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Under what circumstances should a mobile app only have one orientation? That is, when you flip your phone landscape or portrait, the view does not adjust. Why did the following two iPhone apps force people to use only the portrait orientation?

Youtube

Youtube does not provide a landscape mode and I've never really desired to use that mode? Perhaps when I scan for a video, I only look at the screenshot. The portrait mode fits more screenshots on the viewport than landscape mode. Are there more subconscious reasons why I prefer using Youtube in portrait mode? Je ne sais quoi. And even if portrait mode is optimal, why wasn't landscape mode implemented for those that prefer landscape? (The coding is actually quite easy - I've done it before).

youtube iphone app

Yelp

Yelp also only provides portrait mode. Even though I've been using it for over a year, I always find my self trying to get landscape mode when opening up the soft keyboard to search. The keys have much larger surface area in landscape mode. But Yelp doesn't implement landscape mode, and as a result, I search slower. Why didn't yelp provide a landscape mode?

yelp iphone

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+1 for asking about "only one orientation". Some apps, have a nasty habit of FORCING landscape mode even on primarily portrait mode devices. –  Caleb Apr 25 '11 at 6:47
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5 Answers

up vote 3 down vote accepted

I'd mostly agree with @Greg-J on this one, but I'd take a slightly different approach: Apps should only be programmed to use multiple orientations if they would be useful in multiple orientations.

Simply because the device has the ability to display in either portrait or landscape mode doesn't mean that your app should use both of them. If there's no real advantage to using the app in landscape (assuming portrait is the default) mode, why make your users try to decide which one is best? Don't force your users to make a decision that isn't necessary, especially if it's one of little consequence (in my opinion).

I would advise not to program for an additional orientation unless there's a functional advantage to it.

That being said, don't use this as a carte blanche to never program for additional orientations. There are LOTS of reasons why multiple orientations make sense for applications. Do your homework when building your app and figure out if they make sense for yours, but don't put in bells and whistles that really don't add value.

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Your decision should take into account the target platform and it's local norms. In order to best serve your users, you need to take into consideration all the other ways they use their devices, not just your app.

For example, on Android, all apps should have both horizontal and vertical layouts. As an app developer, you must consider that your software will be run by a variety of physical devices and users with different usage patterns. Some devices have physical keyboards that force either landscape or portrait mode. Even most soft keyboards have different modes for each orientation, and some users prefer one or the other for data entry. Even if one layout is less conducive for your specific application, you should still support it and seriously consider how to keep your usability high even when you can't control which way they hold their device. Even an inefficient use of screen space is better than looking at an app sideways!

Even if your app lends itself to one orientation or another, you must also consider the way other apps are used and hence the way the user may view your app as a speed bump if you don't support both layouts. One classic example is dialer apps on Android. Many of them, including the original stock one, did not support landscape orientation. However the original Android dev phone had a slide out keyboard, making the transition from any app that needed data entry to the touch dialer extraordinarily awkward. The issue continues today. Consider the case of a user using a navigation program in their car. The navigation experience is much better in landscape mode, so they have mounted their device in a holder horizontally on their dash. Then they need to make a quick call on speakerphone, so they switch over to the dialer. Even if you have designed a nice portrait layout for your dialer app, it is going to be frustrating for this user to be shown a sideways screen!

It is quite true that the best user experiences come from integrated hardware and software designs where the usage was taken into consideration seamlessly across both parts. However, not ever UX designer has the luxury of shipping their design on matching hardware. In the case of mobile app development, in order to create a good user experience you must consider that your designs will be used on a wide range of screens including different resolutions, aspect ratios, and orientations.

This is analogous to the switch from print to web layout -- replayed on a different stage. You must no longer design at the pixel level, you must design things that will be flexible!

There are exception cases. If your app is not a productivity app of any sort, then you can start to make exceptions. If you do not expect or what your app to fit into the normal daily usage of people's phones, then you can make an exception. This usually means immersive games with custom user interfaces can be excused from deigning for multiple layouts. If you want to limit people's usage to when they are giving their full attention to your game and draw them away from their regular usage (make them take their phone out of it's holder or mount, give their notifications a rest, etc) then the jolt of forcing a particular usage is easier to swallow. However, this should be the exception rather than the rule and be aware that it comes with disadvantages: people aren't going to switch to your app if they know it will inconvenience them.

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Nice point, but i dislike the fact that an HW force the user to have a bad user experience. Probably the designer of that HW should have thought of the problem before the production of the phone. ok, ok, i dislike the phones with the sliding keyboard, but that's another story... –  ALoR Apr 25 '11 at 9:20
    
@ALoR: You and many others have that preference, but you have to understand for SOME purposes its a great feature. Remember that hardware is rarely designed for a single piece of software! Just because all your apps are portrait oriented doesn't mean my same phone won't have one or two that really work best in landscape mode. Different apps will have different usages and there is value in hardware being versatile enough to accommodate them. In this case having multi-use hardware forces software on the platform to be versatile as well. –  Caleb Apr 25 '11 at 9:27
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Someone once said: "if you want to develop great software, you have to control even the hardware" and I really agree with it. If I were an android developer and my application is better suited for portrait, I will not put much effort in creating a landscape view only because few handset will force me to have that view. The result is bad user experience. It could be useful in some case, but results in bad behavior in other. –  ALoR Apr 25 '11 at 9:52
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That may be true, but not every UX designer has the luxury of shipping their design on matching hardware. In the case of Android, in order to create a good user experience you must consider that your designs will be used on a wide range of screens including different resolutions, aspect ratios, and orientations. It's like the switch from print to web layout all over again, you don't design at the pixel level, you have to design things that will be flexible. To create a good user experience on Android you must put your effort into flexible designs that will play nice on diverse hardware. –  Caleb Apr 25 '11 at 10:16
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Perhaps I'm stating the obvious here but another reason might be if your app uses the phone's gyroscope to take input for other things than just deciding the orientation. For instance if you are playing a game that takes in the phone's gyroscope data to move a character on the screen then you shouldn't change the orientation of the app using the gyroscope data.

Must say though the slide out keyboard orientation is a big issue and an unfortunate one. I would hate to design an app for any layout just to match the slide out keyboard.

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If we're talking touch UI's with soft-keyboards, I think the more pertinent question would be "what apps should we allow landscape orientation to allow for the larger keyboard"? That's usually the primary difference for apps that offer two orientations...the landscape offers up the wider keyboard.

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I think the answer to this question is deceptively simple: Apps should only be restricted to a single orientation when they would not be useful in multiple orientations.

A good example of this would be a barcode scanner app. It's a one handed app and benefits from no really advantage in landscape mode.

That said, I would say that there are far fewer situations where a single orientation is acceptable when compared to giving the user the option to choose what works best for them.

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The follow up question would be: what qualities make an app only useful in one orientation? –  JoJo Apr 25 '11 at 18:37
    
Indeed. Finding a definitive or even quantitative response to cover that question might prove to be more difficult than just going with your gut. –  Greg-J Apr 25 '11 at 19:51
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