With Apple claiming the Tap to Zoom and Pinch to Zoom patents and possibly enforcing them, what is an alternative that is intuitive and still distinct from tap/pinch?

  • There aren't many touch gestures. Your alternatives are basically swiping or dragging. Neither of which makes the slightest bit of sense. The only alternative is to drop direct manipulation and go with zoom buttons.
    – Ben Brocka
    Aug 28, 2012 at 14:50
  • the patent belongs to the OS, not your particular app/web site.
    – DA01
    Aug 28, 2012 at 15:43
  • @DA01 I believe the interaction itself is patented, so it doesn't matter what's implementing it. Of course you're covered if your website doesn't implement it but some OS does.
    – Ben Brocka
    Aug 28, 2012 at 18:07
  • The implementation is tied to the device. If it's your web site, then it's the browser doing it, via the device and OS. I'm no patent lawyer, but the intent of the patent is to not go after software developers making apps and web sites, but rather their competition (other device and OS manufacturers).
    – DA01
    Aug 28, 2012 at 18:12
  • 3
    @DA01: It's probably best not to make assumptions about patent law unless you are a patent lawyer or have consulted one. Further, UX.SE is not just about websites so this question has a broader applicability even if you are correct.
    – kastark
    Aug 28, 2012 at 21:03

6 Answers 6


Let's assume for a moment that we're talking about a touch interface without any other controls.

Direct Manipulation

As noted in the comments above, there are a limited number of gestures for directly manipulating content. From gestureworks:

  • The Tap family are all out.
  • Rotation is possible, but unlikely to be intuitive. It's also not particularly discoverable.
  • Scale and Split gestures are all out.
  • Swipe, Flick, and Scroll gestures might work but again, aren't likely to be intuitive unless you are scrolling a zoom bar - meaning that you're still using an external control.
  • Hold gestures would be difficult to discover and tricky to implement such that the user had any fine control over the zoom level.
  • 3D gestures and most Anchor gestures aren't relevant since they are primarily used for tilting rather than zooming, and would probably violate any pinch-to-zoom restrictions if they were used for zooming.

This leaves for direct manipulation either a rotation gesture (screw-to-zoom?) or a difficult to control hold gesture. Neither are ideal.


There are three primary methods for zooming using controls. These are:

  • Zoom buttons - these work. However they are fiddly and lack the feeling of direct manipulation, and have the additional issue that their zoom needs to be fairly coarse-grained in its scale.
  • Zoom slider - Similar to the zoom but allowing for more analogue control, the slider primarily lacks precision. Probably the best of the bunch, however.
  • Drawn bounding boxes/scale lines will also work, to some degree, but this method is not really intuitive and doesn't give immediate feedback to the user (your start point may be incorrect, but you won't get feedback until you complete the box).

Overall, methods using controls are likely to be the best bet when using a touch interface for zooming, assuming that we're unable to use pinching or tapping (which, in my opinion, are the most obvious and intuitive of the gestures and would otherwise be the preferred solution).


This won't work with just thumb, but neither does pinch.

Have the user put 4 fingers spread on the screen, the map then zooms in so that the polygon whose vertices are your fingers fills the whole screen. To me this seems much more intuitive than pinch zoom, especially for pictures and maps. For instance, if I have a picture with a face in it, I just put my fingers in a little box shape around the face and boom it zooms in to exactly what I want.

This is like the boundary boxes idea, except instead of drawing a boundary box, you just place your fingers to be the vertices. It will also work with just 3 fingers (boundary triangle) but might be less intuitive.

Put fingers on screen:

Step 1

Figure out bounding box:

Step 2

Zoom to have bounding box fill screen:

Step 3

  • 2
    Interesting, but very complicated action; would be easiest with both hands. Grab your phone and try to perform this gesture one handed; just feels weird. This is also basically a modified pinch, though legally it'd probably pass.
    – Ben Brocka
    Aug 28, 2012 at 18:06
  • 5
    You should have just filed your patent.
    – psr
    Aug 28, 2012 at 18:38
  • 1
    Actually @BenBrocka I quite like the idea of training users to DEPLOY THE CLAW when they want to zoom. ;)
    – kastark
    Aug 28, 2012 at 19:02
  • 2
    anything beyond two touches is rather confusing to many people, and likely very in accessible to many.
    – DA01
    Aug 28, 2012 at 22:14
  • 1
    I like this. A refinement would be just to use two fingers.
    – ArturoTena
    May 13, 2015 at 18:13

The thing with Touch is despite all the talk of "gestures" there are really only a few basic gestures humanly possible:

  • Tap
  • Tap and hold
  • Swipe
  • Drag (swipe with constant physical contact)
  • Pinch (in/out)

As you'll note even these gestures you're partially repeating yourself; tap and hold is just a longer tap, swiping is just dragging but letting go quickly.

Tapping is the basic action. Pinch is the obvious choice. But for he context of this question we have to ignore those; I am not considering those "illegal" nor would I encourage you to avoid them, I'm just playing the thinking game.

Basically what we have left are swipe/drag and tap and hold left. Tap and hold doesn't make sense, and it's a one way action. It's also not very discoverable; I'll consider it excluded.

Swiping or dragging up/down for zoom in out is a legitimate possibility, but it complicates the potential for a drag gesture to pan. I wouldn't recommend swipe/drag if any form of panning/scrolling is involved.

So that's all direct manipulation options excluded. What's left? Buttons. A viable option for large screens is the slider like Google Maps desktop uses:

enter image description here

Alternately, plain old plus minus buttons (maybe in a magnifying glass):

enter image description here clipart from shutterstock.com

Basically if you really want something that clearly and intuitively indicates zoom, you have to go back to visual controls if you're not allowed pinch to zoom.


The browser that shipped with the Nokia N900 used a 'circle-to-zoom' - you made a circle shape with your finger or thumb to zoom, clockwise to zoom in and counterclockwise to zoom out.


What about 2-finger swipes up & down? Granted, it may not be immediately intuitive since pinch is the accepted "norm" but it seems like it would be easy to catch on, and is different enough from a 1-finger swipe used for panning or sliding.

I agree that if a touch method isn't necessary, control buttons would be the easiest for a user to learn.

  • 1
    Two finger has the disadvantage of almost never being used on phones/tablets except for pinch. Plus it rules out using your phone with just your thumb (though so does pinch)
    – Ben Brocka
    Aug 28, 2012 at 16:40
  • Is that a programming limitation or a general convention that it isn't used? Aug 28, 2012 at 16:55
  • @Ben two-finger scrolling has been on iOS for a while, albeit not readily apparent. It's also quite common on the touchpads of laptops, so has some validity as an idea. Not sure I'd call it more intuitive than pinch-n-zoom though.
    – DA01
    Aug 28, 2012 at 22:16

There is also the old Android method pressing with both thumbs at the same time and tilting the device. Very janky and awkward.

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