Late in 2013, I talked to Steven Hoober, the author of Designing Mobile Interfaces: Patterns for Interaction Design, at a Guild conference. I asked him to summarize, for a Guild research report, his previous research on how people use and touch phones. I also asked him to work with me to clarify how this information can be applied to the special needs of eLearning.

Steven proposed expanding the original study to gather data on tablets, since people were currently designing for tablets without really knowing how they were used. I recognized that it was a huge undertaking, but it was something we really ought to do. The result would be that members would have the data they needed to design better.

Together Steven and I developed a mobile-friendly web form and solicited volunteer field investigators from Guild members and other interested mobile-learning affiliates. Volunteers in 22 countries gathered 651 observations of use on mobile devices, with a focus on other-than-phone devices including:

  • Phablets, like the Galaxy Note series
  • Small tablets, like the Nexus 7 or Kindle Fire
  • Large tablets, like the iPad

We combined the data from Steve’s original research with the data from the tablet study to develop the Guild’s new research report, Making mLearning Usable: How We Use Mobile Devices. Now, most of Steven’s original observations on phone use were done in public. The field investigators who gathered data for our new research didn’t do that. They did their work more often in environments where we are more likely to have to design eLearning: offices, classrooms, and the home. The majority of observations were from the US, with many others from English-speaking countries.

We learned a lot from the study but I’ll summarize two key user preferences below.

Looking at devices by size:

  • People use small devices in the hand, and use them standing and walking.
  • People use large devices more on surfaces and in stands, and use them more often sitting.

Looking at devices by type: The way people use phones and large tablets seems to indicate they are entirely unlike each other.

  • People use phones almost entirely in the hand, and largely on the move.
  • People use tablets much more often while sitting, and with the device in a stand or set on a table.

You can see this yourself in Figures 1 and 2. As the size of the device increases, placing them on surfaces and then putting them in stands becomes dominant over holding them.


Figure 1: Location of device by class of device (all devices)

We also see that people tend to use smaller devices on the go and larger devices while they are more stationary. Figure 2 clearly shows that the larger the device, the more often it is used when sitting or reclining. We knew from anecdotal and smaller-scale ethnographic studies such as The New Multi-screen World: Understanding Cross-platform Consumer Behavior that users with multiple devices tend to use phones when on the go, tablets on the couch, and computers at the desk. As the size of the device increases, they use them in a more stationary setting.

Figure 2: Stance by device class (all devices)

The Guild research report contains information about the minimum sizes of text for various mobile-device sizes, preferences for touching different device types (and the implications for design … critical!), what to do about designing for keyboards, how you need to design differently for phones, phablets, small tablets, and large tablets, and much more. For example, Steven discusses the fact that people tend to switch how they hold their device depending on what they are going to do with it. What are the implications for design? Since this information is so critical to mLearning, you’ll absolutely want to download this Guild research report and use it to inform your design of mobile learning and mobile information.

Here’s an all-important shout-out to the field investigators who took the time to gather the data for this very important research. Because of you, we now have additional needed information about how people use and touch their tablets.

Want more?

Steven Hoober, the author of the Guild research report referenced in this article, and Patti Shank, Research Director for the eLearning Guild, will present a related session, How People Hold and Touch Their Mobile Devices, at The eLearning Guild’s mLearnCon 2014 (June 24 – 26 in San Diego). This session is directly relevant to designers and developers who want to understand how to apply what we now know about the ways mobile users interact with the devices that deliver learning and performance support to them. For more information about mLearnCon 2014 and to register, please visit the mLearnCon 2014 home page.