iPhone-6-UI-More-Important-back-button

Model of 4.7-inch iPhone 6 (left). From Apple’s Developer Guidlines (Right)

When I first upgraded from my iPhone 4 to the iPhone 5s, I immediately noticed an incredible upgrade in the clarity and sharpness of the larger 4-inch Retina display, but also some usability issues that plagued my iPhone usage experience for the following months. That’s why I’m excited for the pixel tripling 3x mode at 1704 x 960 resolution Apple is currently testing for the iPhone 6, but simultaneously worried about the day to day use of iOS on a larger 4.7 or 5.5-inch device. Apple explained it best:

Apple currently recommends developers focus specifically on the upper left portion of the iPhone display for important navigation functions and considers the lower right portion of the screen “less important” (pictured above from Apple’s developer documentation). That’s not going to fly with a larger 4.7-inch+ display, and it’s got me wondering if app developers will have to fundamentally rethink the layout of apps in addition to any changes to support the next iPhone’s increased resolution. 

The question is whether or not Apple’s standard navigation buttons and recommendations for app developers will need to change to accommodate a different experience with the larger display. After all, iOS as we know it and Apple’s guidelines for apps seem to be specifically suited to a 4-inch or smaller display. It’s also something third-party devs should be thinking about outside of Apple’s recommendations. Take Apple’s standard back button for instance (pictured below). It resides in the upper left corner of the display, just out of thumb’s reach for many people when upgrading to a larger 4.7-inch+ display.

Toolbar-iOS-7-02From Apple’s developer guidelines:

Make it easy to focus on the main task by elevating important content or functionality. Some good ways to do this are to place principal items in the upper half of the screen and—in left-to-right cultures—near the left side of the screen

Currently in iOS 7, Apple reserves the bottom of the iPhone’s screen for tab bars and toolbars. They look like this:

Tab-and-Tool-Bar-iOS-7-01

However, for the Navigation Bar, Search fields and scope or filter buttons, Apple recommends devs use the top of the iPhone display and that’s where you’ll find them and many other main navigation buttons along the top of most of your favorite apps (pictured right). Additionally, Apple’s Notification Center feature is activated using a pull-down gesture from the upper edge of the display. Of course, these issues aren’t present in iOS on the larger Navigation-iOS-7-01screen of an iPad because tablets are meant to be used as two-handed devices. With a smartphone meant for one-handed use, reaching everything with your thumb on a larger display can make for quite a clunky user experience. Ask Android users.

Gestures could be one way developers decide to workaround no man’s land on the iPhone 6. Apple has a one finger gesture that it recommends using “to return to the previous screen,” but that doesn’t replace the back button in Apple’s apps or the majority of third-party apps. Safari uses it for going back and forth between webpages, lots of Apple’s stock apps still use the standard back button in the upper left, and other apps use it for everything from pulling out a sidebar, to cycling between tab views and swiping through photos. Ideally a new gesture could become a standard for the back button in apps, but that doesn’t address the rest of the navigation buttons commonly found along the top of the iPhone display.

But everyone wants a bigger screen iPhone, right? Android has 5, 6, 7, and even 8-inch smartphones and it seems to be doing pretty well, right? Unfortunately Android shipment numbers and the stats on people wanting bigger displays don’t mean iOS won’t encounter some usability issues with a larger display. You don’t hear many people shouting about how much better the user experience is on those crisp, large screen Android smartphones.

Let’s take a look at Android: Notification drawer at the top of the screen , search bar at the top of the display , many navigation buttons at top of screen , tons of complaints in reviews over devices being uncomfortable to hold , usability issues with reaching buttons at the top of the screen during one-handed operation . It’s pretty easy to see that Android has all the same issues as iOS that were noticeable on a 4-inch display but about to get a lot worse on an iPhone with a bigger display. Android does, however, put the all important back button in the bottom left corner of the screen that allows users to move back through previous screens across the OS as well as dismiss onscreen dialogs, popups, etc. It’s one of the most used buttons and makes navigating Android on a larger display much less frustrating than I imagine it would be on iOS.

One thing both the LG Optimus G2 and soon G3 and Samsung Galaxy Note do is have a mode that puts the UI elements in the bottom right or left corner when being used in “single hand mode”. Below is a video of the Galaxy Note:

Asus-FonepadEven if Apple and developers address these usability issues that get introduced with the larger display, perhaps a market for a 4-inch or smaller high-end smartphone will emerge in the process. I’m not just worried about the navigation problems, I’m also not too excited about lugging the larger device around in my pocket. To quote Steve Jobs,  “you can’t get your hand around it.” I’ve reviewed and lived with the high-end smartphones from HTC and Samsung that currently dominate the market and, UI issues aside, the hardware feels unwieldy compared to my iPhone. If these issues do exist on iPhone 6, I’d definitely consider switching to a high-end, 4-inch or smaller Android device should one be released.

Of course Apple could do that too. If Apple does eventually go with the 3x resolution it’s currently testing for iOS 8 and the iPhone 6, it wouldn’t just make it easy for developers to update image assets for the new device, but also make it easy for developers to continue supporting users with 4-inch devices with the current Retina resolution. It could easily continue to offer a 4-inch device alongside the new 4.7 and 5.5-inch next-gen iPhones to cater to that market, but that doesn’t change things for usability issues for devs that want to support the larger screen sizes.

Is it possible I just happen to have tiny, boyish hands and didn’t know it? Nope. According to the most studies I dug up online, my hands are almost exactly the national average for men: 7.5 inches in length.

I’m admittedly now somewhat used to my 4-inch iPhone, but my hands certainly aren’t getting any bigger. I already think buttons along the top of the screen are uncomfortable on the 4-inch iPhone and, considering I don’t have particularly small hands, I can imagine this could be an issue for a large number of iOS users.

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50 Responses to “‘No man’s land': How a bigger iPhone 6 will require developers to rethink their app designs”

  1. rafalb177 says:

    Those large phones are popular amongst people who want to see the others they own a cell phone, even though they’re made by a microwave oven manufacturer. So cheesy.

  2. Are you sure you felt incredible upgrade in sharpness and clarity move from iPhone 4 to 5? They’re both equally sharp, equally clear and roughly equally bright. The only edge the 5 has on the 4 is more pixels on the long end, but with identical pixel density this doesn’t translate to higher sharpness, just a bit more screen real estate.

    • I also thought that was a strange comment, but the colors, max brightness, and contrast are definitely better on the 5 compared to the 4. I recall being quite wowed by the vivid colors when I replaced my 4 with a 5. I think this results in an impression of increased clarity, but sharpness is definitely the same. More real estate, same PPI.

      For reference:
      http://www.anandtech.com/show/6334/iphone-5-screen-performance

    • Actually color reproduction was way better on the iPhone 5 than on the iPhone 4 and 4S. It’s the thing I most loved when I switched from my old iPhone 4 to the iPhone 5.

    • I get your point that adding those pixles didn’t make it crisper, but they did other things to improve the display. One of which was the getting the pixels closer to the surface of the glass. Less gap means less space for light to refract so the screen appears crisper and less glare. looks like pixels are just painted directly onto the glass.

  3. Very good article.

    The problem of user experience with bigger screens is something that many people don’t think about. They just a want a bigger screen and that is it.

    It is vital for Apple to figure out a way that will allow customers to use a 4.7″ iPhone with one hand and at the same time will not introduce a significant fragmentation of the iOS platform for developer. Different layout for different screen sizes would be a nightmare for developers.

  4. zubeirg87 says:

    Finally someone has come down to earth. I don’t know why everybody is obsessed with large screen phones when they bring more drawbacks than benefits on the usability side. You can’t get your hand around it. Steve Jobs once more saw straight.
    Besides if a large phone is only gonna make everything appear larger, then it is really futile.

    • I think they should diversify iPhone models and give people a choice. Maybe an important office employee who’s reading email finds a 4″ screen practical but other people prefer the use of media like movies, photos and music that benefit from a larger screen size. I own an iPad but I don’t like to haul it around in my bag all the time (I’m a student), so if there was a larger screened iPhone, I could carry around one device and only bring my iPad when I need it. I hope the 5.5″ iPhone comes to fruition because I think the leap from 4″ to 4.7″ is a bit marginal.

    • Ryan Pesso says:

      As brilliant of a man steve was, he had as many failures as accomplishments. Smart phones have no laws, its all personal preference. Steve thought that doing everything with one hand is essential to a smart phone. Well that has a drawback in limiting multitasking on the phone. With consumers using phones for longer periods of time, there seems to be a need for larger phones. Just saying.

      • zubeirg87 says:

        He might because nobody is perfect. But i still doubt multitasking on a phone will ever be possible. Even on phablets splitting the screen will result in 2 very small windows. It could work on tablets.
        Then this article make a good point saying that the most important stuff is from the upper left corner. So there is always the need of reaching there. This will result in needing 2 hands most of the time on a large iphone, unless all apps layouts are changed. It looks like it could be quite a hassle.
        Anyway I guess we all need to sit and watch what move Apple eventually makes. I hope they know what they are doing.

    • Jan Klaassen says:

      Completely agree. I really don’t understand why everyone wants a larger screen. They don’t even care about getting more screen real estate. They only want the screen to be bigger, because “bigger is better”. If Apple would release a 7″ phone with the exact same resolution as the iPhone 5s, they are happy and they will say: “Finally they started using brains. It was about time they released a phone of a decent size.” In what way will this stupid thing be better? It displays exactly the same content as a 4″ iPhone. It’s only displayed a lot bigger and uglier, because the pixels have become bigger.

      The first phones that were released were so extremely big, but they always got smaller and smaller. If you didn’t buy the newest and smalles phone every six months people would laugh at you and ask: “What’s that? Are you using a brick to make phone calls? Look how small my phone is.” The smaller the phone, the better. If you had a phone that was more than 1 year old, you were uncool because of your stupid, big phone. Now phones have to be big again. If you have an iPhone you’re uncool, because it’s so incredibly small. You just have to buy the newest and biggest Android to be cool. Why are big phones cool? They are not better at all. “Bigger” is not a synonym for “better”. A bigger screen doesn’t make a phone better. I absolutely hate this trend and I don’t want a larger phone. The iPhone 5s is larger enough.

      I have to add I don’t even care about one-handed use, because I always use my phone with two hands. I just hold my iPhone in my left hand and use the index finger or thumb on my right hand to use my phone. When I’m reading an article like this in Safari on my iPhone I will use my right index finger every few seconds to scroll. When I’m writing some text I hold the phone in my left hand, put four fingers of my right hand under the iPhone (so the fingers on my right hand are between the backside of the iPhone and the inside of my left hand) and I use my right thumb to type. When I’ve finished writing the message/email/whatever, I take my right hand away from under the iPhone and use my left index finger to tap the “Send” button. So, I use my right thumb for the lower half of the screen and my right index finger for the top half of the screen. This is the way I hold and use a phone. I never use a phone with one hand. To me it feels much more comfortable using a phone with both hands. Before the iPhone was released I had an old-fashioned Nokia with black-and-white screen and physical keyboard. This phone was from the time when phones had to be small to be cool, so it’s a lot smaller than the first iPhone. Even this small Nokia I never used with one hand.

      So, one-handed use is no issue at all for me, because I never use a phone with one hand. Still, I don’t want a larger phone. I just don’t see the point of having a larger phone. It’s a phone, not a tablet.

      • Robbie Bone says:

        This is the dumbest comment I’ve ever seen. First of all, have you noticed that 1. people’s hands vary in size quite dramatically and 2. there is this thing called personal preference. This current iPhone is way to small to enjoy its content. Photos are tiny, videos are tiny, reading stuff is tiny, and playing serious games on an iPhone is pointless because there is no room for you to put your finger because the screen is too small. However, some people have smaller hands than me, and some people don’t care about those things. Therefore Apple can give everyone a choice between small, medium and large. Just because you want a small coffee doesn’t mean the next person to order a large coffee is an idiot.

  5. totencough says:

    I can’t see a world where Apple would go 5.5″, it just doesn’t make any sense for them or for design in general.

    4.7″ is the only possible size they could move to and even that’s a stretch (pun intended).

  6. drtyrell969 says:

    Yeah, don’t lose any sleep. We’ve been dealing with this issue since the Android left the stone ages. (whipsering) We’ll just port back to iOS…like we always do.

    • rafalb177 says:

      Oh, I see. Android is now in bronze age. Good to know it, iOS is now in the 21st century. I still remember when in late 2008 you ported Android back to iOS which then came out in 2007. (whispering) Time travels are possible and real.

  7. I’m starting to look at all the folks on transit still rocking an iPhone 4 or 4s with envy myself.

    The basic issue here is that people want “phablets.” They don’t want to carry multiple devices, they want one device that can do it all (i.e. larger phone or smaller tablet). For users who still have laptops this generally means they want a gigantic phone, but there is another whole group of folks who actually want a small, portable tablet instead and thus have no need for the gigantic phone.

    These people either don’t want a phone at all, or they want a tiny, small phone, because they do all their serious work on the tablet, they don’t have a laptop, and the phone is more or less just a hotspot to them.

    This is the group I am in. If Apple made an “iPhone nano,” (4″ or smaller) I’d buy it in a hurry. Especially if it was cheap. Not everyone wants a super-gigantic phone.

  8. My hands are less than 8 inches (about 20cm). I hope Apple continues selling smaller phones for smaller people like me.

  9. Jon Exner says:

    I have the opposite opinion. I get tired of constantly zooming in on web sites to read anything and cramming my two thumbs to type; coming from a blackberry to an iPhone I am used to two thumb typing and a bigger screen makes it MUCH easier. So yes, a smaller phone is cute and can fit in your skinny jeans but I think the trend of moving to bigger phones is pretty clear and there are advantages including battery power (the battery on my 5s is AWFUL).

    • I got huge hands, a Chicago Bear told me I have large enough hands for a person that should be 6’6″, yet I am not tall….I type pretty well with both my hands in portrait mode on my iPhone 5….

      As for the battery issues, have you turned off “background app refresh”? That should help you out…also switch your mail from fetch to manual.

    • zubeirg87 says:

      In that case a marginal increase to 4.5″ would have been fine. It could bring a lot more real state and not make the phone too large. Why follow others in their foolish trends and unergonomic decisions.
      Besides a 4.5″ display at 326ppi gives a res of 1280×720. It seems like the perfect balance between display size, app compatibility, hd screen and overall phone size. Well that is just my opinion.

    • jrox16 says:

      You should check your Background app refresh settings and turn off everything you don’t need updating in the background. If that doesn’t help, you need to go to an Apple store and get your phone checked out. The battery life on my iPhone 5S is stellar, I regularly go two days with average use and under heavy use never get below 25% at the end of the day.

  10. mrpennington says:

    If the left to right screen swipe to go back in menus added in iOS 7 is any indication, Apple is aware of these issues you bring up.

    Nonetheless, I’m sure those wanting the larger screen are willing to put up with the issues as the popularity of the larger Android phones would indicate.

    I am also confident the 4″ option will still be available to those like yourself who do not desire the larger phone.

  11. i refuse to upgrade my current cell phone plan until the iPhone 6 comes out.

  12. Shane Baker says:

    Good article. Recently travelling through Hong Kong and China, nearly everyone seemed to have a phone larger than the iPhone. I am not sure if this because people have the one device and use it for most of their computing needs or not. But they sure seemed popular. I have large hands and ageing eyes so I will probably upgrade to the larger phone. I can understand if you have smaller hands it might be an issue. I think it makes sense that Apple will probably have two or more sizes of iPhone, over the longer term, if just for extending their market offerings ala MacBooks, iPads etc.

  13. Ryan Pesso says:

    Oh no holding a phone is so freaking uncomfortable. Apple lovers, i am one of you, but stop Bsing on the size of a phone. Apple said that a 3.7 inch was the perfect size. Clearly its not when samsung sells just as many if not more phones that are 5 inches and plus screen size. Just because its new doesn’t mean its not good. Stop crying.

  14. Only few people use iPhone with one hand (“I am one hand user”, I’ve got big hands), but as I seen at the street, in public transport and etc… 70% percent people use their iPhone 4 and iPhone 5 with two hands – especially females are using with two hands (maybe beacause hands are smaller or long nails somehow disturb or just have used to use phones like that).

    I think that the one/two hand issue is not the problem. The main thing is what things you can do with you phone and what it makes easier in everyday work life. For me bigger screen gives 10 times more advntages with my work phone and makes everything quicker and comfortable.

    I think if iPhone 6 is going to be bwith bigger screen, the smaller screen options are available too. I think they make better specs to smaller screen iPhones. Smaller screen options must be, beacause for example they are better to use from kids. You don’t have to buy bigger screen phone if you don’t like it.

    • But with iPad I like only iPad Mini, the bigger iPad gives too much screen that I really never need to use. I owned bigger iPad, but I changed it to smaller on, why have to have bigger screen, if smaller screen gives all the same options.

      I thnik the smaller and bigger screen issue is more “stuck in persons head” how he/she is used to use their phone, pads, laptops, car nav systems, tv’s and desktop computers.

      • *Opinion with smaller/larger screen goes away with time – you have to try first, then you get used and then you never want to see smaller screen option never again :)

    • It’s not about someone being only a one hand user. I go back and forth all the time. The issues are when you are in a situation where you can’t use two hands but need to use your phone.

      situations I run into all the time.
      – no seat on subway, need to hold on and do morning email check, read some news things and check meetings
      – carrying home groceries and I need to check subway times and text my gf I’m heading home.
      – it’s raining hard, carrying an umbrella, trying to meet friends so I’m texting to find out where to meet up and looking at train times.
      – not that it’s safe, but driving a car and changing a song in music and then switching back to maps.

      I’m sure in most cases it’s not a big deal and it’s possible to manage. But people lose tolerance for these annoyances when they are under stress or in a rush. Like running late for a something.

      I value one handed usability but I’m not a “one hand user”. With my iPhone 4s it’s easy to switch back and forth and I feel comfortable in both. That is the reason why I fear smaller screens going away. I still use my phone for the same reasons I used it when I got an iPhone 3g and I can’t think of any of those reasons where having a bigger scree would be worth that tradeoff.

      I suppose people who don’t run into these situations and use their phone differently would disagree. Hence why we want options.

  15. thejuanald says:

    I can reach the top left side of the screen on my note 3 easily, and that’s a 5.7″ phone. a 4.7″ phone would be no problem.

    • Sure you can, if you balance your phone/phablet on your fingers, which is much less secure than palming the whole back like you can with a small phone.

      • thejuanald says:

        I prefer a larger screen because it’s easier to type on, I get way, way more real estate, pictures and video look way better, and I don’t have to zoom in on every single web page.

  16. I have dreaded the idea of Apple making a 4.7 inch iPhone since it started floating around. And this is why. One handed operation won’t work with that size. Apps will have to be completely redesigned again. And the phone is harder to keep in your pocket. I miss Steve because even when the industry agrees on something, if he thought it was wrong he wouldn’t jump on the bandwagon. If only someone at Apple today had that common sense.

  17. robotmo33 says:

    I’m a lefty and when I’m using one-handed, I hold it in my right hand. So tough luck for me, I guess. I like that Samsung’s approach in the video for the Note 3 recognizes that not everyone is right-handed.

  18. Using history as my guild and given that the screen resolution is exactly 1.5 times the iPhone 5/5s/5c I’m guessing Apple will scale non-4.7 inch apps like they did when the retina display was introduced back in 2010.

    It will be up to us developers to figure out how to use that space when we update our apps. Apple will of course have recommendations but I would be surprised if there was a fundamental shift from Apple, things like swipe to go back has kind of eliminated the need for a back button so moving it to the lower left for example probably isn’t a priority or needed. Like you pointed out Apple will probably just put more emphases on tab bar style objects for application actions (at least for iOS 8).

    It’s also hard to image Apple making a drastic overhaul to the UI two years in a row so I really think whatever their solution will be it will be a more passive approach for this year and maybe a more aggressive approach for iOS 9.

  19. About the one-handed use. I used a Palm Treo for years before iPhones. Even the 3.5 inch iPhone screen’s one-handed use pales in comparison to using the Treo where you could do most everything using the D-pad with your thumb. You didn’t even need to move your thumb from that optimal location on the phone. I moved on to the iPhone and did some things with one hand and some with two. I’ve also used large screen Android phones. The iPhone 6 with a larger screen would just be another step away from one-handed use but the benefits of a large screen for media content (reading, videos, pictures, etc.) far outweigh the lack of one-handedness in my opinion.

  20. I’ll just get this out of the way first of all: I’ve never bought an iPhone in my life. Obviously I’ve used many iPhones in the past years (3GS, 4, 4S and held the 5/5s a few times). My parents currently still have iPhones, the 4 and 4s. But for myself, I’ve never bought an iPhone.

    I’m not going to talk about the reasons I chose other devices for the past 4-5 years, but there always seemed to be something better for me. Note that I always buy what I consider best, I’m not brand loyal. It used to be Android vs iOS, Android being more fun for me personally. Now for the past 2 years, it’s more about the screen size.

    I’m just so used to larger screens, I can’t stand using a 4″ screen. Never mind the 3.5″ screen on the 4/4S. It seems so tiny, I usually laugh when using it. Starting with the HTC HD2, I used the following screen sizes: 4.3″, 3.7″, 4.3″, 4.8″, 4.7″. If anybody is interested, the other devices are: HTC Desire, Galaxy S2, S3, HTC One (M7).

    As you can see, in the past 2 years I’ve used a 4.8″ screen for a year and a 4.7″ for the other. For me, the perfect screen size is around this number. I can use devices like these perfectly with one hand, in situations like these:

    “situations I run into all the time.
    – no seat on subway, need to hold on and do morning email check, read some news things and check meetings
    – carrying home groceries and I need to check subway times and text my gf I’m heading home.
    – it’s raining hard, carrying an umbrella, trying to meet friends so I’m texting to find out where to meet up and looking at train times.”

    And the funny thing is, I got really small hands.. between 7 and 7.5 inches in length. It’s really just a matter of getting used to it.

    I also read one of the comments here that one handed use is possible with the devices, but you don’t hold it so secure.

    “Sure you can, if you balance your phone/phablet on your fingers, which is much less secure than palming the whole back like you can with a small phone.”

    I indeed know a lot of iPhone users that palm their hand around the whole back. And then it slips at the bottom. It’s not secure at all. With all my “huge” 4.7-4.8″ devices, I keep my pinky underneath the device, 3 fingers on the back and use my thumb to navigate. I never slips from your hand.

    I’m sorry, but I think people overreact regarding the 4.7″ iPhone. User Interface things aside, which I agree need to adapt to the larger screen, the device is perfectly usable for most people.

    And no, I’m not an Apple hater. I bought a 15″ rMBP in January and love it insanely much. And I’m excited to see the iPhone 6, which might be my first iPhone ever.

    • rafalb177 says:

      It was interesting to read your comment. In the begging I really thought you were yet another Apple hater, until I read the last paragraph. I’m glad to hear you own a Mac and are happy with it. Looking forward to you getting a new iPhone. You’ll see how well they both work together.

  21. Bob Smith says:

    Ok, we get it, random internet person, you can’t possibly understand why anyone wants a larger screen. No one cares what you want. The market has spoken.

  22. 2112entropy says:

    Still hoping it comes out as a 4.8, the bezels on all the mock ups are too large.

  23. Rick Brown says:

    iPhone 6 with larger screen may be a bit bigger to handle, but definitely it will going to serve the purpose to those who frequently needs a larger screen for their professional or business needs.