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Creating Gesture Guidelines for Tablets, Part 2

Participant during the Guessability Study

A participant during the Guessability Study

How do you come up with the right gesture for an app or a game? If there is no precedent, then you’re on your own. Here I’ll discuss a 4-step method that’ll allow you to create gestures for specific actions, with validation from end-users.

In the first part of this series, we discussed the importance of having guidelines for gestural tablet interaction. Now that we understand the need to get the interaction techniques right, we’ll learn how to create gestures for specific actions.

How to conduct a gesture creation study

The Basics

Gesture creation is a 4-step process. Each individual stage leads on and informs the proceeding step. This method can be used to discover gestures for more than one action; I used this process for 18 distinct actions during my study.

Setting up the Gesture-Meaning Association test

Setting up the Gesture-Meaning Association test

Guessability study

Show subjects a short, two slide animation: before-and-after screenshots that shows the outcome of the gesture. Here you can view the video I used for the zoom-in action.

Using an app that can draw multiple inputs at once such as Doodle Buddy, place the “before” screenshot as the background of the drawing app.

While recording the screen, ask the participant to draw the gesture that they feel would invoke that desired action.

Setting up the camera to record the gesture creation

Setting up the camera to record the gesture creation.

Take a screenshot of the completed gesture and stop recording on the camera.

Ask the user to rate their created gesture based on the statement: “The gesture I picked is a good match for its intended purpose,” and rate the gesture on a 5-point likert scale from “Strongly Disagree” to “Strongly Agree.”

If you want to be able to identify similarities between participants, then you should aim to have around 10+ users for this stage.

Rating study

Now invite 3 other people to watch each gesture video and ask them to rate the effectiveness of the gesture for the intended action; use the same question that was asked in the Guessability study.

After all the raters have rated each gesture, produce an average score which will identify a consensus on whether specific gestures were a good match for the intended action.

Gesture creation

With all the information you have compiled from the previous two stages, you can identify similarities and issues from the collection of gestures created during the Guessability study.

In my study, for example, I noticed many participants were utilizing letters and symbols to represent certain actions. Therefore, these symbolic gestures were used for many of the gesture/action pairings I created.

Moreover, I noted that gestures that were used in advertising smartphones and tablet devices received high approval ratings; I therefore decided not to adapt or change gesture/action pairings that were already well-known.

For this stage in the process, the way you select gestures depends on your overall goals. For example, if you’re designing a game and you want the action to be challenging to invoke, then selecting the most popular gesture might not be the best choice for you. However, this process will provide you with all the information necessary to make these important decisions.

Gesture-meaning association test

So you have what you believe are ideal gestures for specific actions. Now it’s time to validate the gesture/action pairings you have created.

A small set of users—3 to 5 would be ideal—will be provided with several pieces of paper: half will be the names of the actions and the other half will be the actual gestures. The participants will be asked to match the gesture/action pairings that they believe are correct.

Setting up the Gesture-Meaning Association test

Setting up the gesture-meaning association test

This will allow you to identify the accuracy of selection, where you can discover which pairings were challenging for participants to match, and which ones were easier. Moreover, you can note the speed with which selections were made—were certain pairings selected through a process of elimination?

Final thoughts

This method can go a long way to ensure that the gesture/action pairings you are using in your apps or games are the best they can be.

There will always be actions that are challenging to depict with a gesture, yet this method allows you to identify these, providing you with opportunities to design around such constraints.

Give it a go.

Lead image for this article (on UX Booth homepage) courtesy of quinn.anya

About the Author

Thomas Davies

Thomas Davies is currently undertaking the Human-Centred Systems Masters course at City University London. He discover too many products that are simply too difficult to use and hopes that he can help reduce the complexity in this world. You can follow Thomas on Twitter.


  • Matthew Kammerer Reply

    Thanks for the great series, Thomas! I’m glad we could share this with the UXB community.

  • Nic da Costa Reply

    Hi Thomas! Thanks for the great article and introducing the basic steps you took during the creation process. My only question is, for something like this, where you will be required to use a tablet/touch device to conduct the test, would one not be required to use multiple devices/brands of devices? As will most users not already have a preconception of some particular gestures. Take Apple for example, majority of people would have visited their website to view one of their touch devices prior to this testing, especially when there is such a hype built up around their product launches. On their website, they generally like to advertise the various gestures that can be used for specific actions. As in part one of this series, you briefly touched on how users will be required to “learn” the various gestures for actions across devices as each device already has its own set of gestures, i.e there is no real standard. So using only one device may alter the results thus not being a true reflection…Just a thought

    • Thomas Davies Reply


      Different tablets was definitely something I considered during the methodology phase. The main issue was that at the time, there was simply no other tablets on the market (Apart from the Galaxy Tab pre-Honeycomb).

      However, I don’t believe solely using the iPad affected the participants. Many see the iPad as the only tablet out there, with some particpants confused by the mention of the Galaxy Tab in a questionnaire as they were unaware of such a device.

      I tried to hide the UI of the iPad as much as possible from the participants, using a drawing app that was pretty much a blank canvas that recognised multi-finger inputs.

      But in the future, multiple devices should be considered.

    • Nic da Costa Reply

      Hi Thomas

      I do agree with the steps and the methods that you have outlined in the article. Using the drawing app to capture the gesture thus eliminating the existing UI of the tablet is a great idea. And I can see that this was not just a quick,random test but instead a well thought out,planned test with trying to eliminate as many variables as possible.

      I personally would have followed the above steps to achieve this.

      But in saying that, I understand you may have been limited to resources as there were not many tablets available at the time.

      And if the users were immediately able to identify the iPad on glance, would they not have those preconceived device gestures in the back of their mind when starting the Gesture Study phase? Where as should you have used the Galaxy Tab – which as you said many were unsure of – then would the gestures not have different even in the slightest of ways as they will be “creating” gestures from scratch as apposed to basting their creation on past experience/memory due to using an unfimilair device? As what may feel as a “natural” gesture to a user on one device, may feel awkward on another device.

      With this perspective though, it may be null and void in certain instances. As should you only be creating an app for a specific device/brand of devices then sure, you can stick to that one device as you want to see how your specific target market would react.

      With all that being said, this was still a good and informative article! Keep up the Great work!

  • Kerstin Reply

    Very interesting article. Everything made perfect sense up to the Gesture-Meaning Association step. Is it really necessary to name a gesture in order to verify its intuitiveness? I assume the user doesn’t necessarily think “so I want to rotate this object, what is an appropriate gesture for the word “rotate””? Instead they will just apply a gesture which is familiar from rotating a piece of paper on a table. From other research I have read, it seems to be mainly the conformance to metaphors that make a gesture intuitive. I’d love to understand the rationale of the naming step better.
    Also I’d be interested if you have found any differences between the intuive use of symbolic and direct manipulation gestures between users. I suppose symbolic gestures are never based on metaphors, hence my hypothesis would be that they are not as similar between users. Is that correct?

  • Jakob Biesterfeldt Reply

    Hi, thanks for sharing. We did an international gesture research study to identify possible cultural differences in the gestures people use intuitively. You can find the results and how we went about it here:

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