Does iPhone require two-handed operation and how can Apple improve iPhone’s UI?

“Is one hand better than two? For years, smart-phone designers have built products around the premise that people should only have to use one hand to look up a contact, scroll through e-mail, or answer a call. Think of a business traveler rushing through an airport, trying to check voice mail while searching for the gate and recaffeinating,” Tom Krazit writes for CNET News.

“But Apple, as it is wont to do, headed in the other direction with the iPhone. If you’ve got long, flexible fingers you can use the iPhone with one hand, but most of us have to use two to do just about anything on the iPhone’s touch-screen interface, as shown in the demonstration videos produced by Apple,” Krazit writes.

MacDailyNews Take: We do not think we have the world’s longest, most-flexible fingers, but we can still somehow manage to use most anything on the iPhone one-handed and type with our thumbs. Pinching to zoom does, of course, require two hands, or at least a place for the iPhone to rest while you zoom with two fingers, although we’ve have had some limited success with one-handed pinching (that’s what the girl said at the picnic), by using the good old thumb and index finger method while cradling the iPhone with our other three fingers and palm; this does take some flexibility. Bottom line: Krazit is overstating the need for two-handed iPhone operation by a decent amount which makes us wonder if he’s actually really used the iPhone in the real world or just watched Apple’s online videos.

Krazit continues, “The smart phones that most people are familiar with–the Nokias, BlackBerrys and Treos–only require one hand for basic operation. Obviously, typing on the QWERTY keyboards used by most of those devices is a two-handed operation, but navigating through the menu, looking up a contact, and using countless other functions only requires a single hand.”

“To achieve those goals, one-handed phones have to have real buttons–famously dismissed by Apple CEO Steve Jobs–that give people the ability to feel their way around a keypad, said Gadi Amit, founder and principal designer of New Deal Design,” Krazit writes.

“Try doing that with the iPhone. The lack of tactile buttons–except for the home button–has forced Apple into a two-handed mode of operation because users need to have the phone directly in front of them, with their attention focused on the screen, to make sure they are hitting the right buttons, the designers agreed,” Krazit writes.

MacDailyNews Take: Again, overstating the need for two hands – the real difference with iPhone is the need to use your eyes to see the screen vs. memorizing physical buttons to achieve limited results like placing a call. One glance at the iPhone and you can initiate a call quicker than with most other cell phones with physical buttons and their awful interfaces.

Krazit continues, “While all designers bemoaned the lack of physical buttons, they also said Apple’s touch-screen approach is a breakthrough in terms of how people interact with their phones.”

Krazit writes, “Physical buttons would have required Apple to make compromises on the size and quality of the screen, and would take away some of the flexibility of the iPhone. Buttons drawn by software can be discarded when the user switches to another application, but on other smart phones, a healthy portion of the device is covered with buttons that only come into play when typing. So, is this a problem for Apple? Will users be frustrated by the need to keep two hands on their iPhones at all times? Perhaps at first, but there are some likely outcomes.”

Full article here.

MacDailyNews Take: The ultimate would be a screen that actually physically transforms to give tactile feedback based upon its display. Until then, we like the direction Apple’s taken (although perhaps five or so small bumps on the iPhone’s side to which users could assign desired functions (play/pause for iPod, frequently dialed numbers, etc.) might be an interesting idea.


  1. It does take more mental effort to interact with a touch screen without physical feedback than it does to interact with actual buttons. Is this bad? Not necessarily – it depends on what the user is interested in. I personally do not want to be typing an e-mail while walking and holding a coffee. While walking and holding a coffee, I am likely to be listening to music or talking to someone on the phone.

    There are many people that probably do want to be able to walk, drink coffee and write an e-mail simultaneously, which is why there are many types of phones. The iPhone is not, *surprise surprise* designed to work for everyone perfectly. The large group that it does appeal to, it appeals very well. Why do all of these people insist that it must work for everyone – business person and consumer alike?

  2. The only complaint I have about the iPhone is unlocking it, of all things: I find it very difficult (given the placement of the slider switch) to unlock the phone using only one hand. if they placed the slider switch nearer the middle of the screen, I’d be able to unlock it quite easily with a thumb using only one hand. I would like an option to move that slider switch!

    Oh, and on the subject of the slider, anyone else annoyed at how you can “whip” it over to the right (to unlock) only to have it pop back over to the left? I find I have to be very deliberate in the speed of the unlock slide to get it to unlock properly. Given that I’ve never seen the unlock slider moved accidentally, I’d much prefer that Apple design the slider to be more generous in terms of speed of sliding and how far over the slider must go before it registers as unlocked.

    These might seem minor complaints, but you have to unlock the phone _every_ time before using it, so the little annoyances add up!

  3. The only real reason you’d need one handed operation is to be operating a phone while you’re doing something more important–like say—driving.

    So there, Apple has made the world a little safer from the triple threat combo of Women driving SUV’s while yaking on a Cellphone.

  4. I agree with some of this article. But the buttons I’d like to see along the side should be programmable, and multi-function (depending on the device mode at the time – music player vs. phone).

    As for unlocking mentioned by John – also agreed. The smarter placement for the unlock bar would be on the side (or user-definable, since it’s software), where a thumb could swipe along the edge to unlock it.

  5. Man, they are just trying everything to criticize this phone. Come on people, it’s the most incredible piece of tech that has come out in a LONG time. The two-handed argument is BS. For most of the functions of a CELL PHONE, I just use one finger – the God-given opposable thumb that only HUMANS have! The rest of the changes for the iPhone will come with time because it’s just a SOFTWARE upgrade – beautiful in it’s simplicity!

  6. I just got an iPhone last week.

    I think that a big improvement would be to allow you to answer the phone with only the top button. It is a real pain to have answering be a two step process: first press the top button, then slide. This requires too much effort, and makes me remove the phone from my pocket to answer (providing I don’t have the headphone plugged in).

    While I’m thinking of it, why does the basic unlock require the button press followed by the swipe? It isn’t really that easy to accidently press the button, so it seems that a one step unlock, not requiring two hands and direct eye contact, would be better.

    Finally, I would like to be able to customize the home screen. For me, and for some others I suspect, I would have my Favorites on the screen every time the phone unlocks. I know you can always make sure that is on the screen when you lock the phone, but that is hard to do every time.

    These changes would make a phone call to my house go from a 5 step process (best case) to a two step process. Big step forward in my opinion since the “killer app” according to SJ himself, is “making calls” and most of my calls are to my favorites.


  7. I find it difficult – even after 8 weeks of practice – to slide the unlock bar with my thumb, holding my iPhone one handed. I tend to use the wide, flat side of my thumb as it is difficult to reach all the way around with the tip. The iPhone responds to a tip (small point press) rather than a wide surface.

  8. “For years, smart-phone designers have built products around the premise that people should only have to use one hand to look up a contact, scroll through e-mail, or answer a call. “
    …regardless of how obscenely convoluted and arcane that way may be.

    THIS is why the iPhone destroys these devices. Technology has improved, but the mentality behind it stays the same… This would be akin to using Civil War tactics with an army equipped with M16’s.

  9. “It is a real pain to have answering be a two step process: first press the top button, then slide”

    Which is precisely why I use the earbuds that come with my phone. One squeeze access to answering any call. Also, I believe your phone may be broken. When my phone rings, I pick it up to check the caller ID and see who it is and the slide is “slide to answer”… I don’t have to press the button on the top.

    “not requiring two hands and direct eye contact, would be better.”
    So you’d rather unlock your phone THEN look at it than look at it THEN unlock it. The nature of the iPhone requires you to look at it to make a call anyway, so why not go ahead and get that out of the way from the beginning?

Reader Feedback

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.