days smartphone screens are much larger and that makes one handed usability much more difficult.  In fact, most smartphones these days really need your full attention and both hands in order to be usable… and that’s bad.

Below is a leaked video of the new top-screen-gesture action center in action. Watch how much hand movement is required to access it with one hand.  The user has to scoot the whole hand up and down the back of the phone in order to access the buttons at the top of the screen and the buttons at the bottom of the screen.  It’s like having to climb into the back seat of your car in order to turn on your windshield wipers.  All important functions should be accessible from one position.

Compare that to something like the HTC Star Trek from 2006 which was an extremely one-hand-usable smartphone.  You can see the slightly degraded original review here or a throwback here. That smartphone illustrates a huge degree of functional efficiency. You could easily take it out of your pocket, flip up the screen, and start accessing all of your important information or communications with barely an inch’s worth of thumb movement.  Yes, that phone was very long when opened, but all of your buttons were at the bottom, right under your thumb.  I could very easily access everything without putting down my luggage at the airport.

Nobody makes smartphones with as many multiple hardware buttons for interacting with the devices anymore.  Everything is primarily touch screen user interface designs now, but that doesn’t mean you can’t make the touch screen UI design efficient and useable.  Remember HTC’s Touch Flo 3D interface for Windows Mobile?

HTC’s Touch Flo 3D interface was very well designed for touch-screen one-handed usability. There was a slider of icons at the bottom and with one full swipe you could go all the way from the first one to the last one.  Simply stop along the way on the panel that you wanted to access.  Most of your important menu items were at the bottom too, all within easy reach of your thumb while holding the device.  The upper part of the screen was mainly reserved for displaying content as it should be.  Still there were some top-screen artifacts left over from Windows Mobile, but for the most part HTC’s Touch Flo 3D interface made those unnecessary or redundant.

Do you miss the days when you could control a smartphone from one hand position just like you can control a car from one car seat?

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About The Author
Adam Z. Lein
Adam has had interests in combining technology with art since his first use of a Koala pad on an Apple computer. He currently has a day job as a graphic designer, photographer, systems administrator and web developer at a small design firm in Westchester, NY. His love of technology extends to software development companies who have often implemented his ideas for usability and feature enhancements. Mobile computing has become a necessity for Adam since his first Uniden UniPro PC100 in 1998. He has been reviewing and writing about smartphones for Pocketnow.com since they first appeared on the market in 2002. Read more about Adam Lein!