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Landscape or portrait? It's all about software ergonomics


When we think about computer ergonomics, we usually look at how our monitor is positioned (is it an appropriate distance from our eyes?), where our keyboard is laid out (in a keyboard tray or on our desktop?), and if our chair height lets us keep our knees at a 90 degree angle. In other words, computer ergonomics has always been about hardware (ours and our machine's). It's never been about the software. That's got to change.

I find myself using my iPad primarily in landscape mode. I do so because in landscape mode you can see most apps' menu items all the time (like a complete list of emails in my inbox laid out next to the message I'm currently viewing in the iPad's Mail app). Seeing everything at once is handy, but the thing is, I find holding my iPad in portrait mode to be much more comfortable and convenient because I can see more text on the screen. Of course portrait mode has the drawback that many apps' menus are hidden from view and only accessible by an inconvenient drop down menu button that's almost always in the top left or right corner.

Why inconvenient? What's the problem? The problem is ergonomics. The drop down menu button is in a very awkward place to reach when your hands and thumbs are holding the iPad near the middle of the device. Its location means that unless you have an incredibly long thumb (and if you do, send us a picture), you'll need to move your entire hand just to tap the portrait view drop down menu button. Wouldn't it be terrific if developers started utilizing a few pixels on the sides of the screen in portrait mode to let users access menus in an easier fashion? I think so, and one major app developer does as well.

Flixster has just released version 4.2 of their über popular Movies app. The app itself has always been great (and has replaced as the place I go to to view movie trailers). Version 4.2 introduces multitasking support along with a few other minor enhancements, but the biggest new feature is portrait mode (until now the app has been landscape-only). What the people at Flixster realized, that most devs seem to not have noticed, is ergonomics count. Portrait mode in Movies lets you access all the landscape mode menus without having to reposition your entire hand to tap a button. All you have to to is simply move your thumb a half-inch from the iPad's bezel and tap the gray bar that runs vertically up the side of the screen and voila!, you've got easy access to all the apps menus that are usually found in the ergonomically awkward position at the top corner of the screen.

When our phones' screens became touchable, ergonomics wasn't as big a deal because of the relatively small size of their screens. But as our computers become more touchable, while at the same time having less physical buttons, it's more important that software developers start thinking about finger mechanics and ergonomics in their apps. Not just for health reasons, either; the easier an app is to navigate, the more we'll stay in it. Movies' sidebar or "drawer" feature is something I hope that many more developers (and even Apple) start using. Software ergonomics never mattered with a mouse and keyboard, but they will increasingly play a larger role as medium-to-large touchscreen computers become the norm.

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