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Pros (2)

The Smartphone isn’t going anywhere. 

For those managing the ergonomic risks of their staff and colleagues, a Smartphone adds another level of risk that many of us typically don’t address. This post aims to give you some simple strategies to share TODAY.

When was the last time you wanted to quickly check your email for that important update from your boss and your first reaction was to open your computer? For many of us, the urge or necessity to do this is well in the past, maybe even more than a decade for those of us who were lucky enough to have had BlackBerrys, and especially for those who telecommute to work. Not only are people using their Smartphones for business purposes, many of us are using it for general consumption including Facebook, Snapchat, headline news, and (of course) Youtube/Netflix. No matter how you choose to use your phone it escalates the total amount of ergonomic risk that we are exposed to. It’s reached the point that many of us now use our Smartphones as computers… some of us even shifting inclusively to the Smartphone as our primary screen. Here’s a question for you… how long (in hours) have you used your Smartphone today??

“The phone isn’t the second screen. It’s the first one.” -Gary Vaynerchuk

Take Gary Vaynerchuk for example. Gary is an entrepreneur that is just ‘crushing it’ (one of Vaynerchuk’s book titles) on so many fronts today. He is best known for Wine Library TV, VaynerMedia, speaking engagements (if you are interested, I highly recommend searching for one of his keynote speeches), and finally, he is a New York Times best selling author. He has firmly situated himself as a social media force… which means that he spends a lot of time on his Smartphone. What makes Gary so unique (other than his brand) is that he has shifted to ONLY using his Smartphone for business purposes too. That’s right, he doesn’t open a computer at all, or carry one with him when he travels. Rather than Gary just being an outlier I would wager that he represents the future of doing business.

Here’s the Clincher: What does this mean for the future of Ergonomics?

Smartphones already play a significant role in our lives and no doubt they will continue to dominate the future. If not managed correctly we are also missing a HUGE opportunity for ergonomics role in the future. There is a need to develop better interface designs to match with natural human movement. If not, we risk poor design and injury risks to be a major theme in the future, just like how it is today. This can put the role of ergonomics into perspective for many: an injury means that there will be a noticeable reduction of Smartphone productivity due to pain or discomfort. This means less work output, less tweets, less posts, less emails, less snaps. Let’s look at the Smartphone design. With the its current design, the layout of PC keyboards have literally been directly transplanted and made to fit into our Smartphones, resulting in small button sizes, poor spacing between lettered keys, and inconvenient locations of target icons. Frankly, our thumb just wasn’t designed to work under such constrained yet precise circumstances. I think that we have all experienced thumb irritation from time to time from a particularly long email or rapid texting exchange. Not surprisingly, reaching to far areas on touchscreens results in increased errors simply because our thumbs (for the most part) weren’t designed for these types of movements.

Icon Placement Optimization for the Thumb’s Reach

The graphic below (from the referenced article) compares the thumb functional reach on two different sizes of Smartphone. The solid line represents a person who has a short-thumb and the dashed lines represents someone with a long-thumb, both are for the right hands. Not only should the difference between them should be clear, this graphic depicts where the most important/frequently used icons should be located on the Smartphone.

Screen Shot 2016-06-29 at 11.30.39 PM

Icons located on the right side or at the bottom of the phone are less likely to be reached by long-thumbed individuals, whereas those with shorter thumbs will have some trouble reaching across large Smartphones to access icons.

Pros (2)

There is a tradeoff between the size of the screen and user performance.

Research indicates that bigger screens offer improved button size, spacing and target location (when it comes to typing). But the downfall of a larger touchscreen is longer reach distances that can be a negative to thumb activity, especially for the detrimental side-to-side functional reach of the thumb. Thumb-coverage area increases with an increased Smartphone size; unfortunately this relationship isn’t proportional meaning that bigger touchscreens will not always improve performance.

With this information, it’s key for heavy Smartphone users like Gary Vaynerchuk to set-up their icons in a manner to improve performance while reducing awkward thumb postures. Here are some really simple suggestions that you can share:

  • The button/icon placement at the right side/bottom of the touchscreen should be avoided or minimized – for the right handed (opposite for the left)
  • Less frequently used icons/buttons instead of the frequently used ones should be placed at the right side/bottom of the phone – for the right handed (opposite for the left)
  • In an ideal world there should be some options in interface features based on how you are using the phone; the keyboard should be set-up differently if you are either using the phone with both hands, the left thumb or the right thumb. For right thumb dominant individuals: the position and shape of the keyboard should be shifted to the left side of the phone, to take advantage of the thumb functional reach.

One last thing. The best value in any sort of injury prevention strategy is always to reduce risk in the first place. Other than setting up your phone optimally, start to put into play ‘pro-health’ habits such as switching between the dominant and non-dominant hand to text, using different fingers, using voice dictation, and taking breaks from prolonged Smartphone use! Your body will thank you in the long run and these tips can be easily shared and encouraged amongst colleagues.

Like this article? Please share! If you haven’t had a chance to download our Free e-book, you can grab it here.


Xiong, J. & Muraki, S. (2016). Effects of age, thumb length and screen size on thumb movement coverage on smartphone touchscreens. International Journal of Industrial Ergonomics. 53, 140-148.


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