Are there universal and unconscious gestures? Their identification and analysis could help us design better devices, interfaces and interactions.

Although for many people iOS is the best operating system I’ve always preferred Windows and I’ve always worked with HP or similar laptops. However, there is one thing of these computers that makes me angry: their touchpads. They are terribly clumsy to generate the simplest actions and for that reason I always carry with me a little mouse.

Some years ago, I bought a MacBook and I was amazed with some of my own reactions. Although I still was using the mouse to generate complex actions, such as drag and drop, suddenly and naturally, my hands preferred the touchpad to scroll, paging swipe or selecting an item.

Since I only use the MacBook to work outside the home, when I returned with my old HP I realized that my hands were unconsciously repeating those gestures used with the MacBook, although I had disable the touchpad of the HP.

A year later, I bought an iPad and the experience was fantastic. Although some applications required complex gestures too hard to remember or so delicate that made me trigger unwanted actions, in general, the interaction was very intuitive.

However, while browsing with Google Chrome on my iPad I missed an action that was possible to generate with a gesture on the MacBook. Paging swipe (an on-screen, in-content swipe that reveals one page per paging swipe). How could an iPad lack such a basic action? It was very irritating, especially considering that paging buttons are so small. Fortunately, Google has recently included this action in an update.

paging swipe ipad

Screenshot of the paging swipe action in an iPad


Through these experiences I discovered that there are certain gestures that seem “natural” as if they had always been there waiting a device to be activated. Once “activated”, these gestures are triggered unconsciously when using any device, although the action is not possible. These gesture-action interactions aren’t just intuitive.

In 2009, Dan Mauney, Director of Human Factors & Research at HumanCentric, conducted a study entitled “Cultural Similarities and Differences in User-Defined Gestures for Touchscreen User Interfaces“. The study asked 40 people in nine different Countries to create gestures for 28 tasks like deleting, scrolling, zooming, etc. The results showed that, the majority of the time, participants from different countries generated similar gestures for individual actions.


From my own experience and the results of the previous study, a fundamental question arises: Could there be universal gestures which may not require learning?

I don’t know if it’s possible to answer this question, but perhaps the Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung could provide some clues. One of the pillars of his work were the archetypes, understood as universal patterns and images that derive from the collective unconscious. That is, there are certain representations which are common to all cultures, shared by everyone, which aren’t transmitted or learned.

An example of collective archetype would be the hero, the adventure in which one person (the hero) takes a journey to solve a problem, facing obstacles to become wiser and stronger and eventually returning home transformed. This archetype has been found in myths and legends of different cultures, in different places and times and, therefore, it would be considered as a collective unconscious figure.

Applying this to interaction design, could we speak of archetypal gestures?

Archetypes may not exist, but we cannot ignore that some gestures seem to be universal and unconscious. We should identify and analyze these gestures to design better devices, interfaces and interactions.