It’s a Man’s Phone

My female hands meant I couldn’t use my Google Nexus to document tear gas misuse

The above photo is one of the many —pathetic— photos I took while struggling to document misuse of tear gas with a phone too big for my hands. All my photos from that event are obviously unusable for one simple reason: good smartphones are designed for male hands.

I spent part of last summer in Gezi Park protests in Istanbul, Turkey. As a scholar of social movements and social media originally from Turkey —I was born a few blocks from Gezi Park— I jumped at the opportunity to conduct research into a movement that had sprung seemingly out of nowhere and made heavy use of Twitter.

Unfortunately, while Istanbul is lovely in June, my research came with unwanted perks—like tear gas. Sometimes, a lot of it.

“Tear gas” may sound like it has an effect like tearing up when cutting an onion but it’s not comparable—the commonly-used lachrymatory agents used burn your lungs and cut your breath to painful gasps. Tear gas can be lethal if overused or used under confined conditions, or on people with underlying vulnerabilities like asthma. Worryingly, tear gas is increasingly used around the world to break up peaceful assembly (it’s much less effective on determined & prepared groups).

So I was particularly incensed when clouds of tear gas rained upon a large, festive and peaceful crowd on the evening of June 9th. The canisters were fired in, one after the other, just as many people, including parents with children, were streaming into Gezi Park at the end of the workday. These people were no doubt encouraged by governor of Istanbul who had earlier tweeted praise for the youth of Gezi Park, and said he wished he could join them on this beautiful summer day—and essentially promised no police intervention.

As I struggled to breath in the noxious air, that promise was clearly broken.

Since officials often claimed that tear gas was used only on vandals and violent protesters, I wanted to document these particularly egregious circumstances. Almost by reflex, I pulled out my phone, a Google Nexus 4, which I had been using on this trip as my main device, sometimes under quite challenging circumstances.

And as my lungs, eyes and nose burned with the pain of the lachrymatory agent released from multiple capsules that had fallen around me, I started cursing.

I cursed the gendered nature of tech design that has written out women from the group of legitimate users of phones as portable devices to be used on-the-go.

I cursed that what was taken for granted by the male designers and male users of modern phones was simply not available to me.

I cursed that I could not effectively document how large numbers of ordinary people had come to visit a park were being massively tear-gassed because I simply could not take a one-handed picture.

I especially cursed that I could not lift the camera above my head, hold it steadily *and* take a picture—something I had seen countless men with larger hands do all the time.

I’m 5 foot 2 inches on a good day and my hands are simply not big enough for effective one-handed use of the kind of phones that I want to use for my work.

Increasingly, on the latest versions of the kinds of phones I want to use, I cannot type one-handed. I cannot take a picture one-handed. I can barely scroll one-handed—not very well, though. I can’t unlock my phone one-handed. I can’t even turn on my phone one-handed as my fingers cannot securely wrap around the phone while I push a button with a finger.

I used to be able to do all that on smart phones just a generation ago. Unfortunately, I can’t just use an inferior, older and smaller phone as I do need all the capabilities of the best phones—except their screen size. What I simply do not need or want is that teeny, tiny bit more of screen landscape that comes, for me, the total expense of usability. Yet, I’m increasingly deprived of the choice.

Not upgrading to new phones is not an answer either. I’m not just after the latest phone for the sake of having the latest phone. However, older phones get sluggish over time as requirements for software upgrades overwhelm their capacity. As phones age, their battery life gets shorter and shorter. In the field, battery life is very important. Soon, certain apps start not working unless I upgrade my operating system to the latest version which will crash my older phone.

As a woman, I’ve slowly been written out of the phone world and the phone market. That extra “.2" inches of screen size on each upgrade simply means that I can no longer do what I enviously observe men do every day: Check messages one-handed while carrying groceries or a bag; type a quick note while on a moving bus or a train where I have to hold on not to fall.

I must put down everything in my hands and use my phone with both hands for everything.

There is no rule that says the screen size must get bigger with each upgrade in memory or capabilities, and yet it does. For most men, it’s just one small, added benefit. For many women, though it’s a reminder that the tech industry doesn’t always remember or count your existence.

Just so we are clear: I don’t want a pink phone, I don’t want “women’s applications” and I don’t want ruffles or hello kitty on my phone.

I merely want a design that acknowledges that women exist, and women often have smaller hands than men.

Tech designer men, especially tall or average-sized men: Imagine a world in which all keyboards were designed for hands like mine—and you had to type all day for work. Or, imagine a world in which you sat in economy class airline seats all day, every day to work. That’s what it feels like to live in a world designed for someone else. (Although airlines do this for profit, the effect is the same: I have little to complain about economy seats because they fit me even though they are painful and torturous for many people).

The scene in Gezi that day was one of chaos and crowds, as people tried to move away from the gas that had enveloped us. Some were buckled on the floor, vomiting in pain. The evening crowd had swelled the numbers in the park, and with one hand, I clutched the bag I was carrying with my research materials as I stood in the undulating crowd, and with the other, I tried in vain to hold the phone steadily and tap on the camera button.

It was futile.

I gave up and put my phone back in the bag.

Online sources suggest that the average adult man’s hand is about 2 cm larger than a woman’s—three quarters of an inch. That is not a small difference for using a hand-held device.

The effect will become more pronounced as the next three billion people come online using their phones. People in the developing world are, on average, much shorter and have smaller hands. When I traveled to the Mayan highlands in the Guatemala-Mexico border as part of my interest in the Zapatista movement and I was practically a towering giant.

Google now has announced the next generation, Nexus 5. With trepidation, I immediately looked at the size: Yep, slightly bigger.

I’m just going to hold on to my already slightly too-big Nexus 4 as long as I can, and hope that a manufacturer out there starts designing good smartphones for people other than average sized men in rich countries. (Free #PROTIP to manufacturers who care about their bottom line: women usually make their own purchasing decisions, and we are a huge market).

Google Nexus was otherwise a great phone for me. I travel a lot for my research and my work so I need an unlocked phone that I can use in multiple countries. I wanted a phone without the “crapware” that comes with buying from intermediaries. I’m a junior academic—and I simply can’t spend my time rooting my phones and then manually updating and configuring everything all the time.

All practical “solutions” out there involve that I pay a penalty for not having a man’s hands.

This is why diversity in technology is not just about optics, feel-good or window dressing. Diversity in experience, diversity in body size, diversity in ability among people who make decisions in tech design influence basic questions of equity and accessibility of products and platforms that are increasingly essential parts of our personal, social and political lives. (Also, hint, Google Nexus 5 designers, just in case these things were too hard for you guys to look up: my middle finger is 2.6 inches.)

[PS: Since this piece is still getting so much discussion, I’ll soon write a follow-up to answer to the question I’ve individually answered many times on Twitter and elsewhere. Why not a smaller phone? I know there are other smaller phones. There were reasons (briefly, concerns over phone security plus over Apple political censorship ) which led me to go with a Nexus 4. In any case, my point is about the narrowing of choice & the shift in the market, not whether I should also carry a separate camera, etc.]