Specific criticism was levelled at the app dock on an iPhone 6s Plus in landscape mode
Specific criticism was levelled at the app dock on an iPhone 6s Plus in landscape mode

iPhone 6s: Designers need to get to grips with their right-leaning bias

Specific criticism was levelled at the app dock on an iPhone 6s Plus in landscape mode, which pops up on the right of the screen and is stubbornly unreachable by an outstretched left thumb

Rhodri Marsden
Thursday 01 October 2015 00:47
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Over the course of history, there have been many objects whose designs have ridden roughshod over the needs of left-handed people. Scissors, cutlery, measuring jugs. Watches, instant cameras, banjos. And this week, the American website Mic began to notice some discontented murmurs about the tendency of recent Apple products to have an unconscious bias against the left-handed.

Specific criticism was levelled at the app dock on an iPhone 6s Plus in landscape mode, which pops up on the right of the screen and is stubbornly unreachable by an outstretched left thumb. It's fair to say that no one was screeching in misery or demanding chief executive Tim Cook's head on a plate – they just thought it was a shame. And that perhaps the option of having it pop up on the left would be nice.

It's not the first time Apple has heard polite moaning of this kind; in 2010, left-handed users of the iPhone 4 complained that their phone calls were prone to disconnecting because their hands covered up the antenna.

Rather than recall millions of phones, Steve Jobs understandably suggested that they hold it differently – but while hardware design is always about compromise, screen layout is more flexible. It could be flipped horizontally with a few lines of code, and that's what many left-handed people are now calling for – a “mirror” option that, for example, makes it easier to unlock or power down an iPhone with a left thumb swipe. Couldn't a small amount of design consistency be sacrificed to make life marginally easier for the 10 per cent?

While pondering this, however, I realised that when it comes to phones, I'm a token leftie. I'm unapologetically right-handed when I write, strum a guitar or whack a tennis ball into a net, but I've only ever held my phone in my left hand, and my left thumb is the one that's been seeing all the action. As it turns out, the 90/10 per cent split between right-handed and left-handed people narrows to 67/33 when it comes to phone use; those groups are then further split into one-handed users (like everyone in every smartphone advert ever), “cradlers” who hold and point, and those who use the two-handed, -two-thumbed grip. This variety of grips can present user-experience designers with some tricky decisions.

Those decisions can have unintended consequences as smartphones get bigger, not least because our thumbs appear to be staying the same size. Suddenly, that device we've been used to operating with one thumb or the other feels more cumbersome; closing that annoying pop-up advert for an unaffordable car is no longer a one-handed affair, while the developing vogue for “side drawers”, where menus adhere to the right-hand side of the screen, sees us – the 33 per cent! – having to make marginally more effort than them – the 6! – who just use their right thumb. Gah.

As this asymmetry on larger phones develops, design decisions will inevitably lean rightwards – although it's interesting to note that the design of the new app switcher in Apple's iOS9 has been criticised for being biased towards both right and left-handed people. So maybe it's just a case of people being perpetually dissatisfied with new things that feel slightly awkward. But you know, that mirror mode still feels like a good idea, so today I'm going to make a bold call for it to be introduced. I hope this goes some way to redressing some of the right-leaning bias within the media.

Twitter.com/rhodri

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