iPad ergonomics

Monday 1 February 2010

I watched the iPad announcement last week with interest. I’m not a gadget-hound, but Max and I were both home that day, so he gave me play-by-play commentary of the announcement. It’s certainly an intriguing device with plenty of interesting facets to debate (open/closed, produce/create, and so on).

One thing I definitely don’t get is the ergonomics of it. Look at this demonstration of editing a slide show on the iPad:

First of all, I don’t understand his emphasis on the apparent miracle of coming up with ways to manipulate objects on the screen with touch. I thought we had all gotten used to the concept of touch and multi-touch. But that’s not the main point. Watch it again, but don’t look at the screen: look at his hands.

He looks uncomfortable. He’s trying to hold the iPad in his left hand, and perform precise touching with his right. His non-touching fingers are being held stiffly up out of the way to avoid making an accidental multi-touch. He’s got nowhere to rest his right hand. And when he has to touch with both hands, they keep crossing over each other like some kind of crazy-advanced piano sonata.

I can see using the iPad to watch stuff, or any task that doesn’t require much input. But that demo showed me that it will be much too awkward to make the sort of gestures needed to do real work. People need to rest their hands on something. It’s hard to hold your arm up without something to help carry the weight. Keyboards have palm rests, mice let your wrist sit on the desk. Palm-sized devices like the iPhone are light enough to hold while tapping with your thumbs. Maybe it would be OK while sitting in a chair with arm rests?

I’ll be interested to see how people use the iPad. I could see propping it up in my lap with one hand and tapping for a while with the other, but long sessions, or two-handed use, just seem too unnatural.


Dennis Doughty 9:28 PM on 1 Feb 2010

Obviously the devil will be in the details and I will be very interested in holding one of these in my hands. But I have the same sense as you. And you're forgetting the home button. On the iPhone, this button is awesome. It's right in the center of the lower part of the device, exactly where your thumb lands when you are holding the iPhone just so. But on the iPad, you won't have your hands there. You'll have them on the sides, supporting it, possibly in portrait mode. And you won't be pressing that button with your thumb. You'll be taking one of your hands off the sides of the device and then pressing the button with your index finger. No one touches the home button on their iPhone with their index finger unless the device is resting on a horizontal surface. And when they do, it's an unnatural feeling. The surface is smooth and it's hard to find the button. Not so with your thumb. I think this gesture will be very awkward on the iPad, which is unfortunate since the gesture is so common.

James Thiele 10:41 PM on 1 Feb 2010

Might be reasonable to wait until the iPad is out in the wild.

Chris Miles 11:18 PM on 1 Feb 2010

You raise an interesting question. My feeling is that you answered it in your conclusion. Extended content creation will probably be too uncomfortable, if not impractical, with the iPad. Quick content creation, or updating existing content, will be a much more practical use case.

AdSR 1:14 AM on 2 Feb 2010

Somehow I don't think content creation is the purpose of the iPad at all. I'd say it's content consumption. Apple now has three online content stores (music, software, books) and my guess is that's where iPad is headed. Personally I'm underwhelmed by the concept, but that is perhaps because I was expecting a tablet MacBook, not a bigger iPhone without phone.

Arun 2:39 AM on 2 Feb 2010

This was exactly what I was thinking when I saw the demo by Jobs. An entire surface becoming touch sensitive with very little edges is not too ergonomic in my opinion. But again, I am yet to use an iPad.

AdSR 5:00 AM on 2 Feb 2010

I only watched the video now and indeed it does seem awkward. I wonder what kind of ergonomics studies they have performed when developing the iPad. Most of the Apple products I had contact with have rather good ergonomics (12" iBook's trackpad, anyone?).

Ned Batchelder 6:13 AM on 2 Feb 2010

@AdSR: it's going to be interesting to see how the creation/consumption tension plays out. But Apple was demoing an office suite on the iPad, so clearly they're hoping it's more than just a consumption machine.

Cityhues 8:47 AM on 2 Feb 2010

Good article - you bring up some interesting points. In the back of my mind, I've wondered the same thing. How do you hold the iPad for extended periods of time? Will your hands cramp up? What do you comfortably rest the device on? Your knee? A table? (If so the purpose is somewhat defeated)

Although the iPad is only 1.5 pounds, that's still a lot of weight to hold clasped in a hand for more than a few minutes at a time.

Of course these are pretty difficult questions to answer until we can actually hold and use the devise.

Todd 8:54 AM on 2 Feb 2010

This is going to be a great opportunity for 3rd party case developers to add to the ergonomics and ability to hold and use the device. As with the iPhone, it would be insane to carry the device around without a case to protect it. I can only image the fragility of the iPad.

Ken Pespisa 8:57 AM on 2 Feb 2010

I think you make a lot of good points on just how this device should/will be used. Apple is pushing the iPad as a consumption device primarily, but leaving it open to do more. I assume the intention is 80% consumption and the other half creation. ;)

I wouldn't say the device is meant to be something you do "real" work on. Remember, Apple doesn't want to replace sales in their MacBook or iPhone divisions with a third product. They want you to buy all three.

The fact that you can do some real work on it is appealing, but isn't a key factor in its worth. The ergonomics present a problem for sure. But if I have to sit in a certain place and in a certain way so I can use the device comfortably, is that any worse than what I must do now with my laptop or desktop?

The iPad is really just a giant iPod Touch. When you imagine all the apps that can be created for it, and already exist, it has a tremendous amount of potential.

Davide Di Cillo 9:10 AM on 2 Feb 2010

I also think that his "stiffness" is because he doesn't want mistakes during the demo.

Dan Wood 9:17 AM on 2 Feb 2010

Excellent point! I wonder how Apple thought about the compromise between slick looks and actual usability? I would think you'd want to have some rubberized texture grips on the sides and back, IMHO. Although it looks like fun at first, I think if you really wanted to do anything useful besides watch videos on the train, you'd just drop your iPad and use your full keyboard, mouse, and computer. Is there really a market for iPod Touches that don't fit into your pocket?

Lukas Mathis 9:23 AM on 2 Feb 2010

He's demonstrating the device, not actually using it. It's entirely possible that you're right, but I want to use one myself before making up my mind.

Horst Albermann 9:30 AM on 2 Feb 2010

Put it on your lap. Use both hands. Problem solved.

How often do you »demonstrate« editing a document?

a web developer 11:18 AM on 2 Feb 2010

He is probably just not used to using the device. Give him a few weeks and the movements will feel much more natural.

Moverbeck 11:35 AM on 2 Feb 2010

I also completely didn't get the emphasis on iWork .. hey look, we can create these amazing, beautiful, cool ... spreadsheets. Are you f'ing kidding me? SPREADSHEETS are cool and beautiful?? On an oversize iPod Touch with no file handling? WHAT??! =)

SDC 12:41 PM on 2 Feb 2010

Horst Albermann is right. You also won't lose your voice from having to speak loudly while using the iPad...

Kevin Dangoor 12:42 PM on 2 Feb 2010

I think iPad is just the "1.0" of the first device of this sort from Apple (if you don't count the iPhone as a "device of this sort" :)

The iPad coming in March definitely seems optimized for consumption. I think that future iPads (and other devices?) will follow along and be better tuned for creating things.

Paul Downs 1:17 PM on 2 Feb 2010

Stepping back a level, I'm always amazed that people consider screen touch or voice commands to be usable ways of doing work. Just think about how either would play out in a real life office: multitouch screens would quickly become disgusting and filthy, not to mention the strain on your shoulders and wrists, and an office full of people talking to their computers would be unbearable. Sometimes you have to see the alternatives to remember just how brilliant and powerful the keyboard/mouse combination is.

Brian Takita 2:18 PM on 2 Feb 2010

Notice from the ipad videos that people surfing the web are always on some reclined sofa thing with the ipad on their legs at a 45 degree angle. I don't know who owns such a couch.

I suppose this i more glamorous that somebody hunched over a table.

There is a dock which makes the ipad have more of a laptop form factor.

Brian Takita 2:25 PM on 2 Feb 2010

Put on lap. Hunch over ipad. Use both hands. Develop back pain and RSI. :-(

MS 2:30 PM on 2 Feb 2010

Great post. I agree completely. An additional downside = radiation exposure, especially with WiFi and 3G. I would want to keep the devise a certain distance from my body - not in such close proximity for extended periods of time.

Bernard Farrell 10:10 AM on 3 Feb 2010

Ned, you might be interested in Luke W's summary of the new multi-touch gestures that were derived from a similar video.

Love it or hate it, this will have an impact on the touch marketplace. My guess is that iPad v3+ will be an excellent device.

Anton 4:53 PM on 4 Feb 2010

Good approaches! Consumption/Leisure or Creation/Working? I think Apple created the iPad for life but it starts a great challenge on input devices. Multi-touching and stylus against classic Keyboard and mouse. Millions of clicks and keystrokes are more anti-natural and anti-ergonomics than touching or using a pen. We can wait for handwriting and voice dictation some day at the iPad. We are closer and closer of the end of the mouse and keyboard even one day at workplaces.
About the home button position and holding/touching on the iPad I agree that it may be very complicated. The user experience is most important and I read today that Apple gets a patent on “Intelligent Bezel” and “Cool Sense Line Controls”. If necessary manufacturers will create any accessory to hold iPad safely. The iPad design and specs, surely are more mature in one year. Remember the first home computer? iPad is much better even before being available and it will be always improved.

Octagon 12:20 PM on 2 Apr 2010

i think There will be not a problem when you work on the table because i saw the option
for making ipad incline effectively with a cover leather case like a
diary can be fold to support ipad, this is look simple but clever.

This can make stand in 2 differents angle and also can protect the body
from scratch but it will make your ipad look like a book or diary with cover

The bad is this option you need to buy it separately.


ergonut 4:31 PM on 8 Apr 2010

The iPad is beautiful and does a lot of cool things, but it’s an ergonomic disaster. Remember the “Blackberry Thumbs” of the 90’s? We might be on the verge of a new medical diagnosis — the “iHurt.”

To find out the main ergonomic challenges with the iPad, visit www.ergonut.com

In the end, the iPad might boost the economy in an unexpected way: My bet is that it’s going to be a good source of referral for Physical Therapists, Hand Therapists and Chiropractors around the world.

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