• 03.22.17

Why Don’t More UIs Use Accelerometers?

New research shows that people can type quickly just by tilting their phones. Is it time for designers to take more advantage of the idea?

Why Don’t More UIs Use Accelerometers?

As our mobile screens grow bigger, using them on the go has only gotten harder. And so sending a simple, one-handed text message has turned into thumb contortion. It’s slow. There are typos. Sometimes, you’re even forced to stop walking for a moment to send a text. The horror!


But researchers from St. Andrews HCI Research Group have developed an interesting solution. Called SWiM (Shape Writing In Motion), it’s a keyboard that you type by tilting. This allows you to hover over the right key, then hit one button that’s always in the same place to peck out your message with one hand.

It looks a bit silly–even awkward. But their research, highlighted by Prosthetic Knowledge, has found that users can type up to 15 words per minute almost immediately. And within an hour and a half of practice, they average 32 words per minute. To put that into perspective, that’s about as fast as many people type on smartphones with two hands.

Of course, there are many keyboards that use experimental UIs to expedite typing. Yet SWiM uses a method that’s ubiquitous across the smartphone industry, but rarely used in generalized UIs: accelerometer tilting.

The surprising thing about SWiM’s use of tilting is that it’s based on a gesture that designers have basically confined to video games (countless video games, in fact, but here are 100 to get you started on the topic). Whether it’s the core UI of Android and iOS, or separate productivity apps like Slack and Office, all of these buttoned up experiences seem to have written off the accelerometer as a gimmick, mostly only using its data to measure when your phone is in portrait or landscape mode. But in light of this new research from St. Andrews, it makes you wonder: Is tilting a big missed opportunity for serious touch-screen apps?

Users get this gesture, and they’re clearly pretty good at it, too. Finally, the fact that it’s been used in so many games is almost proof of the point that it’s an enjoyable and sustainable gesture by nature. Of course, maybe there’s some cognitive dissonance in the idea that anyone could have fun editing a spreadsheet on a delayed train that will bring them in late to the office. But tilting seems like it works–especially for those times we’re so on the go that we can’t stop to use our phones properly.

About the author

Mark Wilson is a senior writer at Fast Company. He started, a simple way to give back every day.