Shifting Screen Orientation Paradigms

By end of 2013 (2015 at the latest) mobile browsing traffic (smarthphones and tablets) will surpass the traditional desktop uses. Small screen spaces, limited interaction models and increasing number of user contexts will generate new constraints on designers. Solution to those constraints is focus. Focus on relevant content,  focus on visual hierarchies,  focus on intuitive experiences  that will enable us to do more with less and ultimately provide users with accessible information through  functional interactions.

New era will bring many changes in our approach to the layout.  One change that will play the major role is the shift of the screen orientation from landscape (horizontal) to portrait (vertical).  Although this shift is yet to come, there are steps we can take now in order to accommodate and better understand the impact through use of natural user interfaces (NUI) rather than graphical (GUI)

First a bit of screen orientation history

Millions and millions of years ago, wind and all sorts of nasty stuff kept getting in our ancestors’ eyes so they decided to grow some eyelids.  That decision formed our viewport to what it is today, we don’t see a sphere any more, the upper and lower edge of our sight are limited. If you don’t believe me take a moment to look sideways, and then up and down (without moving your head.) Our view of the world is horizontally oriented by design, natural design. It is only fitting that everything we perceive is simpler to perceive if it’s horizontally oriented.

Screens, previously known as canvases, historically were very different from one another. Before fabrics, stone and wood were used, for many different purposes and in many different orientations; even with the invention of paper, some cultures used it horizontally, some vertically, and even photographs were indifferent to the render orientation. It was not until the invention of movable pictures (a.k.a. videos) that we got the horizontal dominance.

The television was born and the orientation stopped being a matter of designers choice, horizontal was a must. Why was this? The film was horizontal, so it had to be outputted in a horizontal format? That is certainly one of the reasons, the other one was a mix of mobility and usability. As time progressed we decided we must have more and more horizontal so we switched aspect ratios to 1.3 (4:3)  1.7 (16:9)  2.40 (2.39:1) as the preferred method of output. Which is approximately where we are today.

Vertical vs. Horizontal Interaction Models

Although the horizontal screen had such dominance, other mediums maintained the vertical orientation. Namely: books and newspapers, and reasonably so; unlike television which is a passive medium, verticals were interactive ( . . . ) and mobile. With the raise for mobile interaction in this new emerging age, the vertical orientation is making a comeback. The simultaneous if not causative shift is also happening in the interaction models. Mobile context is causing interactions to be very simple, often limited to input by one hand or in some cases even just one finger.

Well desktop and laptop monitors are certainly  interactive, and they are oriented horizontally! Are they not? Yes, but computer monitors were a mistake! And here is proof to that: What do you think is most commonly used interaction pattern on the planet? Walking, breathing? Nope, it’s scrolling.

When computers were invented the only screen available for display at the time was a television. Rather than considering the implications, some guy in a white coat said that’s good enough.  What a jerk! He didn’t consider the implications of the user interactions and took the easy way out by simply modifying the TV set. Think about it; mostly all web sites, certainly all content / information based ones are vertically based. Email is an electronic letter, which is also vertical. Most applications such as text processing, task based applications, all input forms, design software, all vertical. The screen has not been optimized for their experiences.

Horizontal orientation, whilst very mass-consumption friendly is very passive.  Only use that supports this model is watching of videos (and perhaps playing video games.) Does that justify its’ dominance? I don’t believe it does. Social interactions, research, commerce, overshadow the entertainment uses that (currently) require horizontal orientation.

Design Functions

We’ve concluded that horizontal orientation  is simpler to perceive, but that doesn’t mean its more useful. Too much simplicity can be very harmful in experiences. Very nature of horizontal oriented screen design function is to imitate our view and present it in a consumable fashion. The purpose of that function is to feed us as much information as possible, regardless of the way in which we choose to consume it. The goal of the vertically oriented design is the exact opposite; it aims to limit the content presented and focus on the interaction with the user by allowing users to only consume the relevant. Again, this allows us to do much more with less.

Sadly enough, even though vertically oriented displays have been around for years now the design considerations still follow the models of horizontal space. Multiple columns and sidebars present us with elements we really don’t need in order to interact with the content. We only need those tools to modify the presented information in some way, either by means of navigation or other tools. Those modification actions have a very brief life term but are visually presented throughout the interface; occupying the space and distracting the user.

Having tools available is another bad pattern we brought to the digital world. In our interaction with the non digital world, it is hard to imagine the possibility of conjuring tools as they are needed, and then rendering them non existent once we are done using them. We must have them readily available at all times. However, in digital we are able to do that, so why don’t we? There are many advances in the field of natural user interfaces, intuitive gesture and thought controlled interactions. It might sound like a science fiction but we are not that far away from relinquishing our need for any peripheral devices.

Vertical NUIs, Way Forward

Ability to impact the interface through physical and thought gestures will play a major role in eliminating the need for secondary content. The other part of the equation will be the recognition of layout not as means of presenting content, but delivering content through intuitive interactions. This will mean considerations of flexibility and scalability of the layout, through responsive design practices and progressive enhancement.

It is up to us, designers of today, to rectify the patterns of bad (poorly planned) experience interactions of the horizontal. To do so we must rethink what is important, what we want to underline visually. Thinking of such new concepts of interaction can be very intimidating. However, we make progress by putting ourselves outside of our comfort zone; embracing the new screen orientation paradigms is just a matter of time, the sooner we  start considering vertical first, the less of  a learning curve we will have.  Resistance is useless!