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July 10, 2017

How to Hold Your Phone

Filed under: Main — Tags: — admin @ 12:01 am

The topic is human interface design. It’s a skill required to introduce some gizmo, tool, or what-have-you to a random human being and have that human instantly know how the sucker works.

Consider the teapot, shown in Figure 1. You may not know what it’s ultimately for, but thanks to its good human interface, you know which part is the handle used to pick up the thing, and which part — and in which directly — to pour the contents. The design is subtle genius, which is the goal of all good human interface design.

Figure 1. A teapot image stolen from the Internet.

Now refer to the classic phone handset, shown in Figure 2. It was designed to be picked up and thrust to the side of one’s head. One speaker goes to the ear, the other to the mouth. The cord tells you which is which, and it conveniently goes to the mouthpiece, the lower of the two. The design isn’t perfect, but yet when someone would pick up a phone handset incorrectly, they blamed themselves and not the design. This reaction just proves good human interface design.

Figure 2. President Kennedy using the phone handset correctly. Smart guy.

The old flip-phone copied the handset idea, but without any human interface design update. Then the modern smartphone, epitomized by the iPhone, also failed to update the design.

In Figure 3, you see Steve Jobs holding up an iPhone. I couldn’t find any images of him talking on one, but you get the idea. You just slam this glassy-metal thing to the side of your face. It’s flat. Your face is not flat. The determination of where you put your ear is vague. Where you speak into is, well, unknown. Human interface design was relegated to the device’s software, not to the device itself.

Figure 2. Steve Jobs introducing the original iPhone, but not talking on it. Image stolen from the Internet.

It truly surprises me that when the smartphone was first designed, no one thought to re-examine how people would use it to make phone calls. After all, phone calls are the device’s first function: It’s an iPhone not iMobileInternetDevice, which is what it’s become. Still, how you use the device apparently wasn’t considered beyond manipulating the software.

Being clever, people figure out their own solutions for this lack of human interface design. The most common are those people who talk to their smartphone like it’s a slice of pizza: They hold the device flat in front of them and speak directly into the bottom.

The “pizza hold” is most frequently used in cars. That’s because many states make it illegal to talk on a smartphone while driving, yet an exception exists if you’re not directly pressing the device to your skull. So people hold the phone flat, like a pizza, and speak at it. This convention holds over to non-car use as well.

I’ve also seen phone cases with knobs on the bottom. These are knobs like you’d find on a drawer, which further enable you to hold the phone flat in front of you.

This development really showcases the basic design flaw of the smartphone where, again, the focus was on the software and not the physical device. This raises the question: Does a smartphone need to look the way it does? How about designing one “outside the pizza box”?

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