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How To Deal With Horrible Smartphone Ergonomics

Published 2022-08-13

How To Deal With Horrible Smartphone Ergonomics

Viz using a smartphone, then getting bad hand cramps and yelling "ow!"

Steve Jobs. Why. Yes, sleek and sexy rectangles are cool, but not when they’re giving not just me but a ton of people hand cramps and RSI pain.

First off, a very brief discussion on how bad smartphones are for your health. Smartphones are essentially just comically oversized slabs that you have to try and hold while you’re doing things. On the one hand, this is great for portability and development, because you get a big touch-screen that you can throw buttons wherever on that you can shove in your pocket. It's led to a whole flourishing ecosystem of really neat apps that I couldn't imagine living without. That said, human hands are simply not designed to be holding these things for extended periods of time.

Painful hand conditions related to smartphone use. Sustained grips lead to hand fatigue and cramping, which can lead to inflammation. Static hold and prolonged awkward postures can lead to pain and swelling on side of finger. Repetitive movements can lead to join inflammation, causing decreased mobility, throbbing, or pain.

I am absolutely not a doctor or, indeed, anyone who can give any advice on anything medical, so I’ll defer to a pretty nice PDF by the Mount Senai Selikoff Centers for Occupational Health.

The point is, ultimately, that these things chew up your hands. Solutions such as pop sockets might postpone this for a while, but ultimately, it’s still not great.

The ironic thing is, before the iPhone, phones used to be comparatively pretty darned comfortable to hold. Take a look at this photo of a Motorola Razr V3 I stole from some article on its successor:

A Motorola Razr V3 being held

The whole thing is compact and narrow and, most importantly, fits in your hand. Of course, these older phones didn’t have anywhere near as many features, but they worked. This was the norm for cellphones of the time, from those slider phones like the Samsung Intensity series to the swivel phones like the Samsung SGH-X830.

Until smartphone manufactures get their crap together (which, at the rate things are going, is never going to happen apart from some nice specialty phones like the Palm Phone, or maybe the iPhone mini), if you want to avoid RSI injuries from your smartphone, we’ll have to work with other alternatives.  
The obvious, albeit unsatisfying, answer is to use your smartphone less. Only use it when you’re out and about and need to answer a text or get transit directions. Maybe if you need to kill time waiting for the bus. Definitely don’t use it at home if you have other options.

...the flipside of all of this, of course, is that a lot of smartphone apps (especially new ones like TikTok) are inherently addicting. They’re the type of thing where you want to pull the phone out every spare minute you have. “Avoid doing that” is a hollow strategy, because frankly, I’m guilty of the same. (Not the TikTok thing thankfully, mostly just Reddit and Discord.) But do try. Or at least use those apps on a computer or a smart TV, if possible.

Of course, this begs the question: how the heck am I going to make phone calls or answer texts? There’s a few solutions to that.

First off, I’m assuming you have a computer that isn’t a Chromebook. When using a computer, follow proper ergonomic procedures like those listed here. You can also get a laptop or a 2-in-1 device, if you like lazing around the house. Just be wary of your posture! If you’re good on that front, there’s a way for you to use your phone without having to touch the devil’s rectangle.

The "Phone Link" app by Microsoft viewing received text messages.

If you are running Windows 10 or 11 and you’re using an Android phone, you can use Microsoft’s Phone Link app. Formerly known as “My Phone”, Phone Link lets you send and receive texts and phone calls, as well as check up on notifications and your photo gallery.

Windows Subsystem for Android displaying a Reddit app

If you are running Windows 11, you can also use Android apps via the Windows Subsystem for Android. If you don’t want to use the default Amazon App Store, you can use WSA PacMan to side-load any Android APK instead.

KDE Connect promotional image, showing how notifications on the phone show up on the computer.

If you are running Linux or Windows and you’re using an Android Phone, consider KDE Connect. It’s similar to the Phone Link app provided by Microsoft, but with a greater focus on programmability and customization. It’s also open source, if you care about that. You do not need to be using the KDE Plasma desktop environment on Linux to use KDE Connect. There is a Mac build of KDE Connect, but that may be unstable.

Apple promotional image, showing iMessage messages on an iPhone also appearing on a Macbook

If you’re a Mac user with an iPhone, you can use the iMessage and Facetime apps for the Mac. M1/M2/etc. Mac users can also install iOS apps directly from the App Store.

If you’re using some combination here that’s not listed, unfortunately you’re out of luck. Consider a smartwatch, if that’s in your budget, as that serves a lot of the same functionality as these apps.

If you do have to use your phone, there’s still solutions to avoid pain. A lot of what I’m saying here comes from that PDF from the beginning, so I would go read that for more details.

In short, use speech-to-text or Swype-style keyboard input where possible, change your hand grip frequently, and set your phone down on a table when possible.

Various RSI exercises. In order: open your hand and spread your fingers as wide as you can and then close your hand into a fist; place your hands flat on the table and life each finger one at a time for two secons each; tap your thumb to each finger; bring your hands together with your elbows out into a prayer position to stretch your wrists.

In addition, there’s various hand and wrist exercises you can do to decrease fatigue. The image above is, again, from that PDF, but there’s many other examples you can find on the Internet.

Hopefully all of this advice helps you at least a little bit, if you’re dealing with these issues.