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Bring back the stylus - an ergonomics viewpoint

The benefits of using a stylus

The stylus is a much ignored but useful accessory to mobile devices. We all know they are there for us to buy and use, but most of us probably don't bother. To quote Steve Jobs's words back in 2007 "Who wants a stylus!? You have to get 'em and put'em away, and you lose 'em, yuchhhh! Nobody wants a stylus, so let's not use a stylus."

Strong words which have echoed through nearly a decade of mobile technology. Apple is only now with the iPad Pro grudgingly acknowledging that styluses might have some uses, but even that seems to come from a functionality perspective rather than a physical useability and comfort perspective. In fact, nearly 10 years on since Steve Jobs's famous disparaging remarks, the stylus is still around, it's not disappeared the way of the Sinclair C5 , and a lot of us happen to like them!

Stylus technology - a very brief overview

There are two main types of stylus for use across different platforms – Capacitive and Bluetooth.

Capacitive styluses work passively i.e. they don't need a battery, and the material in the tip mimics the electrical disruption which your finger would cause – which your device detects and responds to as a touch.

Bluetooth styluses have to be powered in order to work. They have finer tips as their power allows them to still be sensed touching the screen. They can have a range of functions like an 'eraser' on the end, and pressure sensitivity. Bluetooth styluses tend to be used more in creative applications because of their additional functionality.

There is also the Wacom digitizer – this technology is specific to certain devices, it is passive but specialized sensors allow multiple functionality such as eraser tip etc.

Which one to choose? It is a case of 'horses for courses'. For most people, if they are not doing detailed drawings and needing pressure sensitivity, a simple capacitive tipped stylus will be perfectly adequate.

Pros and cons of using styluses (the ergonomics perspective)

Pros

Improvement and variation in wrist posture – reduction in repetitive thumb movements
Styluses allow you to improve your wrist and finger postures and avoid repetitive thumb movements. With a smartphone, rather than reaching with your thumb to the opposite side of the screen, there is no reaching at all, you just poke at the screen and from one corner of the screen to the opposite one there is no difference in the strain on your thumb and wrist.

More comfortable interaction with tablets on stands / risers and laptop touch-screens
Their major plus is possibly still to be discovered by many people. It's that if you are using a tablet on a riser or stand, a stylus is likely to be more ergonomic than your fingers to select on the screen (particularly if you have long finger nails). Without a stylus, to place a finger pad on the screen, you need to flex your wrist significantly, to avoid that nasty scratching-the-screen feeling. With a stylus there's no such problem. They also reduce – just by a bit – the actual reach distance.

No more 'fat-finger' errors
For some men in particular, accurate on-screen selection with large fingers can be a bit tricky. Calling the wrong person or deleting a message that you wanted to flag can be a real nuisance and waste of time. A stylus offers a reliable and consistent 'activation area' which reduces time lost to correcting accidental and incorrect selections. This accuracy is also partly helped by less of your screen being obscured at the point of selection when using a stylus.

No more smears
Want to chow down on your sandwiches while still using your device? A stylus means you can do it without getting smears on the screen. Smears on the screen can lead to veiling reflections, obscuring details and potentially contributing to eyestrain.

They're cheap (ok we know that's not ergonomics..)
They range in price from very cheap to fairly expensive. But sometimes (probably most of the time) all you need is a cheap one. The cheapest styluses you can find online are less the £1.

They just feel different - which is nice!
We're so used to using our fingers to interact with screens that actually, having a break from that and using a decent stylus feels strangely refreshing, like you have breathed a bit of fresh life into that scruffy old 3 month-old tablet! They can make you feel a bit 'executive' and 'techy' – hard to say why but it seems to be how it is.

Adaptive technology
Styluses also offer a useful input option for anyone with motor neuron conditions or other issues which affect hand dexterity. Click here for more information and different types of adaptive styluses.

Cons

Like Mr Jobs once said...
"You have to get 'em and put 'em away, and you lose 'em" and well, that's about it. On balance the pros probably outweigh the cons for most people, so why not give one a go? Our pinterest site has links to some of the styluses which we like the look of – bear in mind though that we haven't tested any of them. If you are going to give one a go – here are a few things to look out for.

Things to look out for

Plenty of bobble

Check that there is enough 'bobble' protruding from the stylus (capacitive) for it to be useable on a decent slant. The last thing you want is to have to constantly hold it perpendicular to the screen so that you don't risk scratches etc. You might want to consider a screen protector film just in case (they are a good idea anyway). On the subject of screen protectors, if you go for a 2-in-1 stylus – pen one end, stylus the other, guaranteed at some point, probably after a beer or five, you will wonder why your stylus isn't working and then realize you have scratchy ink marks on your screen – you used the wrong-end… A decent screen protector will avoid this near inevitability causing any undue trauma. A screen protector which is thick can mean you have to press harder with a stylus to generate a 'touch'.

Start off cheap – see how it goes

Be prepared to be disappointed in expensive ones. Bluetooth styluses with pressure sensitivity might match some tablets or phones better than others. They tend to have fine tips – unlike capacitive styluses which use passive technology. The fine tip initially appear to offer higher accuracy, but they can sometimes come with a frustrating off-set, where the lines you draw don't quite appear exactly where you want them. It's really only a problem if you are using them for very fine selection tasks or drawing, but worth bearing in mind. If you're going expensive, see if you can test before you buy – or at least make sure you can return it if you are not happy with it.

Also – Steve Jobs was, as we know, a clever chap and he wasn't wrong to say you lose 'em. They are a bit like commuters' umbrellas – if you think of them as semi-disposable until you get into the habit of hanging on to them, that will probably help you avoid disappointment and frustration!

If you buy too cheap though, you might find that you need to press harder to interact with the screen and the tip may need replacing more quickly (or it may not even be replaceable). The chances are you will need to try a few different ones until you find one that is a favourite. A good place to start might be the Bamboo Solo Stylus, reasonably cheap at around £10 online, nice minimalist design, quality materials and lightweight (no – we're not on commission!).

Consider a longer stylus if screen / device is not hand-held

Consider getting a long stylus if you plan to use it on a tablet in a riser, or laptop touch screen. It will mean you are not reaching as far to select on the screen. Every little mm helps!

What does this mean for employers?

Styluses offer an easy win for employers looking to manage the musculoskeletal risks of mobile working with tablets, smartphones and touchscreen laptops. They are simple, cheap (particularly bought in bulk – but make sure employees are able to try out a range before deciding which to buy) and lightweight ancillary devices, which offer some degree of risk control by allowing the user to vary their wrist and hand posture, and avoid intensive typing with the thumbs. They are also useful if your touchscreen is not handheld (i.e. on a stand).

Styluses are not a magic-bullet solution to your mobile working issues but they are a small step in the right direction.

Summary

Just being able to use our fingers to touch and interact with our devices through their screens is great. Smartphones and tablets are as popular as they are, in large part because we can interact directly with them so easily and naturally. But that doesn't mean we should reject styluses out of hand (although some think we might have to start calling them pens to avoid being too retro – but that could get a bit confusing!!). Styluses can offer significant ergonomic improvements from a physical user point of view, and that's before we even get started on handwriting recognition to replace fiddly little on-screen keyboards. So we recommend giving one a go if you haven't already. Maybe visit us again with any comments about your experiences using one.