Thursday, 23 October 2014

Smartphones - what ever happened to ergonomics?

Smartphones have become the swiss army knife of the digital age. The expression, "There's an app for that", describes the seemly endless diversity of functions you can use your smartphone. While many of us have dozens of apps most of use very few. Mostly we habitually use a core set which allow us to communicate, discover and record. These three categories also describe three modes of holding our phones.

To communicate we can phone, email, text, or post to social media. To phone we tend to hold the phone up to our ear in the traditional, making a call mode. Despite siri and the improvements in voice to text dictation, the other communication modes are usually done with the phone in one hand at approx 18 inches from our face. Frequently we do this one handed.

We surf the web and discover information using the same single handed mode. When possible we will use two hands for this task, but frequently we are in situations where one hand is more convenient.

Finally we use our smartphones to record our lives in the form of photographs and video. This tends to be a two handed operation, but again it can sometimes be done single handed.

While this is what we want to do with our phones their design is driven by the need to improve the technology that allow these functions to happen. How we actually physically hold the device is not a focus of improvement. What ever happened to ergonomics?

Pick up your iPhone, Samsung, HTC, Sony or any other new smartphone. Their design is primarily focused round the conflicting goals, of incorporating as large a high resolution screen as is practical combined with as much battery life as possible within the slimmest size. The camera, additional hard switches are added in there, but their location and utility is of lower consideration than the screen/battery compromise. The whole package is encased in materials which say as much about the brand values and social statement as the functional needs of the device.

Coupled with this is an ever shortening product cycles. New models come out every year. The core technology increases in capability, the camera gets more better, the pixel density gets higher and the screen seems to inevitably get larger, and the products get more anorexic. The product cycle is more driven by the same forces that gave us ever increasing fins on the American automobiles of the 1950's. It makes last years, or hopefully the competitor's current phone seem, so yesterday.  At no stage in this headlong rush does the ergonomic failings of the slim cuboid seem to be addressed.

When looking at our high definition, retina displays we do not actually hold our phones, we cradle them in our hand balanced on our pinky. One of our most personal and valuable habitually used possessions is balanced in a precarious position. All the people who we see with cracked screens stand testament to this. The larger the screen the slimmer the form factor the harder this single handed use becomes. If you try and grip your device tightly and then use your thumb to select things on screen it quickly becomes tiring. You need a relaxed grip to comfortably use your thumb.

When we take pictures we are holding a thin slab, with none of the ergonomic enhancements actual cameras have, no hand grips, or ridges to make griping easier. Not even a tactile surface which offers some friction to aid grip. And when we hold these slabs to our ears we increasingly need to stretch our fingers to grasp the device.

The software attempts to make concessions to the ergonomic problems which Steve Jobs so rightly pointed out at the iPhones birth. The arc of reach of the thumb is a limiting factor in the size of the display. So now the iPhone 6 has an software trick which brings the top of the screen within reach.

Jonathan Ive is a very clever man, he is a leader of the cult of the design object. Beauty in the materials and details of the finish. Shaving a tenth of a millimeter here, a new radius there. But for all his passion about making the perfect product he rarely makes phones which are holdable in use. The original iPhone and up to the 3s were much more ergonomic devices. But as the phone has evolved and grown to today's iPhone 6 Plus they have increasingly failed in terms of ergonomics. It is not an easy task. Can a multi capable device have one form which satisfies all uses? Maybe not. But which single use do our current phones actually do well.

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