Design for Lefties

Michael Ullinger
Sep 5, 2018 · 4 min read
Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

As a left-hander, I was surprisingly stumped when a developer asked me, “Why isn’t more software designed for left-handed people?” Over the course of the conversation, he very proudly showed off some of the software he had built with left-handed shortcuts and usage in mind. I sat down and took a spin myself, and after a few frustrating minutes of stretching and struggling to hit shortcut keys, I realized the answer to his original question:

Most left-handed people aren’t left-handed users:

Computer interfaces are designed from the ground up for right-handed people. Most mice are ergonomically designed for right hands. Control keys (arrow keys, insert, delete, page up, etc.) are on the right side of keyboards so they can be accessed by the right hand while both hands are typing. Keyboard shortcuts are clustered to the left of the keyboard so the right hand doesn’t have to leave the mouse. Software has hundreds of controls designed for right-handed people (including the right click menu, designed to follow the natural movement of the right wrist). It makes it difficult to learn to use a computer any other way.

We lefties are a resilient bunch. We learn to do a lot of things right-handed (use scissors, play sports, drive manual cars). And at the core, we still interact with the screen in the same way. So using a computer right-handed becomes easy and natural for most of us very quickly, and nearly all of us learn to do so early on and continue to do it.

Where it does matter:

Left-handed usability really comes to play in the physical world: Kitchen utensils. Power tools. Three ring binders. Sometimes it’s about comfort and ergonomics, other times it’s a major safety concern. If you’re designing these kinds of items, you absolutely need to worry about the experiences of left-handed users.

Working in the digital world, however, mostly frees us from fretting over these kinds of problems — though not always. As the physical and digital worlds continue to merge, there are more and more platforms where it becomes a consideration.

Touchscreen applications are a good example of this because the input and output are melded into one screen. People intuitively use them the same way they would use physical objects (like a clipboard, book, etc). While most right-handed people will hold a tablet in their left hand and use their right to interact, left-handed people do the opposite. This means that some controls and information that are convenient to access for a right-handed person could be more difficult for someone who is left-handed. It also causes problems where a southpaw’s hand hides information and text, which is especially troublesome when making selections.

Pen based inputs also have issues. Using a stylus on regular touchscreens require the user to lift their hand slightly, which is more difficult for a lefty because they have to push the pen instead of pull it. Using digitizers left-handed also has challenges because the software has to flip the axes if the digitizer is rotated to make other features (like buttons or dials) more usable or to move cords out of the way. These are all important considerations for making these inputs usable by left-handed people.

As we continue to explore the possibilities of virtual, mixed, and augmented realities, these issues of the physical and digital worlds merging will continue to compound.

Be friendly, but don’t optimize:

Like most things in interface and experience design, this is a balancing act. In most cases, the percent of users who are actively using software left-handed is lower than colorblind, visually impaired, or physically impaired users. Moving keyboard shortcuts or rearranging layouts for lefties just doesn’t pay off, especially if it hurts usability for right-handed users.

With touchscreens, left and right-handed people have very similar usability issues, and so the solutions are the same. Avoiding pop ups or info panels that appear to the side of objects makes sure a user sees it regardless of which hand they use. When users are making a precision selection (selecting text, highlighting a map, etc.) a magnified view above the finger showing the content and context helps all users make selections more easily.

For specialized physical inputs, like a digitizer tablet, the best option is to build in the algorithms, support, and interface for both hands, and allow the user to easily switch the setting when needed. This ensures that these devices work appropriately, but frees developers from having to anticipate which hand a user uses.

Moral of the story:

While left-handed people may be more creative, earn more money, and have shorter life spans than our right-handed companions, there is very little difference between left and right-handed computer users. Our focus should be making our software more usable in general, instead of considering what hand our users use.

Unless you’re making chainsaws, in which case, there’s quite the market with left-handed lumberjacks.

NYC Design

A publication for designers of New York & design lovers from all around the world.

NYC Design

A publication for designers of New York & design lovers from all around the world. Design thinking is what makes us share with the whole world.

Michael Ullinger

Written by

An engineer turned product/UX designer. I share lots of opinions while trying to keep teams focused on serving the end user.

NYC Design

A publication for designers of New York & design lovers from all around the world. Design thinking is what makes us share with the whole world.