Big issues with tiny cellular phones

Dilemma: Those slender devices may be stylish, but are they functional?

January 29, 2001|By Alfred Lubrano | Alfred Lubrano,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

In a culture of SUVs and super-sized meals, the cellular phone has always been an anomaly.

Americans who believe that bigger equals better nevertheless clamor for smaller and smaller phones.

That may not be such a good thing for the big-handed among us.

"Buttons on phones get smaller, and it definitely is a problem," says Winston Buchanan, a Philadelphia area general contractor and a fellow with two healthy mitts. "I don't understand why they keep shrinking the phone. Your finger keeps hitting the other numbers."

No one knows how widespread a problem this is; Consumer Reports has recorded no complaints. Nor could anyone assert that it's among our country's more difficult questions. Still, "teeny, tiny products with small buttons are real issues for some people," including big men and the elderly, says Alan Hedge, professor of ergonomics at Cornell University.

Plus, the downsizing of cell phones offers an interesting post-modern philosophical thought: Technology could eventually make a phone so small that it would not be usable.

Thus, we can ask, if a tiny phone rings in the forest, can it be heard? Or answered? And could a big-fingered fellow use it to phone home?

"It's theoretically possible to scrunch the insides of a telephone to the size of a microchip," notes Michael Maddox, an industrial engineer who studies human factors in product design at Sisyphus Associates of Madison, N.C. "But there is no reason to think this is good. The displays now are very difficult to read, and the buttons are smaller because there's less real estate on the phone. Cell-phone keypads are very difficult for people with large hands to operate.

"This is not considered an advance in technology. It's a marketing tool as far as I'm concerned."

Aha, the answer emerges. Good ol' American commerce calls the tune. Manufacturers know that we crave diminutive cell phones for portability and cachet - regardless of how hard the devices can be to use.

"I have a friend who will go out of her way to buy the smallest cell phones," says Hank Strub, a Chicago-area researcher who studies consumer use of high-tech products. "She'll talk about how tough it is to push the tiny buttons, then say, `But isn't it cute? It's so small.'

"A lot of design decisions are made for the market," Strub says. "And at the time people buy things, they aren't thinking about how they will be using it."

It's not that manufacturers are unaware that 6-foot-1, 200-pound cement workers such as Steve Higgins of Philadelphia have big hands and wish that the buttons were bigger. ("I probably need a voice-activated phone to dial," he laments.)

The precise sciences of human-factors design and anthropometry - measurement of human body size - have been around for 30 years or more, Maddox says. Their origins are in the military, as well as in NASA and the airline industry, in which buttons, handles and other equipment on vehicles and planes must be engineered so human hands can operate them.

"Guidelines about button size exist, as does the range of body sizes in any user population," explains Maddox, who, in 1983, designed the "Super Tracker," the keyboard/scanner used by Federal Express drivers.

Humans, obviously, come in different sizes. The extremes include men in the 99th percentile (which means that 99 percent of the male population is smaller than they are), whose average height is 6-foot-3, and whose hand width is 4.6 inches, including the thumb, Maddox says.

Compare that with women in the first percentile (99 percent of women are bigger), whose average height is 4-foot-10 and whose hand width is 3.2 inches.

Among the leading cell phones, many are in the range of 3.6 to 5.2 inches in height, with a few as narrow as 1.7 inches, according to a Consumer Reports study released last week.

No wonder big guys complain. "They keep dialing wrong numbers," says Karl Robb, inventor of TrueTip, a stylus that a person can slip onto his finger to help negotiate the Lilliputian world of cell phones, handheld computers, and personal digital assistants. It is marketed on the Web at

It's a start, but styluses may not be for everyone.

Meanwhile, cell phone manufacturers such as Motorola say the "challenge ... is to ensure that the phone includes the features and technology that consumers want, as well as being ergonomically sound," according to an e-mail statement by a company spokeswoman.

Roughly translated, that means the phones will continue to shrink, and you'll just have to figure it out for yourself, Maddox says.

"If you have big hands, you're stuck," says Don Norman of the Nielson Norman Group, a product usability consulting group in the Midwest and California. "Like a lot of things in life, it's a trade-off. The point is to do the best you can."

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