How do users really hold and interact with their mobile devices ?
- Key findings about mobile user interaction behaviours
- The user’s position and context greatly influences their interaction with their mobile device.
- Standing users alternate between one handed use or two handed.
- For typing, the use of two hands is more frequent for younger users.
- About 10% of people are left handed, but 50% of user hold their device with each hand.
- When interacting with the tactile screen of a mobile phone, users use their thumbs most of the time, but not always.
- Users almost never hold their device horizontally when they’re using a smartphone.
- Users frequently change the position in which they hold their mobile device.
- Users most of the time text, read or play on their mobiles
- Study details and in depth findings
- Steven’s initial field study
- Cornelia’s field study differences
- What this study doesn’t tell you
- How do users hold and interact with their mobile devices?
- Ways of holding devices
- Ways of interacting with mobile devices depends on the user’s position
- Interacting with fingers or thumb varies depending upon the user’s position
- Device orientations
- And the metro study goes on…
- How does the location affect user interactions with their mobile devices
- Sitting users can be seen using their phone with both hands
- Mobile devices are used with one hand only less in the subway than expected
- While standing, interactions vary a lot more
- Do users interact with their mobile devices with their dominant hand ?
- How do users really interact with their mobile devices : an activity analysis
- What this study is about and what it isn’t
- Participants and data set description
- Device orientation
- How long do users interact with their mobiles devices in a certain way ?
- Insights on interaction patterns using mobile devices
- Users changed interaction about twice a minute
- Device orientation had a strong effect on how long users interact with their device in a single way.
- Gender had no effect on how often users change from one interaction mode to another
- The user’s position had little influence on how often they switch from one interaction to another.
- The task had an effect on the user’s interaction behavior
- Statistical significance
- Switching from one type of interaction to another
A key to success, when designing anything that will be used by a human being, is understanding how it will be used. A designer can rely on psychology, physiology, logic, imagination and experience to predict how a user will. Conducting user tests of a service or product provides valuable data to make a concept user friendly. However, initial decisions are often based on assumptions and long debates with clients, in particular when mobile design is involved.
Since I believe understanding behavior implies taking in account the natural contexts in a holistic approach, while cutting up the problem in digest chunks, I decided to conduct a series of humble studies, which hopefully will provide interesting and unexpected insights into mobile user behavior. This article presents the first of those, inspired from Seven Hoober’s study on How people naturally hold their mobile devices, published on UXmatters.
Key findings about mobile user interaction behaviours
The user’s position and context greatly influences their interaction with their mobile device.
Walking users almost exclusively use their mobile one handed. Walking mobile users are commonly finishing an activity they started before walking, and putting their phones away afterwards, or walking on with the phone in their hand, but without interacting with it. Walking mobile users usually do so while walking more slowly than usual, and pick up speed as soon as they are finished with their interaction. Walking users can also be found on the phone in conversation or looking at maps for orientation, as a help for their primary activity : reaching their destination point “B”.
Standing users alternate between one handed use or two handed.
The choice depends both on their activity and stability. A person standing in the metro using their mobile might need to hold on to something. As a matter of fact however, people who intent to use their mobile often look for a position where they can lean on something with their back or shoulder. This gives them more freedom to use both hands to interact with their phone if needed. They are more likely to use one hand for reading, one hand for holding and the other for playing and both hands for texting or typing in general.
For typing, the use of two hands is more frequent for younger users.
The are used to texting with physical keys on old mobile phones. The use of a swipe input on the keyboard is not very common, but when observed, it is rather used with an index finger. Elder people are more likely to use their index finger to interact with their smartphones, over thumbs, whatever their activity. As a result, a cradling in one hand while interacting with the other hand’s index finger is more common with this population compared to others, specially when standing.
Sitting users have more freedom and comfort. They are more likely to use their mobile in any way that is comfortable for their activity. They are more likely to cradle their phone with one or both hands even for reading, and use thumbs and index fingers to interact with the device, depending upon what the app or activity requires them to. When sitting in front of a table, users tend to put down their phone flat on the table and interact with it with either the index or middle finger. When holding their device, they rest their hand with the device on the table for more comfort.
About 10% of people are left handed, but 50% of user hold their device with each hand.
When observing mobile users, it seems at first that 50% of the users use their phone with their left hand. This is only true if you look at the hand with which they are holding their device. If you look at the hand they are interacting with the tactile screen, only 20% of users that interact with their device with their left hand. This means 10% of right handed users interact with their mobile with their left hand, increasing the need to take in account left handed usage in mobile interaction design.
When interacting with the tactile screen of a mobile phone, users use their thumbs most of the time, but not always.
When interacting with one hand for both holding and interacting, and with both hands for typing. The thumb has a limited reach. depending on the phone size, the user needs to place his hand higher on lower on the phone. the lower position is the most common, both because many phones are still small enough not to require a high position, and because a high position does not allow the user to keep a finger below the phone, increasing the risk of it falling, slipping out of the holding hand.
On larger phones however, like the Galaxy S3 for example, users tend to have both positions and alternate between them depending upon the interaction requirements. If an interaction is out of reach, the user will move the hand until it is needed i a lower area it can’t reach again. Users will tend to use two hands to fill text fields and select dates.
Simple taps on buttons like check boxes or bullet points are most liekly to be done with the thumb if each action is presented as a single line taking up the full width of the screen, or with the index finger if it is out of reach from the thumb, specially if several options are presented in a single row, for example as four square options in the upper part of the screen. Alternating interactions with thumb and index sometimes implies a change of holding position, but most of the time it does not.
Users almost never hold their device horizontally when they’re using a smartphone.
Only 3% to 5% of the time actually. They usually do so when the app or game they use forces them to, preferably when they’re sitting, and when watching videos. Texting is done most of the time with the phone in a vertical position, but sometimes horizontal positions gives more comfort since the touch keyboard is displayed with larger keys. Users don’t tend to hold their mobile horizontally for typing regardless.
Users frequently change the position in which they hold their mobile device.
They cradle their device for an average of 3 minutes. Use one thumb for an average of 2 minutes, and use both hands only for an average of 30 seconds. When cradling their device in both hands, they actually interact with it with their index finger for an average of 50 seconds only out of the 3 minutes they hold it that way.
7% of the time users actually don’t interact with their device, but do something else. For example, they check where they’re going, look around them to asses the real life situation, fetch something in their bag or just stare into their thoughts.
Users most of the time text, read or play on their mobiles
When using their mobile devices, users are likely to text 50% of the time, play mobile games 35% of the time, or read text (articles or emails) 15% of the time. These three activities are the most frequent when using their devices on the move. 3% of them also alternate between texting and reading while they wait for an answer.
When texting and playing, users remain focused on their activity and don’t change the way they hold or interact with their phone on average 30 seconds, with a maximum duration around 4 minutes. When reading though, users tend to change less often, with a maximum focus time of about 5 minutes before they change position.
Study details and in depth findings
Since I am going to compare the results of both studies, it is mandatory to compare also their design and data scale. Both studies focused on device holding in public places. This means in both cases, behaviors in private environments and interactions on tablets have not been observed. Globally, the same kind of data was gathered, except for a few, as summarised in the following table.
Steven’s initial field study
In Steven’s study in January 2013, he observed a sample of 780 people:
- user actions: idle, talking, interacting.
- user positions: sitting,standing, walking.
- device orientation: partial data.
- holding position: 1 hand, 2 hands, craddle.
- which hand was used for interacting: left or right.
- which finger was used for interacting: index or thumb.
He carried out his observations in airports, busses, while commuting, trains stations, malls, on the street and in voting lines.
Cornelia’s field study differences
In Cornelia’s study in December 2013, she observed a sample of 825 people:
- additional information about device orientation: horizontal or vertical
- additional data about low or high position of hands on large devices
Information about people holding their phones wile on a call or idle, as well as whether they were holding their phone with their left or right hand was recoded, but not systematically at first.
she carried out her observations in the subway, train stations, while commuting, on the street, in cafes, and at malls.
The distribution of positions in which people were observed also vary:
- Steven’s study had 24% of user sitting, 43.5% standing and 32.5% walking.
- Cornelia’s study had 32% sitting, 49.5% standing and 18.5% walking.
What this study doesn’t tell you
As Steven pointed out, it should be clear what this data does not tell you before presenting the findings in details.
The data does not take in account what the users were doing, since that would be too intrusive. As a result, positions can not be linked with a task or design principle. It is not possible to say n% of people do this action, or hold their phone in a specific way since we did not keep track of the total number of people owning a device. In fact, this type of study might only allow you to say what you are likely to see if you look at someone interacting with their phone.
We did also not take in account which devices were used, and why people interact with them the way they do, or which mode of interaction they prefer. Lastly, it does not reflect behaviors in private contexts, touch interactions on tablets and gaming consoles : they are also not part of the data set.
Now that this is cleared, let’s have a look at the results.
How do users hold and interact with their mobile devices?
Ways of holding devices
Globally, the data gathered in both studies is surprisingly similar, in terms of how many users were observed holding their phones in each way.
Ways of interacting with mobile devices depends on the user’s position
Proportions of holding manners observed vary significantly in the same way based on whether the user is standing, sitting or walking. It is difficult to say whether they depend on the user’s behaviors or on the method though, at this point.
In both cases, it seems it is much more likely to observed cradled holding when sitting, than when standing on walking. Khi² independence tests on subsets of the data shows a relation between the position and observed interactions (hands position) with p<.001. However, calculating Cramer’s V show only (very) weak relations (between .15 and .28).
Interacting with fingers or thumb varies depending upon the user’s position
A similar statistical test points out that finger vs. thumb use also changes significantly depending on the user’s position when interacting with the device. Since this information was present only in a small-ish sample of Steven’s observations, I could not verify this on his data.
Khi² independence tests on subsets of the data shows a relation between the position and observed interactions with p<.001. However, calculating Cramer’s V show only (very) weak relations (between .23 and .37)
In terms of orientation, results are similar as well in both studies. While Steven states 90% of users hold their devices vertically. In the raw data, this appears to be calculated on a small subset of data. Out of my 800+ observations, 96.5% of users were holding their devices vertically. the orientation is unrelated to the user’s position.
If anything, the data about orientation questions the importance of designing specifically for horizontal versions of apps. From open, non systematical observations, it seems at first sight that horizontal orientation is used mainly for typing more comfortably (though a majority of typing action is done vertically), and on occasion when it is the default orientation for a game, or when viewing a site that wasn’t optimized for smartphone displays.
Further inquiry about this specific topic would be needed to understand which are the specific situations or contexts in which designing in landscape mode is necessary and important.
And the metro study goes on…
We are still far from answers to all the questions we started with yet. More studies are on the way to document design decisions.
With which hand do users interact with their devices ? How often do users switch from one interaction mode to another ? How long do users stick to one particular interaction mode ? Does the position of the user affect this as well ? The first study will focus on time tracking to observe different interactions on a smaller sample of users, for short periods of time.
How does the task of the user influence the way they hold their phone, if at all ? A small scale user test will focus on providing insights into how the task influences – or not – the way people interact with with a specific smartphone, and whether personal preference is involved in their behavior.
The next batch is coming soon, so stay tuned for the next metro’s humble results. Meanwhile, feel free to discuss the study or ask any details you might find missing or check out the full data set.
How does the location affect user interactions with their mobile devices
A key to success, when designing anything that will be used by a human being, is understanding how it will be used. We’ve seen that the task and condition in which the user impacts their behavior. Their location where they use their phone also has an impact on how they interact with their mobile devices. The “metro studies” is a project of multiple humble studies, which hopefully will provide interesting and unexpected insights into mobile user behavior.
Based upon the previously gathered data, a more in depth analysis provides more insights into user’s behaviors. Since 800+ observations were made in various contexts, we have compared the data gathered in three main locations : inside the metro lines 3 and 13 in Paris, in the Maine Hall of the train station Montparnasse, and in a mall nearby the same station, below the Montparnasse building. This data should be considered with the same boundaries as described in the first section.
Depending upon the location, an observer making an inventory of users interacting with their devices will most likely observe them in different positions. For instance, in the 800+ observations we made during the first batch of data gathered in the metro studies, we observed users mainly in subways, waiting halls of train stations and malls.
The following graph sums up the observed positions, compared to the total already presented in an earlier post.
The user mind set is also very different in each of those contexts.
In the subway, the user will be in a hurry, going from point A to point B, looking for efficiency while at the same time, spending uncomfortable time in an over crowded wagon. It’s hot, it’s hard to keep in balance, you don’t really know where to put your bag so no one runs away with it at the next stop…
In the train station, users are most likely standing in the hall or sitting, waiting for their train to be announced. They gather in large packs around the panels, bored, tired possible after the first part of a long trip, eager to leave Paris for the week end. They carry heavy luggage, which they hold on to, not feeling completely secure either.
In malls, the atmosphere is very different, people are in a more open mind set, curious, resting on the sofas in the halls, talking, shopping and having drinks in cafés. They are a lot more relaxed, rarely in a hurry, they are enjoying some free time.
The ways of interacting with mobile devices is also different, partly because of the feeling of safety, the constrains due to carrying bags or luggage, or nothing, the position itself (sitting vs. standing/walking shows the biggest difference) but also the degree of safety felt. Depending on location, the various ways of holding and interacting with the device varies greatly. In the data, commute refers to a subway commute.
If we compare users in each position, we can see how the location impacts the behavior.
Sitting users can be seen using their phone with both hands
When seated, users in the subway are rarely observed interacting with their device with one hand only. They are more likely to be seen holding their device in one hand, using it with the other, using both hands to interact or steadying the device with both hands, while using it with one only. One handed behavior is more frequent when users are sitting in a mall or train station. This might be due to the movement of the wagons, which created a higher risk to drop the phone.
Mobile devices are used with one hand only less in the subway than expected
While walking in a train station or mall, users are more likely to be seen using their Smartphone with one hand only. In the metro, even while walking, users most likely hold their devices with both hands. Two possible explanations for this : the train station and mall feel safer. Maybe more thefts would be expected in the subway. Maybe users consider an additional danger in the risk of letting the phone fall on the rails.
While standing, interactions vary a lot more
Standing users observed interacting with their devices have a wider variety of behaviors.
One of the surprising data is little people use their phone with one hand while standing in a metro, while we would expect they need to hold on to something, which should encourage one handed use. In the subway, bags might be left on the floor, people can lean more easily on the walls of the wagon or the holding bars…
One handed use is mostly seen in train stations, more than in malls or in the underground. In the train station, users might be carrying their luggage, occupying one hand because they expect to start moving soon to their train.
Cradling is seen more often in the subway. This might reflect differences in actions : in the subway, users are more likely to be reading something, while in the mall, they might be texting more. In malls, almost as many people were observed using both hands as cradling their phone. However, those are just hypothesis that would require further observations to really understand
Users who are sitting are more likely to be seen using their phones with two hands or cradling, whatever the location / context. One handed use is observed way less than expected inside the subway during transport, despite we’d expect users, in particular standing users, to need to hold on to something or carry a bag, which would justify one handed use.
One handed use seems to be most common while walking (needing one hand to open doors or carry a bag, most likely), except while walking inside the underground, within a wagon, or from one metro to another. While standing, we observe the greatest variety of interaction methods, for which proportions vary based on the location.
Do users interact with their mobile devices with their dominant hand ?
A key to success, when designing anything that will be used by a human being, is understanding how it will be used. Since I believe understanding behavior implies taking in account the natural contexts in a holistic approach, while cutting up the problem in digest chunks, I decided to conduct a series of humble studies, which hopefully will provide interesting and unexpected insights into mobile user behavior.
My initial study on how users interact with their mobile devices did not cover left or right handed usage. Although I did not plan to do so, I completed my data set with an additional observation batch. So first, let’s have a look at what convinced me to add this to the metro project.
On the subject of right of left hands, the initial study published on UXmatters has a little to say : about 2/3 of users used their right thumb on the screen, and 1 third used their left thumb. This is surprising, since roughly 12% of men and 10% of women are left-handed.
An interesting survey from Ben Schwarz asked users whether they were right or left-handed and which hand they used to use their phone. Although a survey might reflect what people think they’re doing more than what they actually do, the results seem to indicate right or left-handedness doesn’t impact directly the way users hold their phones :
The percentages corresponding to the answer “both hands” is similar to the actual both hands use observed, but we can’t assume it doesn’t include some cradling as well. The same way, holding the phone with one hand doesn’t tell us if they actually interacted with their phone with one hand, or if they actually used they other hand for the interaction. Nevertheless, both the observation results and this data encourages UX designers to take in account left handed use more, and as Ben points out, might reconsider their accessibility zones to adapt more to either hand’s use.
However, one thing bothered me : Steven’s study focused on the way people are holding their devices, and the information covers interaction aspects roughly. Ben’s study asks people to say which hand they use their phone with, so interpretation of the answers as being the holding hand or the interacting hand depends on the participants. Besides, users are not aware of what they are doing, and they might give inaccurate answers.
Because of this, I decided to gather additional observations to my previous batch. This additional data is coherent with the previous set. The proportions of positions observed differ slightly.
the ways of holding the devices are also very similar
But let’s have a look at the details which interest us here, and were only gathered in the new dataset. First, let’s have a look at which hand the users hold their device with :
If you look at the interacting hand however, the results are quite different. When sitting, users seem to hold their phone with both hands, or regardless with the right or left hand. When walking and standing, the number of people observed holding their phone with both hands decreases, apparently in favor of holding their mobile device in their right hand.
Users who hold their phone with both hands sometimes interact with only one of them.
In terms of interaction, the right hand seems to be used more often. The proportions vary depending upon whether the users are sitting, standing or walking. Users seem more likely to use either hand when walking, while the right hand seems to be the preferred choice when sitting.
In the following table, we excluded from the data only two handed interactions.
In terms of holding, the split seems to be about 50/50 between left and right, with slightly more chances to see users hold a phone in their right hand, rather than the left, while walking.
In terms of interacting however, we gather something very different.
Globally, it’s more likely to see users interact with their mobile device with their right hand rather than the left. This is particularly true when users are sitting. When walking, there is very close to the one observed for holding. We also know that (one handed use is more common when walking from our previous section)[http://realites-paralleles.com/2013/12/how-do-users-really-interact-with-their-mobile-devices/], so it makes sense to find similar numbers.
If we consider only one handed use of the phone, so that the holding hand is also the interacting hand, we can see that globally, the right hand seems to be dominant whatever the position of the user.
These percentages are different from the average left/right-handed people. As mentioned earlier in this article, roughly 12% of men and 10% of women are left-handed. This means maybe 10% to 30% don’t use their right hand, although they probably were right handed. It might be even more, and go both ways, since we didn’t ask each observed user what their handedness was.
We saw previously that there was a relation between the location and how users holding and interact with the mobile devices. A statistical khi² test reveals no such relation between the location and which hand users use to interact with their mobile devices.
So, left hand use isn’t really a 50/50 split, once you distinguish holding and interacting. The results are sufficiently detailed however for designers to decide whether they should design for both hands or stick to right handed use. If your app is designed to be used while sitting mainly, designing for left handed use might be less critical than when designing an app that is meant to be used outdoors, on the move, or while standing.
Rather than telling designers what they should do, I mostly invite them to consider in what context their app or site will be used, and as a result, what is the best approach for each particular project.
One question remains unanswered though, why do users interact hold or interact with their phones with one hand or the other. What are they doing that requires the attention of their hands? While the metro studies go on with a look at mobile users attention spans, the context of use will be one more aspect that we shall deal with in an upcoming article.
Meanwhile, feel free to share your thoughts on the subject, and stay tuned for the next article of the metro studies.
How do users really interact with their mobile devices : an activity analysis
In the first parts of the metro studies, we had a close look at how users interact with their mobile devices, by observing a large panel of users and taking snapshots of their activity.
To go further in the analysis, this article will dissect the way users interact with their mobile devices by analyzing timed interaction sequences on 110 users, in real life situations.
What this study is about and what it isn’t
- This study takes in account interactions types and durations, switching from one interaction mode to another and task interruptions.
- These results are not representative of total duration of interactions. The recordings were started when encountering users : it is impossible to know when they have started their activity. The recording stops when users put their mobile back in their pocket or move out of range. As a result, the total interaction time of a user with their device only reflects our observation strategies, and not user behaviour.
- This study only deals with one specific context : users are on the move, in a train or in the underground. While these results are accurate for mobile interactions, they do not cover situations where users are at home or at the office for example.
Participants and data set description
We have observed a total of 110 participants and recorded a total of 6 hours and 23 minutes of activity. We focused on tracking the interactions of users, and did not record all context information for each of them. The following table presents for how many of the participants we have gathered each type of information
The participants split about 50-50 in terms of gender.
About two thirds of participants were sitting, one third was standing. We did not include walking users in this study, since recording their interactions would have required us to follow them, and that would have been too intrusive.
In terms of interaction, we did not want to be too intrusive either. As a result, we found acceptable to write down a general activity category such as reading, texting or playing. We only gathered this information if the screen was directly visible to us, but did no effort to find out if it wasn’t visible naturally.
97.3% of users held their devices vertically, which is the same proportion we found in the previous studies.
In terms of time, this represents 18 minutes : 5% of the total recorded interaction times.
How long do users interact with their mobiles devices in a certain way ?
Users spend most time interacting with their devices with one thumb, whether their hold their device in one hand, or cradle it.
The proportions in which users are observed holding their devices are consistent in all three studies :
We observe fewer one handed usage because we observed fewer walking users.
In terms of time, these proportions vary slightly. Two handed use seems to be less frequent if you take in account the activity duration, however, globally, the results remain consistent.
What we did not learn from the previous study, is the proportions between interaction times and task interruptions. So based on our latest data, the most accurate representation of proportions in user interactions with their mobile devices is the following :
As you can see, about 7% of the time spent interacting with a mobile device on the move is actually not spent interacting with it. The other proportions similar, even taking this in account. More importantly, 14% of the time, users actually interact with their mobile using their index, and not their thumb.
With this study, we have shown 3 things, and are raising yet more questions :
- When observing users through “snapshots” we got results that actually reflect the proportions of tracking time spent performing the activities we were interested in. The proportions we got didn’t just come from luck or from the method we used
- Users actually use their thumbs to interact with their mobiles 70% of the time, and both their thumbs 9% of the time, when they are on the move, in the underground
- Mobile users are actually idle 7% of the time that they are interacting with their devices
However, we still don’t know how they switch from one interaction mode to another, how they chain their interactions and what this being idle covers. These will be the aspects we will discuss in our next post on the metro studies. In the mean time, how would you use this knowledge to improve your mobile designs ?
Insights on interaction patterns using mobile devices
After having a look at how users hold their mobile devices, how they interact with their mobile devices, which hand they use to interact with their smartphones, and what their attention span might be…. let’s have a look at how this all plays out through time.
As discussed in a previous post, when observing how long users interact with their mobile device in a certain way, we find that proportions are similar to those observed through discrete observations. In this post, we will look at the detail of how interaction sequences are decomposed.
Users changed interaction about twice a minute
When looking at the details of our data, the average time spent in any one position ranges from 23 seconds, to 35 seconds.
Device orientation had a strong effect on how long users interact with their device in a single way.
Gender had no effect on how often users change from one interaction mode to another
The user’s position had little influence on how often they switch from one interaction to another.
The task had an effect on the user’s interaction behavior
Note, the total on task takes in account only 365 records out of the 887 total, as we were unable to record the activity for all of the observed users.
In terms of activity, the duration of single interaction modes vary slightly. For texting, users spend 10s less on average per interaction mode, than other activities. On the other hand, playing users have a shorter maximum time in one interaction mode.
Gender has no effect on user interaction patterns. On the contrary, the user’s activity (task they are performing), position (sitting or standing) and the device orientation has an impact in interaction patterns.
Switching from one type of interaction to another
Depending upon the way users interact with their mobile device when they are observed, they are more or less likely to switch between specific interaction types.
After a period of being idle, users are more likely to start using their phones with a one handed interaction, or to craddle their mobile. Users are also more likely to switch beween craddle and two handed, and between one handed and being idle.
In an upcoming article of the metro studies, we will have a closer look at interaction sequences, and how they are influenced by the user’s task and the properties of the interface they are interacting with.