Vertical Video Syndrome and Norman Phone – Does The Vertical Format Suit Narration?

Have you heard about the “Norman door”? There must’ve been a time when in a hurry you jerked the door handle so hard, it nearly left you armless or the door, door frame included, went with you. Or, even worse, when you confidently ran right into a door which you were sure would open, but it did not. Those were encounters with Norman doors. These doors, although absolutely real, are a manifestation of a larger theory, and a testament to the significance of proper and well-thought-out design for the utility and functionality of a product. Don Norman is a professor of cognitive science and focuses his research on User Centered Design. The now famous book, The Design of Everyday Things, is the result of his work, and door design is specifically addressed in a separate part – thus, Norman doors.

Why? Doors are an excellent example. Some require an instruction sticker on how to open them. Others are so badly designed that they require extremely counterintuitive actions before they open. Their shapes, handles, and placement, all give us subconscious clues as to how we’re going to get inside. We open doors every day, so there are natural heuristics developed that tell us how to operate a given door, but bad doors still surprise us everywhere.

What does this have to do with smartphones?

I think we can venture a thesis that the video display problem on cells is a classic example of the Norman smartphone.

Before I begin explaining – let’s briefly think what, other than their usefulness, causes us to accept and adopt certain elements of the surrounding reality quicker than others. It is obviously a very complicated topic that has been covered by many research papers, but undoubtedly, one of the factors is our getting used to the element. In other words, how much we’ve been exposed to it or in personal contact with it. It’s no different when it comes to the TV format, which is panoramic and generally displayed in the 16:9 standard. But it is not the only format. There are wider ones, for example, 2.35:1 used in cinemas, or more narrow, a bit closer to a square, 4:3. About 20 years ago in Poland, this format was the most popular kind, and only TV sets with this format were produced. Also, film cameras used the format, so in the ‘90s when Poland was switching to Western standards, most films had to be cut at the bottom and the top to fit the horizontal HD screens. Let’s then ask a theoretical question – what if, instead of expanding the screen horizontally, we decided to go vertically? Most likely, the horizontal view would seem unnatural to us, and we definitely would not have the current Norman smartphone problem.

But wait, how did we get to the most popular now 16:9 HD format?

Well, the first such format came to us courtesy of William Kennedy Dickson, who worked as a photographer for Thomas Edison. In the early 1880’s, Eastman Kodak started mass producing transparent photographic film. Edison wanted to use it in his Kinetograph – an early precursor to cinema and TV. William Dickson used a 35 mm film. The photosensitive area within this format was 24.89 mm by 18.67 mm giving us – a 4:3 proportion. We don’t know why Dickson chose this format, but we do know that the average field of our vision is 155° h to 120° v and the proportion of these angles comes out to 4:3.075. The 4:3 format was the cinema standard until the 1950’s. The revolution came with the arrival of television and a drop in movie theater attendance.

Film producers had to somehow differentiate their format from that in homes, and they decided on the panoramic format, or rather a couple of its versions. I don’t want to spend too much time on this very interesting part of cinematographic history, although I’m probably already a little guilty of that. Bottom line – after all kinds of experiments, 2.35:1 has become the movie theater standard.

The revolution came with the arrival of television and a drop in movie theater attendance.

My personal observation is that in a theater with a wide screen you can pack way more people than in a theater with a narrower screen. In the late 80’s, Kerns H. Powers suggested a TV standard that was a compromise between the cinema and almost a square television. The proportion suggested was 16:9, and it is nothing else but a geometric average of the two extremes – 4:3 and 2.35:1. This is how the TV standard was created, which was later transferred onto our phones. By the way 4:3 squared is 16:9.

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Let’s get back to phones and their evolution up to the Norman smartphone. The history of the telephone’s development, starting with the earliest acoustic models, is just as interesting as that of the screen proportions. Therefore, for the purposes of this text, I will make one big generalization – telephones were designed for us to hold in our hands. The first ones had a vertical stand with the ear-piece on a cord. Then, a receiver with both the speaker and the mic was created. From there, we got to all the flatter cordless phones, that, in turn, led to cell phones. The vertical shape is almost dictated by the ergonomics related to the shape of human faces and the mouth-ear distance. Everyone knows that the closer the mic is to the mouth, the better one will hear you, and that the speaker is most effective next to our ear unless we’re fans of calls on the loudspeaker in public places. And this is how we slowly get to smartphones, which are basically computerized portable screens. This screen is the Norman smartphone I’m talking about because this is where two historical paths of design which stem from different needs cross.

That’s why modern websites seem to glorify the vertical approach through responsiveness and one-pagers.

The screen, which is getting wider and wider to accommodate viewing from a distance and the phone, which from its beginning was meant to be held vertically with one hand. What’s the result of this cross? I’m sure you’ve tried watching a video on your phone while holding it horizontally. It’s not the most comfortable thing to do. When we try with both hands, it’s a little better but not great – the phone is too small to fit the fingers of both hands on it.

Additionally, you have to remember that the phone has other uses than watching videos. Actually, you can even call people with it! It’s safe to say though, that the key function of today’s phone is online access. This has been quickly picked up by website developers who reflected it in their mobile friendly adaptations. That’s why modern websites seem to glorify the vertical approach through responsiveness and one-pagers.

Smartphones are not designed to be held horizontally

They’re designed so that you can easily scroll through them, holding the phone vertically and navigating with your thumb. When a page contains a video and we want to see it full-screen, we have to turn the phone sideways. But what if we’re not holding the phone in our dominant hand, because we’re holding something else in it. It will surely not be a smooth transfer. We can openly say it – smartphones are not designed to be held horizontally, and their ever-growing size only goes against the solutions related to the ergonomics of watching a video. Vertically, the phone comfortably rests on the base of the thumb. Horizontally, we have to support it with our pinky. Using both hands, navigating becomes uncomfortable. Finally, turning the phone around all the time is irritating, to say the least.

The hate towards the vertical form comes not only from the clash of two paths of design, but also from the fact that it’s something new, and therefore something that is easiest to dismiss.

The result of this crossing of design paths mentioned earlier is VVS (Vertical Video Syndrome) and the waves of online hate directed at the people who record vertically. In short, it’s basically about filming with our phone while holding it upright, and that, apparently, it’s really tough to show and watch such videos. Video-content websites like YT were simply not ready for this. In effect, we got this big black screen for horizontal viewing around the actual vertical video in the middle. Someone even came up with a way to help the situation – as the background for your vertical video, you use the same video but widened and unfocused, resulting in a flat background that’s in line with the video playing. But it’s evident that these are just cures for the symptoms, but not the root cause itself. The hate towards the vertical form comes not only from the clash of two paths of design, but also from the fact that it’s something new, and therefore something that is easiest to dismiss.

Especially, when for years now, we’ve been told that the horizontal view is more movie-like and that it’s simply the best solution. And so here we get to an element of snobbism. It’s also proof that a badly designed camera forces on you the way you record. Exactly – because the phone here, is nothing else but a camera designed for comfortable filming… but vertically.

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Changes usually happen as a result of revolutions or a trend so dominant, like the Borg invasion in Star Trek, that resistance is futile. That’s why the big players, aware of trends, fall in line, and for example, YouTube adapted its mobile UX so that you can view full-screen vertical videos. Here, it was simply the matter of statistics and the amount of material produced in this format. Others, also don’t have to fight this trend because they can simply adjust to it and the group it represents.

For Millennials a vertical video is something natural

Millennials, because we’re talking about them, are the youngest branch of our family tree. Their primary screens are the screens of their phones, and watching things vertically is something natural, if not to say even more natural than in panoramic view. Their digital social lives very often take place on Snapchat, which is vertical. Some of them don’t even have Facebook.

I can already hear loud arguments that the vertical format does not suit narration. What’s more, I see them in comments under any mention of vertical videos. Well, the answer is one, and it was given by Snapchat’s CEO, John Steinberg, who revealed data clearly confirming that native vertical ads are seen in full ten times more often than horizontal ones.

The creators of the vertical movie theater, which successfully appears at international film festivals since 2013 also aren’t complaining that their product receives superb reviews, often eclipsing classic horizontal productions.

For me, the vertical video, generally – the vertical format, is a challenge, but with great potential. I’m waiting for the first Polish brands that will use it with me.