Addressing the Physical Impact of Interaction Design

Consider the physical environment beyond the screen

Allison Milchling


The amount of physical issues related to device use has been making headline news since the dawn of texting. The term “blackberry thumb” gave way to other, freakier, terms such as “iPhoneitis” and “text claw”. Most of us have experienced the negative effects of smartphone use extending from the thumb to the wrist and up through the arm, shoulders, and back.

With the growth of UX taking off within the tech world, it amazes me how narrow its adoption has been with consideration to the physical experience. The degree of physical strain of the user is a huge variable in product adoption. Complex navigation isn’t just annoying, it can physically hurt.

In order to create a truly end-to-end user experience, we need to be problem solving for physical taxation. By stopping to consider the environment beyond the screen, we can ensure that our interaction designs are moving toward more harmonious human-computer interaction. Here are a few interaction designs that decrease the reliance on taxing gestures.

The Card Swipe

Tinder was the first to bring us relief from infinitely scrolling down for our content. Card swiping became a finger-friendly alternative that cut the amount of physical intervention needed to display new content.

Swipe down to return to Discover page on Snapchat

Snapchat does a good job with cards by creating a full experience with minimalist interaction requirements. By creating only five concrete actions (swipe up, down, left, right and click), Snapchat gives the user a simpler, faster way to browse and share.

They have eliminated back buttons and menus from most parts of the app, creating a single step navigation process, where many apps require two gestures for such an action (swipe to show menu, click to go to new page). This simple improvement makes navigation much breezier for the user, who is avidly swiping around to discover that day’s unique content.

Non-Physical Interactions

Voice Commands are probably the most widely adopted non-physical way to manipulate a device. Although “Okay Google” is widely restricted to home screen actions, there are a growing number of apps that utilize in-app voice commands. I expect that compatibility between apps and voice commands will be easier to discover and rely on. For a refresher on all of the current Android voice commands, look here.

Another, albeit weirder, non-physical way users interact with their devices is with eye scrolling. Eye tracking has been around for a while, with seemingly little impact for the standard user. If apps can expand its capacity beyond scrolling, it will have the chance to become a more standard navigation tool.

The Future

As far as existing technology is concerned, there seems to be space for fingerprint scanner to grow. It’s placement is convenient, and there is no need to provide a forceful click, making it one of the most passive physical gestures. I have not personally seen finger scanning used beyond unlocking the phone. I can see this technology translated to create efficiencies in account logins, online verification, confirmation, signature substitution, and other security measures.

Headspace’s animated journey

As for new ways to mitigate the user’s physical intervention into the experience, I am inspired by the gif-heavy experience of Snapchat. Headspace also does a great job with animation. This trend will lead to a shift where interactions become a sort of “guided tour”. I expect to see video-led interactions become the new norm, pausing at certain points for the user’s explicit recognition to maintain engagement and mark progress.

It’s innovations like these that will guide us through the current state of internet accessibility to the eventual device-free experiences that we’ve only ever dreamt of so far.