It’s time! Apple keyboard finally open for improvement

Well, it’s been a long time coming. And rumours have been circulating for months. BUt with the release of iOS8, third-party keyboards are finally allowed to crash Apple’s party.

We’ve been vocal critics of Apple’s worst-of-bread keyboard usability. They’ve dogmatically refused to fix it despite rising frustration and ridicule. And finally they’ve relented – not by fixing it themselves but by allowing third party keyboards on board.

This opens the doors to the vastly superior Swiftkey, Swype, Fleksy and Dextr keyboard to improve the texting experience… and in the process improve the usability of not just their devices, but every app that runs on their devices.

We tend to forget how central keyboards are to the entire touchscreen experience. Every time we need to tweet, post, tag, comment, chat, search, SMS or email, we’re reliant on text input. Thanks Apple. And about time!


Filed under Uncategorized

It’s official – Apple’s iPhone keyboard: Worst Usability Ever.

As rumours of Swiftkey for iPhone fly on Mashable, The Verge and elsewhere, they are merely confirming what every iPhone owner already knows. The iPhone keyboard is a usability nightmare that needs all the help it can get. And if that means tapping the rounded shoulder of the No.1 selling Android app of all time, Swiftkey, then not a moment too soon.

How could the company that espouses usability and ergonomics as it’s core design tenet get it so wrong for so long? Well, let’s take a look:

A. Key size:
The basic operating system of any touchscreen device is the human finger tip. That dictates fingertip sized buttons. Compare the sensible size of your app icons with the size of a keyboard key. I’m no mathematician, but by my calculations they are barely 27% of the optimum size.


B. Key spacing:
If you must make a button smaller than a toddler’s fingertip, then common decency would mean spacing them at least a finger-width apart. Here’s one you can try at home: apply some water-soluble ink to your index finger or thumb. Now tap your iPhone screen anywhere on the keyboard. How many keys does your fingerprint cover?

Small keys, big fingers

My fingertip is, if anything, smaller that average. Yet it obscures at least 10 keys. This means you’ve got a greater chance of hitting the wrong key than the right one. Fail.

C. Square pegs, round fingertips:
I’ve been scouring the planet for years trying to find that elusive square-fingertipped person that Apple (and most other keyboard designers) have based the key shape on. Can anyone please explain what possible advantage square buttons offer the rest of us with round fingertips? Anyone?

D. AutoCorrect:
Having precision engineered the keyboard to maximise errors, Apple has also made AutoCorrect its default “fixer upper”. One only has to visit to see just how well this works.


E. QWERTY – the last skeuomorph?
Apple’s Jonny Ive claims to have slain the dragon of skeuomorphism, which, for non-design nerds, means the quaint practice of applying unnecessary “real world” design flourishes — glossy 3D buttons, knobs, sliders, faux leather notepad binding, etc — to virtual interfaces. Yet they have chosen the archaic QWERTY typewriter as their design inspiration for their keyboard layout.

QWERTY keyboard

QWERTY and the “Forgotten Five Billion”:
Don’t get me wrong: billions of us have grown up around typewriters, word processors, PCs, laptops and even blackberries. We may not love that crazy random letter order, but we’ve all invested massively in its learning curve — which can take months, even years to master.

Yet QWERTY only dominates where dollars abound. It’s what you use if you’ve been privileged enough to grow up surrounded PCs and laptops. But take a peek across that yawning gap they call the “digital divide”. The sad fact is that over 5 billion people on the planet — mostly from developing countries (but also the underprivileged in developed countries) — can’t afford this luxury and probably never will.

Instead, they all use a simple alphabetically ordered keyboard with a learning curve measured in mere minutes. It looks like this:


Are we going to force them all onto the horrific QWERTY learning curve with these added impediments:
1. Shrunk down to a quarter of it’s original size?
2. Operated behind a smooth sheet of glass?
3. Operated by one or maybe two fingers, instead of 10?
4. Operated while walking or standing, not seated at a desk?

Isn’t it time we had a better keyboard?
One that is fingertip and touchscreen friendly?
And one with a friendly, familiar, intuitive and logical letter order? facebook_ad_480_01-Recovered Just sayin’.


Filed under History, Interfaces, Usability

The Dirt on QWERTY, Part 8: Touchscreen Terror

Well, well, well, here we are in the 21st century, dear hip-happening-and-now reader. We’ve been through a lot of changes over the decades, to say the least – we even survived the Y2K apocalypse (which could only be described as disappointing).

TouchscreenTerror The first decade of the century has seen the most rapid rate of technological development in known history. We in the west are availed of a veritable cornucopia of technological gadgetry. We have seen the personal computing revolution, the text revolution, the social media revolution and we now enjoy/are burdened with constant connectivity. We are able to communicate with our friends, loved ones, colleagues and indeed people across the planet via devices that fit into our pockets – anywhere, anytime. It’s really quite incredible.

Smart phone technology has prompted the manifestation of a multitude of apps that assist us with a plethora of endeavours. We can message, chat, share images, play games, navigate, research and be assisted with a squillion other tasks all on our handheld devices and a seemingly endless choice of software.

The elephant in the corner

So, the kicker is, dear reader, that a little sumthin has been overlooked…


All of these functions require TEXT INPUT, and while hardware and software has advanced mind-bogglingly, our text input systems have not. Still we endure the millstone of obsolete technology – the QWERTY keyboard. It’s embarrassing.

As we discovered in The dirt on QWERTY, part 1, the QWERTY keyboard originated 140 years ago as a solution to a mechanical problem associated with the archaic device called the typewriter. Yet the 14 decades since have brought us more technological advancements than you could poke a Wii stick at. Our devices are no longer mechanical. We have graduated from physical buttons and keys to touch screen technology.

In its original form, the typewriter, the QWERTY keyboard was operated with two hands/10 digits and the keys were sized and spaced suitably – the whole keyboard measuring about 30 centimetres in length. Yet the same keyboard has been oddly migrated to touchscreen technology, squishing the keyboard into an area less than a third of the original size.

Funnily enough, the human hand has not conveniently shrunk to accommodate this occurrence. Evolution, it would seem, has not kept up with technological advancement.


So, along with the litany of previous infractions (such as the ridiculous order of letters and the incumbent learning curve) QWERTY now confronts us with another affront to usability – the scale of the keyboard on touchscreen devices. The keys are significantly smaller than the average adult fingertip and are packed into a tiny space 10 keys across. It is such that one stands a greater chance of hitting the wrong key than the one one intended. Let’s face it, one need not possess a PhD in ergonomics to conclude that the situation sucks from a usability perspective.


So, dear enlightened and judicious reader, as our tale of well over a century collides with the current day, I ask you: QWERTY – WTF?


Fancy a ripping yarn? Read The Dirt on QWERTY series from Part 1.

The Dirt on QWERTY, part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7, part 8.


Filed under History, Innovation, Usability

The Dirt on QWERTY, Part 7: Sweet but not swift

As we learned in Part 6 of the story, the alphanumeric keypad had at long last bumped off the QWERTY beast. Huzzah!

Mobile phones incorporating the alphanumeric keyboard (also known as the T9 keypad, owing to the 3 x3 grid of keys) saw a phenomenal rate of adoption – an astonomical 5 billion people over 20 years.

In fact, T9 phones are still being introduced onto the market, and many people prefer them to QWERTY.

Now, dear querisome reader, let’s get quizzical – why would anyone buy obsolete technology by choice?

Let us count the ways

Here are a few logical reasons why the T9 remains so popular:

1 – Fast learning curve – everyone knows the alphabet, and with 3 letters on each of 9 keys, it’s a cinch!

2 – More accurate – as the layout is just 3 keys wide (as compared with 10 keys wide on QWERTY) each key is much larger, making texting more accurate.

3 – Easier to see – larger keys are far more visible, especially in low light, and for sight impaired people.

4 – Single hand operation – a common criticism of QWERTY touchscreen keyboards is that they require two hands to operate. The good ol’ T9 can be held in one hand and operated with the thumb.

5 – More portable – alphanumeric models have much slimmer faces making them more compact and portable.

So there you have it – easy to learn, easy to use and accurate – a design success, wouldn’t you say? So why then, isn’t the T9 keypad the design standard?

Well, gosh, it’s great but it ain’t prefect…

The need for speed

The failing that undermined the much-loved T9 has been its inefficiency. The multi-keypress functioning makes it slow compared with other text input systems. The T9 is more inefficient than Morse code, and that’s a fact. Even with predictive text dictionaries, the user still has to press the 1 key three times for C, for example.

Sadly, for all its excellent attributes, the T9 didn’t make it through the speed trials. In the main, that has spelled death for the T9 sweety in a fast-paced and uncompromising market that waits for no sloth.


So while old faithful T9 packed up his desk, who do you think got the job, dear reader? Correctamundo – that inept dullard who just won’t retire– QWERTY.

But while QWERTY offered us speed with the need for less key presses, what did we lose? What did T9 have that QWERTY didn’t? The answer is basically: EVERYTHING ELSE, as per the list above.

So…dear reader, while T9 is a little on the slow side and QWERTY is frought with usability issues, shouldn’t something altogether new have been presented? Something that solved all of the identified usability issues of both systems?

Shouldn’t design innovation be about ever-improving usability?

Is there no hope? Find out in The Dirt on QWERTY: Part 8: Touchscreen Terror.

The Dirt on QWERTY, part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7, part 8.


Filed under History, Innovation, Usability

The Dirt on QWERTY, Part 6: Mobile phones and rocket science

As the millennium aged disgracefuly, the market for personal communications technology grew ever ravenous. Computers had become standard in business and it was the early adopters of digital technologies who kept ahead of the game. So too (in the affluent west, at least) the personal home computer had become commonplace.

Constant connectivity and the text revolution

Yet another notable advancement in communications technology began in 1983 when the cell phone, aka mobile phone, entered the market. These devices offered an unprecedented capability – constant connectivity.

In the beginning, the mobile phone allowed uses to make calls, just like the landlines with which we were already familiar. It was in the 1993 that SMS or Short Messaging Service technology was developed. Thusly it was that the text revolution had begun!

The witch is dead!

It will please you to know, dear reader, that at last QWERTY was gone! The keypads for early mobile phones were simple – usually consisting of a numeric keypad, a pound and asterisk button, and a call and end button.

Mobile phones with numeric keypads were typically operated using one hand and the thumb to push the buttons. During 1990’s and early noughties the market snowballed and the technology advanced rapidly, with innovations such as the dictionary and autocorrect functions, enabling words to be entered with single button presses.

Users became very proficient in the use of these tools, owing to the simplicity of the 9 grid keypad. The keypad was so usable that typically school students were able to type with one hand under the desk during class.

Not you again

Alas, ‘twas in the year 1996 that the antihero of our tale (the QWERTY keyboard) was resuscitated. Tiny physical QWERTY keyboards were introduced for use in mobile devices – beginning with the Nokia 9000 communicator.

QWERTY appeared more frequently as mobile technology evolved. In 2002 the first smart phones were released, and mobile phones became mobile work stations, allowing users to access email, write documents and so forth.

The QWERTY keyboard had been formerly operated with two hands/10 digits and was sized suitably – about 30 cm long, with each key being a reasonable size for the adult fingertip. Yet the same layout was strangely migrated to mobile technology, squishing the keyboard into an area less than a third the size formerly deemed usable.

Of course the result of shrinking the keyboard was that accuracy took great fall. It was impossible to type a message without pressing multiple keys at the same time – and that was for those whose eye sight was good enough to actually see them.

I mean really, it’s not rocket science, is it?


Will developers wake up and smell the roses? Find out in The Dirt on QWERTY: Sweet but not swift.

The Dirt on QWERTY, part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7, part 8.


Filed under History, Innovation, Usability

The Dirt on QWERTY, Part 5: One step forwards, two steps back

As the century grew long in the tooth the market for personal computers continued to boom and companies were competing for a stake in the goldmine. Silicon Valley was abuzz with creativity, as developers desperately sought to originate ‘the next big thing’ in order to secure the greatest market share.

Can you guess what happens next, dear reader?


One step forward

Among the innumerable technological improvements of the PC shone one innovation that most significantly impacted the market. That innovation solved a fundamental problem for users, offering a whole new possibility. That innovation afforded mobility.

Although personal computers had become extremely functional, they were somewhat bulky. They comprised of at least three parts (the CPU, the sizable CRT monitor and the keyboard) connected together by a tangle of wires. It was very much the case that once set up, these devices stayed put.

Early so-called portable computers claimed mobility; however, ‘mobility’ is a word that could only be euphemistically applied to these machines that could more aptly be described as ‘luggable’. One was not likely to transport such a device to a local café to catch up on emails over a latte.

As technology evolved during the 1990s and laptops became truly portable and affordable, their popularity increased dramatically, heralding a boon for business people, students and coffee vendors.


Two steps back

Despite the ground-breaking innovation, input was still dependent on (you guessed it, dear psychic reader) the seemingly immortal QWERTY keyboard. So QWERTY got through the wires again. So far, with each leap in technological advancement, few sought alternatives to the glaring design fail that was the QWERTY keyboard.

But wait…things got duller still…

As well as navigating the keyboard, the user had another modus operandi – mousing. At first, the mouse buttons were placed below the space bar. Later the integration of the mouse function became the TrackPoint, or so-called mouse nipple, which was commonly placed at the centre of the QWERTY keyboard. This configuration required the user to flit between pointing and clicking, and typing, making the user experience somewhat tedious.


Modern day laptops most commonly fulfil the mousing function by way of a track pad. While simpler to use than the TrackPoint, the mechanism is still bothersome to use – bother on top of the vexation of the unintuitive, random letter order of the QWERTY keyboard.

In fact, with further development of the keyboard, things got more complicated as more buttons and functions were added. The caps lock key, for example, was poorly placed next to the third most commonly struck letter in the keyboard – the letter A. Users found themselves SHOUTING AT PEOPLE ACCIDENTALLY UNTIL THEY REALISED THE CAPS LOCK KEY WAS ON.


Find out, in The Dirt on QWERTY: Part 6: Mobile phones and rocket science.

The Dirt on QWERTY, part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7, part 8.



Filed under History, Innovation, Usability

Two thumbs down for KALQ

Our WTF??!!?? of the month surely goes to the krazy konfubulation kalled KALQ.

Recently launched by the venerable Max Planck Institute and the no-less-venerable University of St Andrews, KALQ offers to solve the pressing problem of texting on a tablet.

It’s solution: rescramble the alphabet so that your thumb travels the least distance possible between letters. I love it when engineers try to solve ergonomic problems with equations: “If we minimise ze thumb-travelling coefficient, based on ze relative frequency each letter of ze alphabet, we can increase ze speed of typing, ja?” Logic beats intuition.

Max Planck Institute for Informatics

The blank squares represent the space bar and clustered around this central locus are all the high frequency letters… sort of. They claim that with 8 hours of intensive training, you will become as fast as you were on QWERTY. And after 19 hours you could be even faster than QWERTY. With efficiency gains of up to 34%.

Forgive us if we’re underwhelmed. Here’s why:

1. This is a tablet-only solution – so all that retraining is for only one device. which means we’re still condemned to using QWERTY on the rest of our devices.

2. Learning curves – Hate them. It does not take 8 hours to master QWERTY, professors. It takes months (if you take lessons) or even years (if you try to teach yourself). And countless hours of practice. What makes you think this new letter scramble is going to be easier – especially if we’re continually reverting to QWERTY on every other device?

3. History – Do the words Dvorak or Colemak mean anything to you? They too took the logic-over-intuition path, invented their own hard-to-learn letter scramble and have been consigned to the industrial scrap heap of disuse.

4. Intuition eats logic for breakfast – the most widely used and ubiquitous keyboard ever requires no lessons, no hours of rote practice, and no special muscle-motor memory. It’s called the T9 Alphanumeric Keypad. It can be found in the hands and pockets of nearly 6 billion people in every corner of the planet.


Why is it so popular? Why is it so simple to master? It might have something to do with a letter order every toddler learns in kindergarten. Why, it’s as easy as A B C!

Time to go back to kindergarten, professors.


Filed under History, Innovation, Interfaces, Mobile, Usability

The Dirt on QWERTY, Part 4: Revolution and that old chestnut

The next wave of typing innovation was a tsunami. The innovation that was word processing exploded to become the personal computing revolution.

Revolution While early adopters purchased personal computers during the 1970’s, it was not until the 1980’s that the revolution really began. In 1981 the IBM PC Home Computer hit the scene, followed three years later by Apple Macintosh computer. By 1983 12.6 million people owned personal computers, and by 1990 that figure had exploded to over 100 million.

The functionality of personal computers far out-stripped their word processor for-runners. PCs had a memory in which files could be saved and edited later. They also presented larger screens that enabled far superior editing capability.

It was correctly predicted that PCs would change our approach to just about every endeavour.

As the century rolled to a close, the vision of the personal computer – a computer for every home – was coming to fruition. By the year 2000, a staggering 500 million people owned personal computers, and sales continued to increase exponentially, hitting one billion in 2002.

You say you want a revolution

Of course each one of this great profusion of computers required an input device. Lamentably, once again, the QWERTY keyboard snuck through the checkpoint as the default, without revision. Yes, dear flabbergasted reader….THAT old chestnut.

Again, the first to adopt desktop computers were those in industry and business, and the first to operate them were those very same professional typists of former years.

However, over the years, an increasing proportion of sales were to people for home use. The less tech-savvy of new users were presented with a gargantuan learning curve. Not only was it incumbent upon them to get their heads around how computers work, but they faced the daunting task of becoming proficient on the nonsensical QWERTY system.

Surely the emergence of this huge new market would prompt the revision of the out-dated and unnecessary QWERTY system, wouldn’t you think dear reader?

Will the personal computing revolution slay QWERTY? Find out in The Dirt on QWERTY: Part 5: One step forwards, two steps back.

The Dirt on QWERTY, part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7, part 8.


Filed under History, Innovation, Usability

The Dirt on QWERTY, Part 3: In silico*, but still silly

Dear reader, you will remember that in Part 2 of our story, how the electric typewriter with its innovative typball superseded its predecessor and its typebars. Electric typewriters operated with mechanical parts powered by electricity, which made them faster and more efficient than their ancestors. The electric boogaloo was fun, but by the 80’s, the kids doin a brand new dance.


Electric to Electronic

As technology advanced, electric typewriters were superseded by electronic typewriters. In 1981, Xerox Corporation introduced the first electronic typewriters to the market. These devices took a giant leap away from the mechanical paradigm. Electronic typewriters incorporated vastly new technologies, comprising of microprocessors, integrated circuits, and small LCD displays.

The ability to preview and edit copy before printing was a step forward, although only a few lines were visible at one time. Notably, these devices did not have advanced faculties in terms of memory, as computers do today.

The electronic typewriter sported another key innovation – the daisy wheel – advancement on the typeball. The daisy wheel was essentially a plastic disc with embossed characters, the key advantage being the low cost of production. The downside however, was its lack of durability.

Xerox_Roman_PS_Daisywheel_-_mono The devil you know

Despite the great technological evolution that had occurred, the text input system was not improved upon. Derr.

It was still the case at this time that most people who used the devices were professional typists who had invested in rigorous training in the QWERTY system. Re-training would have been an economically unfeasible proposition for businesses, hence typewriter manufacturers stuck with the devil they knew.

As the evolution of typing technology continued however, a new trend was emerging – typewriters were increasingly being adopted by the common person, moving them beyond the domain of the professional typist. Typewriters were being purchased for home use and training in QWERTY was not required for users to plonk away and create documents to their satisfaction.

AA. Ernest with Brother typewriter

The validity of the QWERTY system as the standard for keyboards was on ever shaky ground: the mechanical justification was long gone, and now, the ‘industry standard’ argument was losing ground too.

So, what happens next? Find out in the next thrilling episode as The Dirt on QWERTY saga continues: Part 4: Revolution and that old chestnut.

* in silico \in-SIL-ih-koh\
adverb or adjective
: in or on a computer : done or produced by using computer software or simulation

The Dirt on QWERTY, part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7, part 8.


Filed under History, Innovation, Usability

The Dirt on QWERTY, Part 2: The typists’ ball

Onwards in the torrid tale that is how QWERTY came to be the unrelenting standard in keyboards, we come to an important juncture in history – the development of the electric typewriter.typerIt was Thomas Edison who laid the groundwork for the electric typewriter in 1870, although it was not to be in widespread use until nearly a century later. The electric typewriter was developed by various companies over several decades and by 1958 IBM was deriving 8% of its revenue from the sale of electric typewriters.

Having a ball

The electric typewriter dispensed with the type levers, replacing them with a new innovation called the typeball.

Type levers or Typebars, as they were known, became a relic of the past. The typeball, which superseded them, was introduced by IBM in 1961 with its Selectric line of electric typewriters. Such models were to dominate the market for 2 decades. The typeball was a more elegant system comprising a metal sphere embossed with characters.

The electric typewriter and its typeball, had banished all possibility of jamming levers forever. Hoorah! Yet before punters could fix themselves a celebratory drink, they had to ask themselves the sobering question: why then is the strange QWERTY system being continued?

The back story, as we learned in The Dirt on QWERTY, Part 1, is that the QWERTY system was developed to solve a mechanical problem – jamming levers – the failing of the original typewriter and its alphabetic layout.

So despite the fact that the typeball replaced the lever system and there was no longer a mechanical problem, why on earth was the QWERTY system continued? Ponder that, dear ever-quizzical reader.

The typing pool party

At this stage in history almost all typewriter users were trained professionals. Generations of typists had endured painful and rigorous training in the QWERTY system. No business man would contemplate retraining his “girls” to acquire skills in a more effective and efficient system, because such a move would incur a short-term loss in productivity.


No-one in business was prepared to drain their typing pool, and so it was dear disillusioned reader, that QWERTY stayed afloat.

The tale continues in the next thrilling episode of The Dirt on QWERTY, in Part 3: In silico, but still silly.

The Dirt on QWERTY, part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5, part 6, part 7, part 8.


Filed under History, Innovation, Usability