Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Making mLearning Usable: How we use mobile devices

This was published as a research report by the eLearning Guild in April 2014. For the full version of the report, and many others, join the Guild.

Executive Summary 
Global mobile device usage is truly astounding. Consider that there are more mobile subscriptions than humans on the planet, and in the 12 months of 2013 alone, mobile traffic grew by 80%. 
Traditionally, eLearning development focused on desktop and laptop computers. But developing for mobile is different—not because mobile is smaller, but because the user is mobile. Constant connectivity, sensors, and input methods like touch and gesture allow mobile devices to act very differently from the computers we traditionally design for. Because mobile is unlike the desktop in so many ways, many of the methods eLearning designers and developers use don’t work for mobile. 

A key difference between mobile and computers is touch, but our understanding of how people actually hold and use touchscreen devices has been lacking. In 2013 Steven Hoober, one of the authors of this report, did a study on how people really hold and touch mobile phones, but that didn’t include research on how people touch and use tablets. The eLearning Guild was interested in this research due to the increasing maturity of mobile learning solutions. Without foundational research on how people use tablets, there is simply too much chance of designing interfaces that are bad for people who use eLearning. If we don’t understand the best way to design for touch screens we risk creating user interfaces that can actually hinder usage, such as putting buttons where the user’s own fingers block sight of where they are to touch. 

To address this, we developed a survey in which volunteer field investigators gathered observations of people’s use of tablet devices, focusing on phablets, like the Galaxy Note series, small tablets, like the Nexus 7 or Kindle Fire, and large tablets, like the iPad. Observations occurred in 22 countries, but primarily in the United States. 

The point of doing research on how people hold and use these types of devices is to assure that human/device interactions work well. This report discusses a number of implications for design, both overall and by device class, that come from both Hoober’s previous phone research and this tablet research to ensure that touch interactions, keyboard interactions, and so on work for the user.

Results show that the way people use phones vs. large tablets indicates they are entirely unlike each other. The research found two key user preferences: People hold small devices in the hand and use them standing and walking. People use large devices more on surfaces and in stands and more often use them sitting. Design implications: People prefer to read and touch the center of the device, so place key content and interactions in the center. Use the minimum standard type sizes for the device and the way it is going to be used. Make the type larger when the device is likely to be in a stand or on a surface. When you design, don’t just test the interface on a computer screen, test with users on the device itself. 

Who Should Read This Report? 
This report is for anyone involved in the design of interfaces on mobile phones and tablets. You can immediately apply the findings to the day-to-day practice of designing mobile learning products, and use them to evaluate the suitability of existing designs for these devices.

Many of the tools, techniques, and methodologies used for digital design are based on the explosive growth of the web on desktop and laptop computers. But mobile is different—not because it is usually small or has no keyboard, but because it is with the user all the time, and wherever the user is. Constant connectivity, sensors, and input methods like touch and gesture allow mobile devices to act very differently from the computers we have traditionally designed for. 

Mobile continues to grow in use, with occasional shocking numbers: 
  • There are more mobile subscriptions than humans on the planet 
  • While 700 million people have email addresses, over five billion use SMS text messaging 
  • Mobile devices accounted for 48% of Internet traffic on Christmas day 2013 
  • In the 12 months of 2013 alone, mobile traffic grew by 80% 
Mobile continues to expand in reach, and even more so in use. We can expect mobile devices to replace other technologies, and continue to create new ways of learning. A good understanding of the technology and use of these devices is increasingly critical for people involved with learning. 
One key difference between mobile devices and computers is touch, but our understanding of how people use touchscreen phones and tablets has been sadly lacking. In the last few years there have been some theories, but we increasingly need hard empirical evidence. In February of 2013 Steven Hoober published a research report, How Do Users Really Hold Mobile Devices?, on how people really hold and touch mobile phones. In that research, he observed 1,333 individuals in public settings in several North American locations. 

Over time all this information was merged into a single view—and a single set of principles— of how to design for touchscreen phones. Because the vast majority of research into mobile behaviors has focused on mobile phones, only basic knowledge has been available about how tablets are used. Developers have directed much mobile learning at tablets such as the iPad, without a real baseline understanding of the ergonomics and methods of use. As Peter-Paul Koch noted on QuirksMode, general tablet use is beginning to make a mark, with around 10% of Internet traffic in the UK and Netherlands directed to tablets. 

The eLearning Guild became interested in this research due to the increasing maturity of mobile learning solutions. Designers and developers are creating interfaces for mobile learning and performance support based on best practices from the desktop web, templates from vendors, or even unrecognized personal biases. Without foundational research on how people use tablets, there is simply too great a chance of designing interfaces that are bad for people who use eLearning. This can lead to poorly designed eLearning—and to authoring programs that encourage poorly designed eLearning. So we saw this as an opportunity to do the type of research that was essential to the community as a whole. 

This can also allow us to establish a baseline of knowledge that we can use to create better success metrics and carry on further research in the future. 

Top eLearning developers use responsive design to create websites that work on a range of devices. Responsive design considers the number of pixels on the screen, and adjusts the information display to suit this size. Increasingly popular and successful adaptive technologies consider other features of the device to change the way that interactive controls work, and what tools are available per device; a mobile phone can rely on the GPS, for example, while a desktop or laptop computer user will have to type their location. Understanding how users work with different devices can help designers and developers better select layout and interaction for each one. 

Survey Methodology 
This survey was based off Hoober’s February 2013 study to gather numerous additional parameters about mobile devices and users. Whereas that survey was simple, and could be recorded on paper, the new survey required the use of a mobile-friendly web form, both to gather more information and to help the observers gather data anonymously. The observers could use a tablet or their mobile phone to gather observations in almost any environment. 

We started by soliciting volunteer field investigators from Guild members and other interested mobile learning affiliates. Volunteers in 22 countries (see Table 1 on page 8) gathered 651 observations of use on mobile devices, with a focus on other-than-phone devices: 
  • Phablets, like the Galaxy Note series 
  • Small tablets, like the Nexus 7 or Kindle Fire 
  • Large tablets, like the iPad 

Full descriptions of these device categories are included later in the report. 

While most of the original observations on phone use were done in public, field investigators who gathered data for this research did so much more often in environments where we are more likely to have to designed eLearning to work well, such as in offices, classrooms, and the home (Figure 1 on page 5). They gathered some of the observations in public places. 14.5% were on transportation, such as buses, trains, and airplanes, and 5.9% in coffee shops, bars, and stores.

Figure 1: Where observations were taken (tablets) 

Due to the need for an Internet connection, some observers noted that they could not log some observations. Subway transit systems, for example, have poor or no Internet coverage so no observations on subways are included. 

Google notes in its report The New Multi-screen World: Understanding Cross-platform Consumer Behavior that tablets are not used out in public nearly as much as phones, but are a preferred device for some types of interactions in the home. 

In the original study, which primarily looked at phone use, the vast majority of use was standing or walking. In this tablet study, we saw more people who were indoors, with one apparent result being a huge majority of the observations being of seated users (Figure 2 on page 6). This appears to be because of the types of devices surveyed.

Figure 2: Observation stance (tablets) 

Later on in the study we see that very few large tablets are used standing but it is important to note that in mobile learning we are possibly designing for a mobile workforce who may be looking to sneak in learning in bites, or may work in an environment where they stand but use tablets. So later, when we are talking about the implications of the study, you will want to think about what your specific workforce will be doing as they use their devices and you may want to consider what type of device to use depending on what they will be doing. 

Observations were nearly evenly split between male and female users (Figure 3 on page 7), and while most observations were of adults (Figure 4 on page 7), a notable number of children, teens, and seniors were observed as well.

Figure 3: Observation gender (tablets) 

Figure 4: Observation age (tablets)

The observers were in 22 countries (Table 1). The majority of observations are from the United States, with many others being from majority-English speaking countries as well. Due to the very small numbers of responses from most countries, we made no effort to determine if there are differences in use per country or region. In the future, a larger or more truly global survey would be useful to confirm the generalization of these results, or clarify localized differences if we find them. 

Number of Respondents 
Percent of Respondents 
United States 
United Kingdom 
New Zealand 
South Africa 
United Arab Emirates 

Preferences in Mobile Device Use 
This section of the report will look at the results of the field observations and an analysis of them. The next section will explain what the analysis means for the design of mobile interfaces. 

Many basic observations of use are exactly as expected. Most use is with the device in portrait mode, or with the device vertical (Figure 5), and only 15.4% of use was observed with the left hand touching the screen alone (Figure 6 on page 10). This is close to the incidence of left-handed individuals in the population, so is not a surprise at all. 

Figure 5: Device orientation (tablets)

Figure 6: Hand used to touch the screen (tablets) 

Further information gets much more interesting when we break down use by device and size. Remember, most of us design, or soon will design, for multiple sizes of devices. Often, the same eLearning product has to work or will have to work on a range of devices. 

Key Findings 
We can generally summarize the findings from Steven Hoober’s initial phone research combined with the Guild’s tablet research with two key user preferences. 
Looking at devices by size: 
  • People use small devices in the hand, and use them standing and walking
  • People use large devices more on surfaces and in stands, and use them more often sitting

Looking at devices by type: The way people use phones and large tablets seems to indicate they are entirely unlike each other. 
  • People use phones almost entirely in the hand, and largely on the move
  • People use tablets much more often while sitting, and with the device in a stand or set on a table

You can see this yourself in Figures 7 and 8 (on page 12). As the size of the device increases, placing them on surfaces and then putting them in stands becomes dominant over holding them. 

Figure 7: Location of device by class of device (all devices) 

We also see that people tend to use smaller devices on the go and larger devices while they are more stationary. Figure 8 clearly shows that the larger the device, the more often it is used when sitting or reclining. We knew from anecdotal and smaller-scale ethnographic studies such as The New Multi-screen World: Understanding Cross-platform Consumer Behavior that users with multiple devices tend to use phones when on the go, tablets on the couch, and computers at the desk. As the size of the device increases, they use them in a more stationary basis.

Figure 8: Stance by device class (all devices) 

It’s possible that the higher incidence of standing and walking for the phone may be due to the methodology from the previous study, as it was mostly gathered in public so it may simply reflect a more dramatic use of handheld-sized devices on the go. 

Readability and Angular Resolution 
The information shared in the previous sections has a large impact on readability. If the person is holding the device, they can move it to wherever it is most comfortable to read, within reason. If the device is in a stand, on a table, or on a lap, the person is more likely to be working with it at the distance of a computer. If the device is mounted, then a special readability situation exists which goes beyond the purview of this report. 

No single font size can be used to assure content is readable on a mobile device because of angular resolution, which means that the size is relative and based on the distance the source is from the viewer’s eye as shown in Figure 9 (on page 13). This is the same reason traffic signs use letters that are sometimes several feet tall. 

Figure 9: A tablet on the table is much further away from the user than a phone held in the hand, so the size of icons and text must be larger (Source: Steven Hoober) 

For a discussion of the minimum size for readable text, see Steven Hoober and Eric Berkman’s Designing Mobile Interfaces. 

For various devices, the formula says the minimum sizes any text should be are: 

Manner of Use 
Device Class
Screen Size
Minimum Type Size
Held in the hand 
Small phones 
4 pt. 
Typical smartphones 
3.5 – 5” 
6 pt. 
5.5 – 6” 
6.5 pt. 
Small tablet 
7 pt. 
Large tablet 
8 pt. 
On a surface 
Any device with a keyboard, including desktop or laptop computers 
10 pt. 

Remember as well that readability is more than just size. Contrast is another critical attribute. The International Standards Organization recommends a minimum of 3:1 luminance ratio between text and background. As noted in Designing Mobile Interfaces, a ratio of 10:1 is preferred. 

Preferences in Touching the Screen 
The point of the research on how people hold their devices is to assure touch interactions work well. In Steven Hoober’s UXmatters article “Design for Fingers and Thumbs Instead of Touch,” a review of 19 separate studies—including one that captured over 100 million touch events—indicates that people prefer to touch the center of their handset screens, and they have increased accuracy when doing so. 

People subconsciously know this, so are more confident at the center, and will slow down to tap corner or edge targets. From this we know how accurate they are, by section of the screen. 
There are four aspects to assuring that users understand the touch targets in your eLearning project and can select them without trouble: 
  1. Visible targets: Is the text readable? Do the actions communicate whatever behavior they will actually perform? 
  2. Fingers: Do they obscure important information? Do they cover so much of your button the user can’t tell if they clicked it or not? 
  3. Touch target sizes: At least 6 mm, preferably 8 mm or larger. Provide extra room, invisibly, around visible targets when you have it available. 
  4. Interference: To avoid accidental selection of adjacent touch targets, make sure there’s enough space between each item. 
Of these, the most important to consider is interference. You can peer at hard-to-read type and eventually figure it out. Missing a target can be a little frustrating and slow the user down, but selecting the wrong action is always confusing, often discouraging, and sometimes catastrophic. 
Figure 10 (on page 16) outlines the accuracy level a typical person has for each part of the screen. Note that the green boxes are not a grid, where you should position each design element, but a guideline only for space needed for each area. 
When positioning a touchable link, button, icon or other control on the screen: 
  1. Look on the chart for the most appropriate circle by area, and then overlay that on the center of the target. 
  2. If any other selectable item also falls within that circle, the user will sometimes activate the wrong action. 
We most robustly confirmed this data for phone and phablet-sized devices. While there is no experimental confirmation of the exact sizes to use for tablets, similar behavior appears to be true so we can safely apply the same guidelines to all touchscreen mobile devices.

Figure 10: Touch accuracy varies by position on the screen 

Implications for design 
For the designer or developer of mobile learning, target the design for the tool you can expect in a particular use or context. Find out what devices the users have available, or prefer to use, and in what environment. Try to work around limits of tools and technologies to build for what devices people have and how and where they use them. 

If you are constrained to a device, such as if your organization only issues iPads, make sure you take into account expected behavior, and don’t try to make people use large tablets while walking unless their job requires that they do so. In that case make the touch points larger so they can make sure to hit them while moving about. 

Key implications for all devices: 
For all the devices discussed in this report, from phones to tablets, follow these guidelines to help assure that touch interactions are usable: 
  • People prefer to read and touch the center of the device. Place key content and interactions in the center. 
  • If you have scrolling content such as large amounts of text or lists, leave enough space at the end (padding) so you are sure people can read all the way to the end. 
  • Make sure to use at least the standard minimum type sizes outlined above for the device and the way people are going to use it. Use larger type whenever practical. 
  • Check the color and contrast to assure text and other elements are readable. Use at least a 3:1 contrast ratio, and preferably 10:1. 
  • Make sure touch targets are at least 6 mm in size, and preferably 8 mm. Larger is generally better, and don’t forget that the selectable area can be bigger than the visible target. Use empty space around links and between buttons. 
  • Design by zones: Make sure targets are 11 mm apart on center in the title bar, 12 mm along the bottom and 9 mm in the tab bar. People prefer to touch and read at the center, so you can place items as close as 7 mm on center there. 

We’ll offer specific observations and recommendations by device class in the next four sections. Figure 11 shows the relative scale of size of the different devices. 

Figure 11: Scale of size for phones, phablets, small tablets, and large tablets 

In the next four sections, you’ll see information about the how people in the study held different mobile devices and some information about how they used stands or put devices on surfaces. The study showed clearly that holding devices was a very popular method of usage, as showing in Figure 12, but people didn’t hold all the different device types equally—and that has a lot of implications for design. 

Figure 12: Location of device (tablets) 

We now know that keyboard use is high enough to specifically account for them in your design, development, and testing, especially when designing for the iPad or other large tablets. 

You must carefully test every input method to assure it operates properly on screen, as well as with attached hardware keyboards. New to many of us is a need to assure that the directional arrow keys function properly and communicate the in-focus position to the user. 

Despite being touch-centric operating systems, both Android and iOS have robust support for external keyboard control, and display of focus. Follow their design and development standards to assure that your apps and sites support all interactions properly. 

Don’t forget touch. Both users who like to tap, and those who prefer an external keyboard exist, and individuals change their method of use between the two. Design for both touch and keyboard use to accommodate all types of people.

Strictly speaking, we consider any mobile device with a radio to connect to the mobile network and the proper voice processing hardware to be a phone. But when most people say “phone” they mean something small enough to be comfortably held in one hand, or put in the pocket, with a screen smaller than about 5 inches measured diagonally (an industry standard). All phones in this report are smartphones, generally defined as running a named operating system (Android, Blackberry, iOS, Windows) and capable of easy upgrading with downloaded applications. 

The physical design of smartphones today is almost entirely uniform. With rare exceptions, they are rectangles of glass, some with varying degrees of curvature and perhaps with a button or three along the bottom edge of the screen. iPhones are about the smallest touchscreen devices encountered, with 3.5- or 4-inch screens (depending on generation). Android, Blackberry, and Windows devices are most popular recently in the larger sizes, but in almost any group of users you will encounter a broad range of sizes. 

Key findings 

The majority of phone use is with one hand holding the device and the thumb tapping items on the screen (Figure 13 on page 20). Some of this is with another hand supporting the phone, to allow for more reach, or in situations where the user might be worried about dropping the phone. 

Figure 13: How people hold phones 

Users often change the way they hold their phone, switching from one handed for scrolling and reading, to cradle for more reach, to two hands for typing and many other behaviors (Figure 14 on page 21).

Figure 14: People shift between these different ways to hold and touch their phones 

Implications for design 
Remember the ways users work with these devices in the real world. There is no good way to account for specific methods of holding a phone without making it harder to use the phone in other ways. 
  • Identify the key actions and content, and put it in the center of the page. Don’t confuse the action icons or button bar with the key user actions. 
  • You can place other interactive items (such as buttons) around the edge, but make sure they are clearly visible, and make the touch target large enough so they are easy to tap. 
  • When you design a phone interface, don’t just test on a computer screen. Test with users on the phone itself, held in the hand. Run through a checklist of key actions to confirm that text and touch sizes are appropriate, and that fingers and thumbs do not obscure important information. 
  • When testing on real phones, try grasping and touching devices in all the ways people can use them. Make sure the interface works just as well in all positions, and in all orientations. 

The term phablet is a combination of the words phone and tablet and describes very large phones, some only a little smaller than the smallest popular tablets. Samsung all but invented the category with their Galaxy Note, and have followed it up with a series of devices in that range and size. Competitors also make similar-size devices, not all of which are available globally. 

While derided by much of the US tech press, phablet sales are good globally, and striking in certain markets. In Korea, fully 70% of the smartphone and tablet market is phablets. 

Phablets can have screens anywhere from about 5.5 to 6 inches, though the definition is more fluid than that of any other size. Two years ago, a phone the size of a Galaxy S4—a common phone in today’s market—would be so large as to be called a phablet. 

While the Galaxy Note series comes with a pen or stylus, this is not required and not all phablets have one. While interesting, this is not a defining feature of the category. 

Key findings 

Users don’t complain about the size of phablets. In fact, 90% of observed use is still in the hand. At their core, people seem to use phablets as big phones. The size does result in some variations in the way they grasp and touch them, however (Figure 15 on page 23). 

Figure 15: How people hold phablets 

Fewer people use phablets with a single hand on the device and tap with the thumb, and despite them holding it, the most common method is now the more tablet-like tapping with a finger from the other hand. 

This would seem to indicate that concerns about size essentially disappear. There’s little need to specifically place controls at the edge, where they are reachable with the thumb. Users simply adjust to the method of holding and touching most comfortable to them and suitable to the interaction. 

While most use was in the hand, almost 10% of the observations were of the device on a surface. Of these, 2.2% were actually in a stand. Though relatively low, it is an important subset to consider. If you find people will use your eLearning app or website at this distance, text and icons need to be much larger to be readable. 

Implications for design 
There is some need to adjust design principles for phablets. Since most use is in the hand, start by designing phablet interfaces for hand-held use. Follow the phone guidelines and test to assure the interface is usable. 
  • Users grasp and touch their phablets in several different ways, but more so using two hands than phone users do. Put key actions and content in the center of the page. You can place other interactive items (such as buttons) around the edge, but make sure they are clearly visible, and make touch targets large enough so they are easy to tap. 
  • You must take extra care not to allow the other hand to obscure items on the screen. 
  • Since people often lay phablets on surfaces, make type larger, and check for readability of content and controls at the increased distance. Be careful to balance this with the expectation of some users that the larger screen will provide additional space for content. 
  • If you use gestures such as sliding or dragging, do not scale them up for the larger device size. People’s hands don’t change, so gesture distances need to remain the same size. 
  • Although the most popular phablets in the survey areas—the Galaxy Note series—also come with a pen stylus stored in the device, very few users were observed using pens for interaction. There appears to be little call for designing general interfaces to account for pen input.

Small Tablets 
After Apple reinvented the tablet computer as a lightweight, low-power device, a huge variety of Android manufacturers released tablets in a broad range of sizes. Sometimes, size was based simply on what screens each manufacturer could get. Samsung, for one, made tablets in almost 1/2-inch increments from around 6 to 11 inches. 

Shortly thereafter users discovered that a widescreen (usually a 16:9 “aspect ratio” or width to height relationship) tablet with about a 7-inch screen is small enough to be comfortable in one hand, but provides additional screen area to work compare to a phone. This has become a sort of standard, and most manufacturers offer tablets around 7 to 71/2 inches in addition to the larger tablets described in the next section. 

More recently, Apple has admitted the smaller size has value, making the very popular iPad Mini, at 7.9 inches, the largest common small tablet. Because the smaller tablet is so easy to carry around, eLearning developers may expect to have to design for smaller tablets very shortly. So implications of this study for small tablets may be especially important for eLearning. 

Key findings 
Despite the increased size, 69.4% of users still simply hold small tablets in the hand (see Figure 7). Though much smaller than the number for phones or phablets, 8.4% of users were observed actually walking around. The method of holding is not radically different from the behavior observed with phablets. Surprisingly, over 20% still tap with their thumb, though by far the most popular methods are using the other hand (42.9%), or cradling for extra reach (14.3%), again indicating that users are adjusting their grasp to reach all parts of the screen based on their situation, the size of the device, and their comfort with it (Figure 16 on page 26). 

Interestingly, holding with both hands, and tapping with both thumbs is a behavior almost entirely associated with typing. For both phablets and tablets this jumps up to about one in five observations, vs. far more modest rates for phones. This may indicate people are more inclined to long text entry or other types of content creation on these devices. Preference of device for long text entry or content creation is a topic worth investigating when selecting a mobile learning device.

Figure 16: How people hold small tablets 

While only a relatively small 7.4% use a stand, this still represents a sudden jump from their use on smaller devices. Availability is not an issue, as cases with display stands built in are common, so it is apparently a user choice. A much larger 23.1% simply lay their small tablets on a surface while using it. 

That means almost one in three users do not hold their tablet, therefore placing it further from the eye and the hand. For many tablet applications, you will need to use larger, desktop-scale type sizes since the device is essentially the same distance away from the user. 

While on a surface or stand, only 3.3% of observations were with an external keyboard. This is most interesting due to the much larger use of keyboards on large tablets, as described in the next section. 

At first we thought the low use of keyboards was due to availability; the commonality of the iPad could make add-on devices like this easier to find. However, a quick search of Internet retailers shows them to be cheap and common. Use of pen stylus pointing devices is also very low (also 3.3%). Since pens can work on any touchscreen device, it must simply be that people perceive small tablets as different devices, more suited to direct interaction. 

Implications for design 
Small tablets share many behaviors with phones and phablets, but people begin to use them in different, tablet-like ways as well. 
  • Users grasp and touch their devices in several different ways, but almost entirely with two hands due to the size of the device. Targets can be anywhere on the screen, as users will shift their grip to reach them, mostly by tapping with the finger. 
  • Keep important information and functions near the center. 
  • People lay small tablets on surfaces about one-third of the time. Make sure visible icons and text are readable at this increased distance, but also ensure they still work for handheld use. 
  • 35% of observations were in landscape orientation, about evenly distributed between the various holding methods and placing the small tablet on a surface. Design all interfaces and interactions to work in both vertical and horizontal. 
  • Due to the variations in grasp, it is especially important to make sure selections are large enough for the user to see them around the tapping finger or thumb. The visible side may not be above, but to the left or right of the selection for any one user. 
  • Since some users have pens and external keyboards, check your specific users. There may be special needs or issued hardware that supports these input methods and raises the rates in your environment. See the next section on large tablets if you have to design for keyboard input and control. 

Large Tablets 
People have conceived of, modeled, and prototyped tablets since the dawn of computing (in the original Star Trek series, Captain Kirk used a tablet), but Apple’s introduction of the iPad created the current market and set the tone for what has been the default size. While smaller tablets are now gaining serious ground, the baseline tablet for eLearning is still similar to the iPad, between 9.5 and about 10 inches. 

Several other makers offer tablets in this size range, though exact dimensions vary greatly, especially because of aspect ratio choices. 

There are a few larger tablets, with rumors of 12-inch iPads, just-released Samsung tablets in that size, and Windows tablets exceeding 20 inches actually in use, but these are relatively niche products at this time. 

In eLearning, people tend to design for large tablets, especially for the original size of the iPad. We can expect this to change over time as new devices appear in the learning environment. Android tablets outsell iPads, even in North America, and the iPad Mini has become much more popular than the original 9.7-inch iPad. Over time, we can expect better and more capable authoring tools for mobile development of all platforms to emerge to support these needs. 

Key findings 
Despite the relative popularity of stands (22%), simply laying the tablet on a table or lap is twice as popular (40%), slightly beating out people just holding their tablets (38%), as Figure 7 shows. Large tablets are by far the mobile device least held in the hand, but that is still a very common case so you must account for it in design. 

Figure 17: How people hold their large tablets 

As for all device sizes, two thumbs tapping at once is mostly reserved for typing, with users shifting to this mode for text entry, then back to another method for general viewing, or lightweight interaction such as scrolling or selection (Figure 14). 

Large tablets laying on a surface or in a stand exhibit some different behaviors. Notably, pen use suddenly becomes an important fraction, (13% when laying on surfaces, 10.9% when in stands). And remember, none of the top-selling tablets really support pens, so these are from conscious user choice, and constitute a variety of aftermarket products. 

When simply lying on a surface, tapping with a single finger rises to 48%, and we observed 28% of users using both hands, again probably for typing. 

For the 22% of users observed employing a stand, over half (54.6%) used an external keyboard, replacing almost all of the two-handed tapping, which drops to 7.3%. The keyboard displaces almost all other interactions, with finger tapping dropping to just 25.5% of interactions. Like with pens, hardly any tablets come with keyboards. Although 90% of the keyboards used are part of the stand or case, the users deliberately purchase these in the aftermarket. 

Implications for design 
For large tablets, the touch guidelines described for smaller devices still apply, but non-touch interactions begin to take center stage. 
  • For type and target sizes, assume the tablet is in a stand. The distance will be similar to a desktop user, just within arm’s reach, so text sizes need to be similar to that used for conventional desktop web design. 
  • Almost 40% of users still just hold their tablets, and even in stands 36.4% tap the screen with a finger or pen stylus at least part of the time. Make sure you still design content for touch by making sure to size touch items correctly. 
  • 65% of use was in landscape orientation. All designs must work in both orientations whenever possible 
  • Avoid obscuring key information behind the tapping hand. 
  • Assure that in-focus states properly indicate the currently selected items. While important for touch entry, it is critical for hardware keyboards where the scrolling arrow keys allow selection without tapping. 
  • Make sure all hardware and virtual keyboard functions work equally well for all input methods. 

This study provided data that designers and developers of eLearning—as well as all designers of mobile interfaces—can use to better plan and create products for the way people actually use mobile phones, phablets, and tablets. It augmented the original study’s understanding of how users hold and touch devices; and it met expectations for how people hold devices in the hand and tap them, with larger devices more often used with fingers instead of thumbs, for example. 

While there has been a general understanding that people always carry phones and use them more on the go than they do tablets, we now better understand the exact parameters, and we can refer to basic rates of use. 

However, other and unexpected data was also encountered which adds useful knowledge to our toolboxes. For tablets, there is a much higher use of stands and laying of devices on surfaces. Keyboard use on large tablets was unexpectedly high, resulting in a distinct need to design for this method of use. 

We also can’t forget that mobile devices, regardless of size, share many behaviors. Most guidelines apply to all devices, in differing ways. Be aware of which devices your learners will actually use, and make appropriate design choices. 

Major Takeaways 

  1. Devices share many features but have distinct differences in use based on size, so consider this when designing. 
  2. People use mobile devices on the move. While larger devices are more often static, they are still much more portable than any conventional desktop or laptop. Plan for varying contexts, from glare on the screen to distractions. Make sure you know what range of devices your users will be using and how your users will be using their devices. 
  3. Users are more accurate at touching the center of the screen and prefer to read content in the center as well. Targets at the edges need to be larger, and further apart. 
  4. There is more variation in distance from the eye than was previously understood. The large number of tablets used in stands or on surfaces means we need to design for readability and legibility at longer distances for some users. 
  5. Support keyboard use, for entry of text and scrolling, at least on larger tablets such as the iPad. 
  6. People hold small devices in the hand and use them standing and walking. People place large devices more on surfaces and in stands and use them more often while sitting
  7. The point of the research on how people hold their devices is to assure touch interactions work well. Use the research so your users don’t become frustrated. When positioning a touchable link, button, icon, or other control on the screen, make sure you understand the four aspects to assure that you place touch targets well. 
  8. Consider doing what we did for this study: Watch your users use their devices and see what they do. We are providing you with a general set of observations and analysis of what to expect, but nothing succeeds like shadowing your users as they actually work or learn.


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Unknown said...

Great article with invaluable info, all at once. Very well organised.
I often refer to this article when evaluating mobile UI designs.
Thank you very much!

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