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.

Part 2 : The effect of location on mobile interactions

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 my previous post.

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.


Total Commute Train station Mall
Sitting 32.00% 41.00% 30.00% 59.00%
Standing 49.50% 47.00% 46.00% 16.00%
Walking 18.50% 12.00% 24.00% 25.00%

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.


Total Commute Train station Mall
One handed 51% 14.00% 51.00% 39.00%
Cradled 33% 58.00% 34.00% 45.00%
Two handed 16% 28.00% 15.00% 16.00%

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.

To be continued

The metro studies proceed, with soon a focus on left-paw interactions, which hand holds ? Which hand touches ? Do our accessibility zones really match real context use ? This will be discussed in the next post of this series.