The best part of the iPhone’s small screen is its one-handed capabilities. Navigating with only one hand allows for an entirely different use-case than that of a larger-screened phone or tablet.
Navigating with swipes is my favourite method of working through an iOS application. Buttons need a level of precision that is more difficult to achieve in mobile contexts. Jared Sinclair outlines one of these scenarios in his post about designing Unread:
Comfortable also means physical comfort, which is an aspect of mobile app design that designers often forget. Anyone with a new baby knows how convenient it is to be able to use an app with one hand. Some areas of the screen are hard to reach, especially on an iPhone 5 or later. Grip your phone in one hand observe the sweep of your thumb. It’s easy to reach objects in the center, but the navigation bar is too far away to reach without adjusting your grip. Although it’s tempting to jump to the conclusion that closer is always better, positioning an item too close to your hand can cause discomfort because of the way your thumb has to flex to reach it.
Surprising to me is the fact that some apps have far superior swiping experiences. Some apps require a swipe from off-screen to go back a menu while others allow for swipes to begin in the middle of the screen. Dave Gamache, a designer at Medium, summed this up nicely in a tweet:
I love apps that let you navigate with sloppy, loose gestures. It feels right. Paper nailed it best so far.— Dave Gamache (@dhg) March 12, 2014
I thoroughly agree with him. Facebook Paper has perhaps the best designed swipe-to-navigate interface of any app I’ve ever used. It allows users to be completely “sloppy”.
Because of the more forgiving swipe gestures in apps like Facebook Paper, Unread and Agenda Calendar, I have started to believe swiping to navigate is the best way to adhere to the one-handedness of the iPhone. Obviously swiping is better than button-pushing to get from one screen to the next, but sloppy swiping is better yet.
Stretching your thumbs to the topmost corner or having to swipe from off screen to go back is not natural in any way. Mobile phone users often find themselves in situations where the precision of pressing a specific button is both inefficient and aggravating. Swiping from off the screen can also be aggravating, especially when using the iPhone with your right hand when on the move. I actually find inaccuracies with swiping from off the screen to be more annoying than having to button-mash to go back a menu.
Sloppy swiping promotes one-handed use better than any other navigation designs I’ve come across. It adheres to the natural usage of the iPhone and promotes efficiency and loose user behaviour. Sloppy swiping even promotes the “fluidity” of an app when executed best (again, I’m thinking of Facebook Paper).
Going forward, I know I’ll increasingly value sloppy swiping. Tying up one arm with a baby child or with office work will force me to use the iPhone with one hand more often. Sloppy swiping will make this much easier to handle.
And don’t get me started on a larger-screened iPhone. If Apple decides to go this route — which it undoubtedly seems they will — sloppy swiping will become even more valued by users. I can’t imagine trying to stretch my small thumb across a 4.7" screen to swipe to go back a page in Safari. Starting in the middle of the screen will end up being the only way to swipe to go back.
For once, I’m excited to say that a Facebook app offers the best experience of any design concept. Let’s hope Facebook’s size and power will push sloppy swiping into becoming the norm.
This is a very biased list of apps. First, I judged the apps I currently have on my iPhone. Second, I determined “sloppy swiping” as a way to go back a menu by swiping from the middle of the screen to the right rather than from off the screen to the right. This is probably not an accurate way of testing this, but stretching my thumb to the left-most edge of my iPhone to swipe back a menu is difficult. If I can swipe from the middle of the screen, I find the swipe-navigation to be efficient enough for habitual use. If there are other apps that have swiping behaviours that fall within these parameters, please let me know about them. ↩