• Tall is relative

    In the Forbes article, "Rule of Thumb: Will The Taller iPhone 5 Be A Reach For Users?", Anthony Kosner presents a pretty fair argument and reasonably demonstrates that if the new iPhone has a taller screen, the size could be problematic for some people. He includes a visual to illustrate the issue.

    Included in the piece is a YouTube video from macrumors which shows a mocked-up and animated 3D version of what an iPhone with a 4-inch screen would look like in use. If you haven't watched the video, check it out — it's only about a minute long.

    Did you see what I did? The orientation of the phone was landscape for games and entertainment, and portrait for everything else. If you have one, think about the apps on your iPhone. What's the orientation of most apps?

    My take-aways are this:

    • The wider screen will be great for gaming and entertainment
    • The taller screen will be great for... advertising?

    Remember the image they used in the article of the new iPhone with additional screen real-estate? Let's assume that what's announced next Wednesday is exactly as it's presented here. The new iPhone with a "taller" screen. Think about the new screen size this way: what problems are solved with this change?

    First, don't think about the height of the screen as the height of the screen. Think about it as the length of the longer side. The iPhone's screen auto-orientation allows the notion of "top" or "side" to be defined by the software. It's my favorite feature the original iPhone shipped with, and its purpose is important: to liberate an application's interface from the usual constraints of a display a that was never meant to change orientation suddenly. This allows the application to influence the use of the device, not just the other way around.

    So, back to solving problems. Why a larger screen? Let's use the information we have from the article:

    • Screen size of iPhone 4
    • Screen size of the new iPhone
    • The comfortable range of motion of an average person's thumb

    With this information, I found a usability issue with the iPhone 4 that would be fixed by increasing the size of the screen:

    Is this a problem you have? It's definitely a problem I have. This is what I believe Apple would solving by increasing the size of the screen. If you consider that just a few months ago, Nintendo claimed "the iPhone killed the handheld game console", it's reasonable to conclude that supporting landscape-oriented activities with the iPhone would be a priority at Apple.

    But Kosner's point is still valid — the new device, as shown, may make it more difficult for the average person to reach all areas of the screen with their thumb. It's not an irrational assumption accompanied by macrumors presenting a reasonable model of portrait-oriented apps on a "taller" screen simply by adding the height to the middle.

    Where we stop seeing eye-to-eye is with the assumption of how the extra space could be used. He writes:

    "Likely this means that the top will be good for advertising, but not the sort that needs much tapping and swiping."

    The possible uses go way beyond ads. Seriously. Let's think bigger. Knowing what we know about comfortable thumbing while portrait-oriented, the extra vertical space isn't unreachable, it's just a little stretch, and it's far from unusable. 

    It's the perfect space to experiment with fixed-position elements like navigation (primary or tertiary), shopping carts, search, notifications, etc. It means the ability to do things you couldn't do before without having to sacrifice any screen-size.

    As a product designer, I love this.

    By solving the "damnit" crashing-thumbs problem, the device would be more comfortable for the average person to use while landscape-oriented. Product designers would have more screen space to experiment with horizontally, and I'll bet we'd see more experiments in designing native landscape-oriented apps outside of gaming and entertainment. It's already happened for the iPad.

    What the Forbes article underscores for me is the importance of the question, "why?" when building a product. If your goal is to understand intent, "why?" is the way. The same logic can be used to reverse engineer a solution to find the possible problems. Think about it like playing Jeopardy!

    Whether it's the iPhone or an app, all products are an aggregate answer to the questions asked during their development. Like with any question, you can answer with a fact or an assumption. The products that we love the most are often lean on assumptions-as-answers. This isn't just true for Apple. It's true for all companies that build great products — hardware and software.

    Photo by gdgt from the iPhone 5 event on Sept. 12, 2012