So we’ve finally seen Apple jump on the ‘big phone’ bandwagon and since Apple doesn’t release anything until it’s perfect, Big Phones must be ready for prime-time, right?
It’s not so simple an answer. For any product the answer to “Is it quality?” must comes down to “Is it fit for a purpose?” So what is the purpose and what is the context within which those activities will be undertaken?
I think to explore this we need to consider the edges of the contexts:
- One-handed phone use
- Two-handed phone use
- Clothes pockets
- Bags & purses
- Resting & propping the phone
- In vehicles
- On table surfaces
If you want to use a phone one-handed, the phone will physically need to fit your hands enabling you to reach the screen without having to significantly shift the device in your hand. You also need to be able to grip the phone so you aren’t dropping it all the time. The Nexus 6 has a nice trick for this ‘grabbability’ problem by letting you grip the back-center of the phone via a dimple. The iPhone 6 goes in the opposite direction with its soap bar design, giving the phone no discernible edges to grab onto, making it very slippery and prone to dropping.
Hold the phone at a store. It should be comfortable and grabby. If you have very small hands, consider something like the iPhone 5S rather than the new iPhone 6. Small doesn’t always mean low-end: some of the Android manufactures are coming out with “Compact” versions of their flagship phones, such as Sony’s Xperia Z3 Compact.
If you’ve locked into Apple’s ecosystem or just don’t want to leave, consider getting at least a minimal case or wrap to give the phone some grip as well as protection.
For me, once I switched to Android and started using a bigger phone, there was no question: I wanted as big a phone as could fit in my pocket! My phone is a computer but we’ve already shrunk down from a laptop or desktop-size screen. I want as much data available to me as I can easily carry.
If you’ve decided to go two-handed, you can actually consider using an LTE-capable tablet with Google Voice. That said, I’m assuming that the whole point of having a portable computer is to keep it with you at all times and that this means fitting it in your pocket.
Go to a store. Wear some of your tighter clothes, clothing that you know has smaller pockets. Try pocketing the phone. Try sitting down with the phone in your pocket. But for the love of all that is blessed, don’t put it in your back pocket and sit on it! If you need to use your back pocket, get a smaller phone that is super-ridged and can handle it.
When you go to the store, see if your phone fits comfortable in your bag. Generally this won’t be a problem unless you have a very small handbag or clutch and a bigger phablet or tablet that you’re testing.
Resting or Propped in Cars
As we get into larger screen sizes, you may start to find that the nooks, ledges and cup holders in your car don’t hold the new phone like they did the old. You have to try the phone or bust out a ruler or tape measure to find out this one.
Some vehicles are starting to make flat, angled surfaces for resting phones/tablets. Some even has built-in Qi wireless chargers. These can be super-convenient but I’ve noticed that they tend to lie too flat and don’t generally angle toward the drive so you have to make an effort to really see the screen-not something you should do while driving.
Get a “cell phone car mount” for your phone. They can attach to your windshield, heater vents or dash. I prefer mounting mine low on the windshield so I don’t have to take my eyes far from the road, yet it doesn’t block my visibility. Be aware that some areas may have legal restrictions on attaching anything to your windshield.
- Mounts should be an accessible yet as unobtrusive as possible for safety. You may need to play with the location and angle to get this right.
- Wireless chargers are great if your phone supports them - no cable to plug and unplug every time you put the phone on the mount! For iPhone you’ll need a specialized case. Some Androids have this built in. There are more than one standard: “Qi” seems to be winning with Google’s Nexus support.
Propping on Tables
iPhones are the worst for this: their smooth, rounded edges guarantee that you won’t be able to prop a naked phone up. The kicker is that as you get into bigger phones, there will be more situations where you want your phone propped, such as watching YouTube cooking examples or reading a how-to guide. All the phones vary: look for grippy or flat edges and try to prop them up at the store.
Getting a good case can definitely help with the propability of the phone but there’s often a trade-off around size. Some have kickstands but are bulky. Spigen offers an iPhone case the has a “Card Kick-Stand” which is really just a slot that you can stick a credit card into to prop the phone up.
- Hold the phone and use it. Try to reach ‘close’ and ‘back’ buttons. How comfortable does it feel?
- Make sure the phone fits in your pocket. Curved backs help make the phone more grabbable while tapering the edges to reduce profile.
- Cases can help with grip & propping the phone up but may increase size.
Fundamental Changes to UI Layout
While much has changed from using graphical interfaces with a mouse and keyboard, developers and designers still tend to use the entire mobile screen surface for control elements. To get to more accessible, one-handed use, we need to begin to move controls to the lower-right (and lower-left) of the screen while using the whole screen for viewing. Google has started to do this with some of their Material Design elements while Apple is particularly egregious, with many ‘back’ and ‘close’ elements in the upper-left corner. These out-of-reach elements necessitate shifting larger phones in your hand or making a double-tap on the home button to slide the visible screen down and reach the control.
If your team is taking on the design challenges of phablet computing, I’d like to talk with you: comment, email or tweet in the footer below.