Finger Inaccuracy

Some experiences with the iPhone

I’ve tried in recent days to just randomly surf with the iPhone and just understand how I feel about the Safari browser, the small hi-res orientation-sensitive screen and the multi-tap touch-sensitive input modality. On the one hand, I had a vague feeling that I might experience a surfing experience comparable to what I get on a desktop and that the mobile Web had arrived, while on the other I was anticipating frustration and disappointment because of the sense of looking at the Web through a cardboard tube. Anticipating a lot of activity I’ve made sure to do this over WiFi, naturally.

After three days of random surfing I have some mixed feelings, but by far the most obvious for me is that my fingers are too big. The iPhone uses a capacitive touch sensor so a stylus cannot be used. Fingers are the only option. (OK, so your nose could be used too, but the smudgy screen is bad enough as it is.) On many sites I found the links and buttons too small and too close to each other for accurate selection with fingers. Invariably I would choose the wrong link and use the Back button a lot. Even with the zoom feature, link selection was hard.

Contrary to some thinking in this area, zooming into a page doesn’t always cause loss of context. On familiar sites (e.g. the BBC News site), reading the page was not a million miles away from the desktop experience (minus the video streams, sadly). This is probably because these sites are divided into smaller regions, columns or portals, so in a way each part of the big page is a smaller page. Other sites, such as Wikipedia gave mixed results. On one occasion, after scrolling through a particularly long article, I found myself doing the two-fingered paddle (involving both index fingers alternatively rubbing the screen downwards) to get back to the top of the page. I also found that even on the landscape orientation, when I zoomed the text to be big enough to read, I had to drag the page left and right because the virtual width of the page also increased.

Some style and layout features seemed to behave badly, though generally pages seemed well behaved. Scripted activities were obviously slow (the news ticker on the BBC site is particularly slow). Despite the capability of the browser, I still found myself spending a lot of time trying to figure out where I was on the page, and trying to follow text that wouldn’t wrap into the space that was available.

Yes, eventually I found the experience frustrating. The challenges were less to do with the ability of the iPhone and its browser, and more to do with my chunky fingers and mere-mortal eyesight. From here on I am going to examine ways to make the browsing experience better, taking into account the limitations of the context, which includes the user.

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