App developers: Design for one-handed usage of mobile devices

Commentary: Anyone who uses their mobile device with one hand knows the struggle of trying to navigate certain apps. Jack Wallen makes a plea to designers and developers to do better.

Online news in mobile phone. Close up of smartphone screen. Man reading articles in application. Hand holding smart device. Mockup website.

Image: Getty Images/iStockphoto

For me, the biggest difference between mobile and desktop applications (besides the obvious) is that mobile apps must be more efficient. Smartphones aren't generally used with a keyboard and mouse (although they can be), so using these devices requires an efficiency desktop browsers don't need. 

In order to be truly usable, mobile apps must bring to the table one-handed usage. When an application forces me to use two hands, my brain immediately jumps to, "That wasn't well thought out." Some mobile applications have succeeded at this, but there's a ways to go. 

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Let's take a look at Chrome--the most widely used browser on the planet. With the mobile version of Chrome, there are a few features that can force some users into working with both hands--that is the case with the menu button. The button is in the upper-right corner of the browser, and if you're holding your phone with your left hand, it takes a little sleight of hand to get that thumb to successfully tap that button. Once the button is tapped, you still must hold that position to tap whatever entry you need. That is, unless the entry you're looking for is the Incognito button, and if you're using the latest release.

The developers of the Chrome browser have finally wised up and added a button to the new tab page to make it possible to easily switch between standard and Incognito mode. The button is (as you might have guessed) in the upper-left corner of the Chrome window (Figure A).

Figure A

incognitoa.jpg

The new Chrome Incognito button on version 84.0.4147.125.

But wait, not everyone uses their phone with one hand. So why the fuss? I'll lay out my argument very simply. 

We're busier than ever

First off, we (the human race) are busier than ever. Not only are our work schedules crazy (pandemic or no), our family lives have become more demanding. There are kids to be shuttled from one end of town to the other, we have Zoom meetings to attend at all hours of the day, we struggle to meet deadlines, we're cooking meals while trying to email colleagues or clients about necessary changes, and we're never quite sure when we'll be back at our desks.

Because of this, we wind up depending more on our phones for activities that would have previously been relegated to the desktop or laptop. To make this even more frustrating, we're working on those tasks while on the go. You're rushing from one gate to another frantically hoping you don't miss your flight, all the while having to scan through a spreadsheet to run numbers for your company.

It's a pace that would have driven our ancestors to an even earlier grave, all the while shaking their heads as if to say, "Your priorities are skewed." Yet, we muster the stamina to crush it.

But then there's that two-handed thing… .

Design to the meet the challenge

Here's where my argument should really hit home to designers and developers. I'll make this easy:

  • When you design for people who use their phones with two hands, you leave out those who use their phones with one hand.

  • When you design for people who use their phones with one hand, you do not negatively impact those who use their devices with two hands.

How can I make such a preposterous claim? The bigger question is why would anyone think my claim is preposterous.

Yet, it's true. When a mobile app is designed with one-handed use in mind, it doesn't cause those who use their phones with two hands to exert any additional effort. To the contrary, when apps are designed with two-handed usage in mind, it causes those users who spend a good amount of their mobile time holding a latte in one hand and their phone in the other extra effort and concern. When reaching across that pane of glass to tap an entry in the app menu, who's to say if that phone will wind up the victim of a gravity test or a molten hot coffee to drench your neck or forearm. 

When an application is designed with one-handed usage in mind, those thumb-reach-induced accidents are lessened dramatically.

I know, I know: All of you with extended thumbs are rolling your eyes as if to say, "First world problems," but the truth is phones are meant to be used on the go. When your fingers aren't gigantic, you wind up having to put your fingers and hands through maneuvers that would put a close-up magician to shame.

The time for such digital gymnastics must end. 

More designers and developers need to take a one-handed-use-first approach to their applications. This might mean the frameworks used for app development need to include the means to make it possible for users to easily shift between one- and two-handed layouts. By taking this approach, you could add such options as:

  • Two-handed usage

  • One-handed usage (right)

  • One-handed usage (left)

You see that? With three options, we've made the majority of users happy; you could add a fourth entry, such as voice control, into the mix and you've covered nearly everyone. Or, if you're averse to adding that much extra work into the mix, just drop the menu button to either the bottom-left or bottom-right of the screen. That simple move alone would go a long way to improve one-handed usage.

Although you might think this is a silly change, it's one that could make mobile life considerably more efficient for those who tend to use their mobile devices while they're actually mobile. These slight changes in the way apps are designed could also mean fewer accidental drops, which every mobile user on the planet would greatly appreciate. 

Of course, such changes would require some app developers to retool their process or even frameworks to include new libraries for the placement of controls based on usage, but this is a change that is long overdue. It's time to end the half-hearted attempts to make applications easier to use with one hand. You fail when you place a menu button in a location that requires either longer-than-average thumbs or the use of two hands.

For those who continually drop their devices, douse themselves with scalding coffee while trying to use an app, and suffer the weight of short thumbs, make this happen.

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By Jack Wallen

Jack Wallen is an award-winning writer for TechRepublic, The New Stack, and Linux New Media. He's covered a variety of topics for over twenty years and is an avid promoter of open source. For more news about Jack Wallen, visit his website jackwallen....