At the Communities reception at the Summit somebody spoke about the difficulties of left-handed people using household appliances, technologies, and software. If you are left-handed then you probably have problems using everyday things because they are designed for right-handed use.
Take a look at the placement of buttons on many of every day devices:
- Power buttons are on the right side of most mobile phones.
- Numeric keypads are always on the right side of the keyboard.
- The buttons of pointing devices (e.g., the mouse) favor right-handed users.
- The buttons on the car dashboard are on the right side of the steering wheel.
- The main controls of a digital camera are on the right side.
Knives, can openers, scissors, cars, smartphones, computers, pointing devices, cameras, and power tools, to name a few, are ideally suited for right-handed use. To prove it, a friend (who is left-handed) gave me a demonstration of how cumbersome these items are to use with her left hand. Yes, I was convinced—the design of these items was better suited for right-handed people.
The reason that so few things are designed for left-handed people is because 85% to 90% of all people are born right-handed. There’s your answer—there’s no profit to be made selling left-handed products. I am reminded, however, of Donald Norman’s “The Design of Everyday Things” which suggests that even if less than 10% of the population is left-handed, they still represent millions of people. Most memorable of his explanation is that a product designed to improve accessibility for a few often results in greater use for everyone. Consider also the number of right-handed people who lose the use of their right hand and have to learn to do everything with their left hand; now the situation becomes an accessibility issue.
Dr. Stefan Gutwinski published a study about left-handedness in Understanding Left-Handedness. He writes that left-handers often have a tendency for ambidexterity because they are already used to doing things with their right hands from childhood. Nevertheless, the older the user, the more difficulty left-handers have to become accustomed to new devices ideally suited for the right hand. Despite the ambidexterity, left-handed people struggle using items designed for right-handed use.
However, there’s something we can do to accommodate left-handed people. We can design products with the left-handed user in mind. For example, we can design software systems that are customizable making it possible to place control buttons and keyboard functions on the left-handed operations. We can also include left-handed users in usability studies to evaluate suitability of design.
In the case of smartphones, you would think that it should not matter which hand is used on a touchscreen. But because many devices have the on-off or volume buttons on the right side, operating the device with just your left hand is not easy. Maybe a solution is to design the smartphone that is compatible for right and left handed use.
We can create awareness such as Left Handers Day; a day devoted to being left-handed. Another solution is for left-handers to try things in their hand before buying them and really give them a good test. Last, but not least, we can include left-handed users in usability testing to evaluate true ‘ease of use’.
If you are still unconvinced that left-handed people have problems using things designed for right-handed people, read Confessions of a Left-Handed Technology User by Harry McCracken.
The next time you attend the Communities get together at the Summit, you might find a few left-handed members discussing the importance of accessibility and usability for left-handed people.
I’m David Dick and I’m Talking Usability