Are the New iPhones Too Big for Women's Hands?

As Apple starts designing for our bodies, it will have to account for the fact that they're not all the same size.

A woman uses an iPad Mini while waiting to buy a new iPhone last year. The new iPhone 6 Plus is nearly as large as an iPad Mini. (Adrees Latif/Reuters)

When Apple releases its new iPhones later this month, consumers will decide whether they’re better than what came before.

Regardless, they’ll certainly be bigger.

The previous generation of iPhones, the iPhone 5S and 5C, had 4-inch displays. Those were already the “big” iPhones, with screens larger than the iPhone 4 and the models before it.

But the new iPhones ramp up screen size again. The just-announced iPhone 6 will boast a 4.7-inch screen. And the iPhone 6 Plus—Apple’s so-called “phablet”—will go even further: Corner to corner, it will measure 5.5 inches.

These are huge devices, and they will require big hands. Literally: To operate an iPhone 6 with one hand, your thumb will have to be almost five inches long, straining all the way to reach the far corner. The larger the display, the more challenging things become for people with smaller hands.

Often, those people are women.

Last fall, the sociologist Zeynep Tufekci wrote about the struggle of being a woman using a phone designed by men. She cited research indicating that the average adult male hand is about two centimeters larger than the average adult female hand.

“That is not a small difference,” she writes, “for using a hand-held device.” She continues:

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. […]

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.

In particular, Tufekci tells the story of how her inability to use her phone, a Google Nexus 4, kept her from documenting the tear-gassing of peaceful protests while in Turkey. Because of the Nexus’s size, she said, “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.”

A Google Nexus 4 has a 4.7 inch screen. That’s the same size as a new iPhone 6.

Tufekci attributes these decisions to a lack of diversity among phone designers. Engineers, she writes, simply do not think about women’s often-smaller hands, and “this is why diversity in technology is not just about optics, feel-good or window dressing.”

The “Reachability” feature (Apple)

Zero women presented at Apple’s press event today. According to recently released data, about 70 percent of the company’s employees are male.

But Apple does seem to be aware of at least some challenges of screen size. The new iPhones include a set of new features meant to make their larger screens easier for smaller hands—and, specifically, to permit one-handed use. “Display Zoom” boosts the size of all the content on the screen. Another new feature, “Reachability,” slides everything on the top half of the display to the bottom half when a user double-taps the Home button.

But will these features work in practice? It’s unclear to me how “Display Zoom” could let someone take a picture one-handed while tear gas rains around them—even if the software buttons on the display got bigger, the phone would remain its same stubborn size.

Apple did account for smaller bodies with the debut of its Watch today. When released early next year, the Apple Watch will come in two different sizes. Wrote one Wall Street Journal reporter who attended the press event:

Midway through the presentation today, Apple’s design guru, Jony Ive, said, “I think we're now at a compelling beginning, actually designing technology to be worn, to be truly personal.” As the company’s devices are increasingly built for the body, as it aims to make them accessories and not office implements, it will have to tailor them to the many shapes, sizes, and capacities of humans.

Which is not to say that it shouldn’t make larger phones in the first place. After all, there are customers who struggle with the four-inch screen for other reasons. After the iPhone 6 was announced, a male friend of mine—who has, I think it’s fair to say, hands on the larger side—celebrated. At last, he said, there was a smartphone that he could use: one that wouldn’t make him feel like “a gorilla engraving a rice grain.”