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Thumb Zones in the Era of the Phablet

[fa icon="calendar"] 07-Oct-2014 12:01:53 / by Entropy Team

Entropy Team

As mentioned on our previous post, the Phablet revolution is well and truly upon us. Since the introduction of the iPhone 6 Plus, it appears even modest Android handsets (at around 5.2 inches) are being rapidly updated to stretch beyond the 6 Plus' 5.5 inch girth. 

I don't know about you, but we've found that anything over 5-inches in screen size (think the HTC One M8) moves you well out of one-handed operation. And as Designers and Developers, this is key to understand and plan - from content strategy through to design and gesture control. A recent term that has popped up the last few weeks (and is apt given the new Phablet screen paradigm) is "thumb zones".

Have a look at the great mock-up below  from Designer Scott Hurf on the expanding canvas of thumb zones on the new Apple iPhone lineup:

Apple iPhone 'thumb zones' as a heat map Apple iPhone 'thumb zones' as a heat map

Leaving aside the new screen resolutions (and specifically new "3X" graphics requirements of designing for the the new iPhone 6 Plus - not to mention a slew of similarly-sized Android Phablet devices), let's focus on the interaction model for a moment. As Hurf highlights in his post, a recent study of thumb position and number of hands typically used while operating a Smartphone were as follows:

  • one handed: 49%
  • cradled: 36%
  • two handed: 15%

This is key - as even though  Android handsets now average well over 5 inches, the typical user still expects to operate their Smartphone with one hand. This means we'll unfortunately be in a 'learning period' while people adjust to the need of either two-handed operation or as Hurf has coined 'one handed choking up' on the handset.

Revised heat map showing the 'choking up' scenario Revised heat map showing the 'choking up' scenario

And although this seems trivial, the impact on design will be significant.

While Apple has planned to mitigate some of the awkward transition with its "reachability" feature, Developers still need to think long and hard about what they are trying to achieve and how tasks can be completed either with one hand - or just as quickly with two. 

As mentioned on our previous post, we feel that designing for "Smartphones" and "Tablets" isn't just a two-sided coin. With the move from one-handed to two-handed phone operation, designs must be adjusted and tested (rigorously) to ensure the same task (such as swiping a mail or content area, pushing and holding a button or image, or even initiating a cut and paste action) is easy and fluid.

We're in the midst of a significant change in Smartphone design - and one that doesn't simply require higher resolution graphics to achieve. While most of the opinion and discussions to date have mapped the empirical requirements of larger screen App design - few have studied the effect on direct App interaction.  Call it layout fragmentation, gesture control or multi-hand input methods - the important lesson is that content and layout must map to a smooth and rewarding interaction model. 

If not, you are simply pushing your small App onto a large canvas - and in a few months, that simply won't be adequate.

Topics: Android, iOS

Entropy Team

Written by Entropy Team