What If Phones Were Actually Designed for Hands?

Phones no longer fit in the hands they were made to be held and used by. How did that happen?

The human hand is a marvel. Whether by design or by accident, what we have in our hands is a paragon of functional balance. Removing even just a single piece of these biological machines — one joint, one tendon, one nerve — would drastically reduce their function, while adding features would be unlikely to make them significantly more useful.

We’ve had millennia to study and understand our hands. The way we do that creates a feedback loop: What we can make is determined by the range of the hand’s capabilities (and in the modern era, of course, extended by technology), and what we make and use serves as something of an ergonomic index. Tools become more and more optimized to the hands, not the other way around. This is true in theory. There is at least one tool that has become ubiquitous and essential far sooner than it could be properly optimized — the phone.

Phones and hands are a woeful misfit. They’re an ergonomic mess! We all know this. As a result, much has been said about it for many years. And yet, the problems that come from our basic inability to hold things that were ostensibly designed to be interacted with by hands are only increasing. Searching for phrases like “ergonomic research on mobile devices,” for example, yields a fairly undiversified crop of results. Most of what I have been able to find are studies looking at the physical repercussions of use, especially the deleterious effect on posture and the spine. However, physiological research for product development purposes is pretty hard to come by. This is to be expected. If it does exist, it’s a trade secret. If it doesn’t, that’s likely the result of a market force that prioritizes gains of function over possible second and third-order effects. Though there was more than half a century between the invention of the automobile and the invention of the seatbelt, for instance, I still can’t help but marvel at the same sort of critical inertia recurring so many years later.

Over the last decade and a half, we’ve generally celebrated the bulking of features and size (and accepted the equivalent surges in price) without asking whether they’ve been necessary or even appropriate. In my view, that we’ll prefer the bigger, thinner, and more complicated device over the smaller, thicker, and simpler one is becoming a costlier mistake every time we make it. Think about seatbelts again for a moment: That it took so long to get the buying public to accept them — they were poorly-selling add-on features for many years while road fatalities only increased — is indicative of our tendency to take a hindsight position on technological evaluation and an additive approach to optimization. Somehow, we didn’t anticipate that we’d need protection while moving in machines far faster and heavier than horses — OK, an interesting miss at best — but when we finally acknowledged the obvious dangers, our solution was a minimally-viable one: straps and buckles, not slower or softer machines. Similarly, things like cases and back-mounted grips describe the culture of phones better than the phones themselves. As phones outgrow even the largest hand’s ability to hold and use them and materials resist any human skin’s ability to maintain a secure grip, we’ve added accessories to our everyday carry rather than stop to think about whether a smaller, less luxe phone might actually be easier to use.

The other day, I set out a few devices we have among our home’s “museum of technology” on a table. I arranged them by size. On the far left was placed a relatively recent acquisition — my Sony Walkman digital music player, which I purchased to listen to audio when I exercise. (It’s a tiny thing, just a bit over two inches wide by under four inches high and less than half an inch thick. It feels good in the hand and disappears in the pocket. Great at what it’s for, which is listening to audio when out and about, especially if that’s all you want a thing to do.) On the far right was my current phone, the Pixel 6, which is just absurdly big and heavy but still not the biggest, heaviest phone you could buy today. At almost 3 inches wide, over six inches high, and just under half an inch thick, it’s nearly three times the size of my little Sony device, so my lineup had quite the range. Other devices in the group were my wife’s old Nokia 2610, her first-gen iPod, her iPhone 3G, my iPhone 12 Mini, her iPhone 6, and my old Nexus phone.

The size arrangement of my device lineup was interesting to look at, but the experience of picking each one up and hold it in my hand was even more instructive. Some, like the Nexus phone, were an interesting balance of form and function. It is light, not small but not too big, and cheap. And that last point, at least to me, is an advantage. When I hold a phone that feels expensive, it also tends to feel less secure in my hand; the materials are, well, slippy, and I also worry more about what would happen if drop it. That is one reason why I strongly dislike holding newer iPhones, even appropriately sized ones like the 12 Mini. Too much to lose, too likely to lose it. But here’s the point: The devices that felt the best in my hand were also among the oldest.

Holding the iPhone 3G and, especially, the first-gen iPod, is an optimized experience. Part of that has to do with size. Their height and width help them fit nicely into my hand — which is on the smaller size but not that far off from average — and give my thumb access to most of their area. Comparatively, holding my Pixel 6 securely gives my thumb access to less than a quarter of the screen.

The shared thickness of the iPod and iPhone 3G — very chunky by current standards — is also a useful feature. Because of their depth, both have a weightiness to their backs that helps them rest securely in the hand. This makes it easy to go from a grip that holds an edge along the base of your thumb but somewhat restricts its motion to one in which the phone rests across your four fingers and your thumb’s full range of motion can be leveraged. When compared to current phones, the counterweight provided by a thicker device feels like an ergonomic feature rather than a byproduct of being less fashionable or sophisticated.

My thumb’s reach across the 1st-Gen iPod, iPhone 12 Mini, and Pixel 6

Similarly, the materials of these older devices feel like a better match for the hand. The metals and plastics combined to make the bodies of both are far easier to grip than those on more modern phones, and for the record, they’re no more or less subject to wear and tear as far as I can tell. It’s fascinating to me that the measures of progress in device design — bigger screens, thinner bodies, and higher-end materials — represent a desire satisfied by looking at them rather than using them. Engaging with a phone is partially a visual experience, but it is fully a tactile one. So why do we prioritize the looking over the touching? It’s a bizarre incongruity when you truly think about it.

The iPod, of course, was not designed for the same purpose as a smartphone. And so the way you might evaluate its ergonomics cannot be the same. However, the way its form expresses its function is worth considering for the future design of modern touch devices, like phones. A first-gen iPod held securely in a smaller hand will still not give full reach to the thumb, but it doesn’t need to. The thumb only needs to reach the bottom half, where the physical controls are located. The screen that occupies the top half was display-only, not an interface. That means that the most secure hold on the device still offers full access to a thumb given limited range of motion. And though the weight allows you to securely extend the device away from your thumb and open up its range of opposable motion to reach, say, the top left corner, there’s no need to do that. But woe to you, Android user who wants to hit the back arrow icon that takes you back from one text thread to them all, or reach the top text thread in a long list of them, or…or…or…or…

On a modern phone, many necessities are out of reach of even the most unrestrained thumbs. Even with grips stuck to their backs, modern phones are two-hand devices. That is, unless you are the largest human to have ever lived. Older phones were designed to fit in the hands most of us have. Their edges aligned with the natural contours of the hand’s joints. It seems that they were the sizes they were not because larger ones couldn’t be made yet, but because someone had actually thought about hands.

Calling modern phones and tablets touch devices is somewhat of an irony. Yes, we touch them. But the sense of touch is not just a matter of making contact with a surface or the ability to grip it and hold it. Touch is about feeling and differentiation. It’s why a person can quickly distinguish between a penny, dime, nickel, or quarter in their pocket. Fingertips can feel out differences in size and texture that can also be seen, but don’t need to be. So what, then, of modern touch devices? The controls of the first-gen iPod could be just as functional to a person unable to look at the device because of how touch works. The controls on a modern phone? Not hardly. Phones now are a six inch pane of glass, undifferentiated by anything that can be felt. And while I would prefer retreating to a smaller, simpler phone with a few more physical controls, I don’t expect that to happen. I do, however, expect haptic technology to at least try to solve this problem.

Haptics could transform glass surfaces into textural landscapes.

What if haptics supported a diverse landscape of textures and responses that could adapt to what the screen depicts? It would be jarring at first, but it’s something I expect we’d adapt to more quickly than we might think. Haptic feedback is why we all not only adapted to screen-based keyboards but ended up typing even faster on them. I’m guessing that over the next decade, we will see haptics transform touch into actual feeling.

It would be very easy to write and read this as a Luddite tract — as a resistance to change defined arbitrarily by when I happened to settle in to certain patterns. And I will admit that when I hold older tech, I can lean in the direction of being nostalgic to a fault. But it isn’t true that a smaller, cruder, and simpler phone, for example, is somehow better for everyone and in every way than a bigger, slicker, and more complex one. But it is true that they are a better fit for our biology. And the only explanation that seems to answer the question of why is that, at some point along the way, we prioritized looking over touching. We traded practical, tangible access for bigger screens to look at. Why did we do that? For very bad reasons! Because tech companies sold us on measuring progress that way — that the latest and greatest was the thinnest and biggest; because we tend to make assessments of value aspirationally rather than on the merits of present, practical concerns; because we eat with our eyes and suffer the consequences in the rest of our bodies.

There is no world in which a 6x3” phone can be used effectively in one hand because there is no one in the world with a hand big enough to do it. The phone isn’t the only thing to deny the very reality for which it is made and foist upon it some other, less important thing as if it were essential. But it is the one in each of our pockets right now, perhaps even the thing by which you are reading this. And so, above all, let the lesson be this: What if our phones were actually designed for our hands, instead of just our eyes? We — designers and users of things, both — need to think less about shaping the world with technology and more about shaping technology to the world.




Recent Tabs

Dan Mall wrote a fantastic essay on ten support systems for learning that he has identified as essential to his distributed agency. What I found most compelling, though, was how he graded his group on each one, and the way he described how their scores could be improved. In 2014, a forest was planted in Norway which will supply paper for a special anthology of books to be printed a century later. My old friend Able just released a new Kamuter single, Cathedral, in loving memory of his mother-in-law. As a lifelong fan of Peter Gabriel, I really enjoyed this documentary on the making of his 1982 album, Security. What three degrees of global warming looks like. Kara Swisher’s interview with Jaron Lanier on the Sway podcast is excellent. Lanier continues to be the person in tech whose point-of-view feels most familiar to me. A physicist explains 11 levels of origami, from simple to extraordinarily complex. Fold porn is my new thing. Meet Q, the first genderless voice.

Written by Christopher Butler on November 5, 2021,   In Essays

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