August 13 is International Left Handers’ Day and Rhiannon poked a corner of the Hive Mind and asked if it’d consider taking a look at handedness as a social justice issue. They’re doing a series of postings on the topic, which you should check out.
I lived for 13 years with a left handed person, and I recall it occasionally was a problem, but I admit I never thought about it much. I remember mostly complaints about finding decent scissors – stuff like that, so I replied to Rhiannon: “I’ve mostly worked in the software industry and I’d always thought that computing wasn’t so bad…”
Things I hadn’t thought of:
- Large software companies spend huge amounts of code effort on internationalization, readable fonts, text readers, sticky keys, etc. It’s good that they do all that, but left-handed people are expected to just … tough it out.
- Companies like Apple design things like iPhones that have internal antennas on the left side, so that if you’re left-handed and hold the phone naturally, you get poor data service.
- Software such as browsers use right-side-scrolling models, which means if you’re using your slickly interfaced smart phone, and you want to use it naturally, the palm of your hand blocks your view of the screen (right? You’ll hold the phone in your right hand, then reach across to the right side of the phone to drag the widget – except now you can’t see anything.
- Companies like Apple, that pride themselves on good design, respond to these kinds of complaints with a brilliant suggestion: “then don’t hold it that way!” So, you get a $350 arm-tchotchke from Apple that sucks even worse than usual* if you’re left-handed.
I have to admit I’m embarrassed that I never really thought of any of this stuff. In some of the products I’ve designed, I tortured my engineers over internationalization – to make sure the software would look right and act right with text that goes right-to-left and not just left-to-right like English does. So they added code to make the user interface work correctly but I’d be willing to bet there were some issues a left-handed person would still encounter. We actually consulted with a friend who writes in Japanese, to try to make sure our internationalization efforts would work, but we never asked a left-handed person.
The world is getting a bit better; new interfaces on some applications allow you to move components around and change your layout. Mostly. But things like the right side scroll-bar are built into the operating systems’ windowing toolkit, not controlled by the application; you’ve got to jump some serious code-hoops to make that movable** – I am pretty sure that my consistent hatred of complex layout widget code has resulted in some remarkably inflexible interfaces. But, in my defense – other than a few Visual Basic 1.0 things like a mail client and some utilities, I’ve never written anything with a user interface at all: once again, saved by the command-line! On the other hand (so to speak) I’ve managed development projects that resulted in graphical interfaces, and never given the left-handed a thought at all.
Left handed people make up about 10% of the population and I imagine that a left hander who found a product that was designed to work well for them – they’d be inclined to buy it. Right there, that means a pretty decent, subtle, market push that might make one product succeed where another failed. And in the world of software, that’s a huge, huge deal. I had to look around to find a Japanese friend who was willing to look at our internationalization in our interface – with 10% of our friends and family being left-handed, finding a “consultant” ought not to be a big deal.
I’m sitting here looking at my super cool game controllers I use to play Elite, and now I realize that they probably spell “nightmare” for a left-handed person. How would you fly with the weapo ns system select toggle in the palm of your hand? Or with your throttle-side targetting hat on your pinky. What does the air force do, only hire right-handed pilots? I’m guessing that the flight crew of typical commercial airliners get the Apple response: “use your other hand.” In the case of a computer game – sure, you can say “first world problems” but really what I am seeing is “lost 10% of the market” and I don’t even want to think about “my airline pilot is less efficient because of the control layout.”
When I was a kid, I was severely dyslexic. My parents happened to know a researcher who had been developing a training program intended to help reinforce handedness, so I wound up being a test subject at an early age. To tell the truth, I don’t remember much except the bright lights, the electric shocks, and the anal probe… Oh, wait, that was when the aliens kidnapped me.*** Joking aside, what I basically did was reinforce my right-handedness to the point where my left hand is useful mostly for power and I can’t really do anything fine with it. If I weren’t in the 9/10 of the population for which the world is made, I’d probably not be as awkward with my left hand because I would have to be better with it.
So: give the left-handed a thought. And bring back the command line.
PS – a big “thank you” to Rhiannon for all the infoz.
(* I mean, unless all you wanted was conspicuous consumption)
(** Some code masses will be better than others)
(*** Not intended to be a truthful statement)