One-Hand First: Rethinking Mobile UX


Mobile devices are supposed to assist us in meaningful context, not to overwhelm us by stealing our precious limited focus of attention. Having to frequently use both hands to operate on a large touch screen mobile device is simply NOT right when it’s supposed to be convenient. We need not only Mobile First UX, we also need One-Hand First UX. We need to free one of our only two hands to do some other things.


Imagine a pair of glasses that, when wearing, you have to constantly use one hand to support it. Sounds ridiculous (or at least tiresome), right?

Imagine a random scenario in 2000s: you were on your way home and you found time to buy some stuff from a grocery store. Right after you walked out of the store, you thought you’d better take a look at the checklist you made that morning, just to be sure you had bought everything you need. With a huge heavy bag in your left hand, you took out your cell phone with your right hand and check it out (in a ugly notes taking screen on a awkwardly small screen).

Now imagine, in whatever scenario, you have to frequently (if not constantly) use both of your hands to operate on your cell phone — even when your left hands is holding a huge heavy bag.

You get the idea.

In the old days, even though the functionality was limited, you’d have no trouble using the cell phone by only one hand. But nowadays, with large touch-screen mobile devices, I find more and more people having to constantly use both hands to operate on their devices. The mobile phone as we know it, has become LESS CONVENIENT.

More critically, we human being only have two hands and both are occupied when operating a mobile device.


I’ve been pondering about this problem for quite long: with relatively large touch screen, should we rethink the mobile UX? (I wanted to put it as “mobile UI” ‘cos it seemed to be more about UI. But it’s not only about UI, it’s also about UX, as I’ll mention below)

While cell phone is supposed to be “mobile”, “portable”, easy-to-use, anytime-for-use, or however “convenient” people say it is, I constantly find myself struggling to reach the upper-left button (e.g. a “back” button) using my right-hand thumb when my left hand is holding something else.

It was like that when cell phone had small screen and physical keyboard and people had no problem using it by one-hand in almost all cases. And now we’re forced to use both hands, now and then, and maybe more than we should afford — it has become LESS convenient.

Isn’t that too much? A “mobile” device nowadays is too much frequently demanding us to use both of our hands to operate on its large touch screen! IMHO, it is too much.

Is now a good time for us to rethink the mobile UX design — that we need to prioritize designing for one-hand use?


Before we consider how to improve, we need to think further about what the problem is about.

It’s not necessarily about changing the already-established UI paradigms — we can only improve it iteratively and it’s impractical to suddenly relocate the upper-left “back” button on a iOS UI. The upper-left corner “back” button is actual okay, and when the interaction demands infrequent use of it, it’s actually great (users won’t get annoyed by accidentally tap it too often).

It might be more about rethinking the guidelines for mobile UI design, that when we design mobile UX, we should put “one-hand use” first, that new paradigms (or “workarounds”) could emerge to encourage that. And actually we’ve already seen quite a few “workarounds” that really decrease the overall demands of both hands.

Thus there could be two approaches to be One-Hand First:

UI Paradigm Innovations

Although unlikely (not even that much necessary when we already have two major ones Android and iOS, just in terms of improving the one-hand use case), it’d be great to have brand new UI that allows most interfaces and interactions to be designed in a way that in most cases only demands one hand.

Path could probably be considered a minor one if it somehow could be expanded to cover more interactions (although not really that much a one).

UX Workarounds & Improvements

Workarounds and carefully designed interactions that:

(a) Provide alternative ways to perform what originally demands both hands to do; and

(b) Minimize (or even get rid of) the cases that demand two-hand operations.

Apps such as Mailbox (and many others) already offer workarounds to the “upper-left corner” problem. In Mailbox, in the individual email view, you can always drag the view to the right to “dismiss” the current view (it floats out of the screen) and thus reveal the upper level email list view (“from behind”). But of course, there’s always a back button at the upper-left corner.

But of course, there can be so much more than just the upper-left corner problem (regarding using the right hand to operate). And it’s not just about UI layouts. To improve the overall UX and free up one hand in most cases, we need to think deeper, about designing the interactions and the user experience.

Factors include:

  • Context. There’s no guarantee when both of your hands are free or not, but still we can elaborate more about the context of an app’s usage. It doesn’t matter how many hands I happen to use to operate when I’m sitting on the sofa, but it does really matter when I’m in an emergent situation, or worse, when I can only use one of my hands. Those may be edge cases, but the point is: in general, we need to free one of our only two hands as much as possible, so that it’s at least as convenient as it used to be (when those good old smaller screen keyboard cell phones could actually be used effortlessly with only one hand).
  • Frequency of use. When we find we tend to frequently try to reach corners or do quite some “long-distance” tap sequences (tap here once and then tap somewhere far apart and back and forth etc.), there could be something wrong with the interaction and/or UI design. A relatively meaningful task (completed through a limited set of op sequence) should NOT, ideally, demand a full-fledged heavyweight exercise of your thumb (it hurts in the long term). How do we organize things and flows to minimize the effort?
  • Responsibility. Yes. Sometimes there does be reasons that we are not supposed to be able to operate with only one hand. And sometimes we really want to do that (just to be convenient or due to other reasons). When a Chinese media player (or sth. like that) app described how their app’s UI layout can be configured for left-hand and right-hand and both hand use, they were overwhelmed by nasty jokes that claim it’s porn-friendly and the responses went like “talking about responsibility”, or “the most humane interface ever created for mobile porn watchers”. Just a nasty anecdote, while it made me think. What about other scenarios, even serious ones? While doing something important or emergent? While driving? While holding a really hot cup of coffee? While grabbing an important piece of paper that you really don’t want the wind to blow away? While holding your loved one’s hand? Maybe it’s just not a good idea to grab that important report your boss wants with your bare left hand out on the street in a windy day, but it’d just be better that you don’t have to struggle to use your critical left hand to help your right hand out there on the screen. It’s more about minimizing or easing rather than forming habit (that’s another topic).

Some may think people with relatively bigger hands would have less or no such problems as upper-left corner button tapping. My hands happen to be short and relatively small (compared to ones with similar height and figure etc.), thus I find the problem quite critical.

I keep observing people using their touch screen mobile phones and I constantly ask people how they use them whenever appropriate. Although not a “scientific” research, it tells me that even ones with bigger hands have to use both hands to operate a relatively big touch screen mobile devices. And as an article shows, there’re actually more people than many think who use mobile devices with two hands. There’s of course a reason for that. And that reason is about mobile UX.


We know we love (relatively big) touch screens. But having to frequently (if not constantly) use both hands to operate is simply NOT right and NOT convenient, not even as convenient as the good old non-touch smaller screen keyboard cell phone. We’re going backward here, in terms of usability or UX or whatever it’s called.

The problem lies in the design considerations for mobile app devices. And the solution lies in prioritizing — that when we design UX for mobile devices, we need to consider One-Hand First UX when appropriate.

We need to free one of our only two hands to do some other things, such as grabbing a gift box (or your back pack, or your boss’s report, or your bills) or holding your dear one’s hand.

The solution doesn’t have to be disruptive. It’s more about what and how we consider when designing for mobile:

  • Design for one-hand use as much as possible (or as less as possible)
  • Design for the contexts of usage
  • Design with a responsibility in mind

What I’m saying is nothing new. You already know that.

One-Hand First.

{E N D}

P.S. Maybe I’ll come up with more ideas and actual designs sometime later. Until then…

Creative Commons License
This work by Noah Fang is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported License.

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