Who says you can’t walk, chew gum AND type at the same time?
Monthly Archives: July 2011
There has been a lot of hype surrounding the new ‘thumb’ keyboard (on the new iPad 2 and on SwiftKey for Android), a novel keyboard layout for tablet users aimed at facilitating typing on the go via two-thumbed text entry.
The thumb keyboard splits the traditional QWERTY keyboard into two; allowing your thumbs to reach all the keys. So you can walk, chew gum AND type at the same time: one would have thought a basic requisite for any ‘mobile’ device. But until now, tablet keyboards haven’t allowed the user to type with any confidence while on the move… or, in fact, away from any flat, stable surface.
There are a number of reasons for this, not least is the unnatural layout of the QWERTY keyboard. This system, designed for two hand/ten finger text entry, means users would require a third hand to hold and steady the device.
The other option is to hold the device with one hand and type with the other — an infuriating experience — because while one hand may be familiar with one side of the keyboard, what happens when it crosses to ‘the dark side’? Crossing this great divide can be like learning to type all over. From a usability perspective this technique is disastrous; not only is your typing hand unfamiliar with the opposite side of the keyboard, it also has to travel great distances to reach each key. These problems reduce event the most fluent touch typist to a two-finger hunt-and-pecker.
Another major design flaw of tablet keyboards is the lack of tactile feedback. The QWERTY keyboard layout only works when key positions are committed to memory and when there are tactile references:
- the nubs on ‘F’ and ‘J’ keys
- the reassurance of a protruding and springy button
- each with well defined edges under each fingertip
- and a discernable gap between each key.
These send an error report straight to your brain when you mistakenly press two buttons at once. All these cues are completely absent on the smooth, cold touchscreen.
While some tablets attempt to give haptic feedback — tiny vibrations when a key is pressed — this gives no indication whether you’ve hit the right key. So rather than attempting to give the user useful feedback, most tablet manufacturers opt for the gimmicky false reward vibration for any random stab within the perimeter of the entire keyboard.
This lack of helpful tactile feedback makes it almost impossible for anybody to type without constantly looking where their fingers need to go next. This in turn makes it impossible for users to walk and type at the same time without causing grievous bodily harm. Or worse. It’s why we have laws about texting while driving.
So what are the possible solutions?
Some devices give feedback in the form of sound. But can sound serve as a suitable reference? At the moment, a singular sound for all keys is barely adequate. Again, the device gives no accurate, key-specific feedback.
Hopefully I’m not the only one who thinks we deserve a better user experience.
So while the thumb keyboards attempt to facilitate typing on the go, they still succumb to the major usability pratfalls of tablet text entry. What’s worse, they reduce you from your eight most dextrous digits to your clumsiest two.
Is thumbing dumbing it down as well as slowing you down?
If so, where do we go from here?
R.I.P. Handwriting. 4127 B.C. – 2011 A.D.
Indiana is the latest U.S state to adopt the Common Core curriculum, an initiative to phase out the teaching of cursive, joint-up or running writing in schools. Instead students will be thought ‘basic’ typing skills, which education officials see as more useful in the modern employment world. But there are some in the education community who think the move could adversely affect the learning abilities of children. Apart from all these possible negative applications who will teach these kids these ‘basic’ typing skills?
Precious few schools still offer basic typing lessons. By and large, most schools across the globe dropped this subject from the curriculum years ago — either due to financial constraints or clueless and untrained teachers just giving up.
Back in the day, touch typing was a manual skill that required several years of intensive rote learning and muscle memory training; aimed at building up speed and reducing errors. Its primary goal was getting less academic girls (and no, I’m not being sexist) a dreary and low-paying job in a typing pool.
Since the advent of the word processing software, the typing pool has dried up. Most executives now do their own typing. Most with no formal training. And most perpetuating a cluster of shockingly unproductive habits:
- The old “two-finger hunt and peck is fast enough for me” cop-out.
- The “never look away from the keyboard” insecurity.
- The “OOPS, I WROTE THAT ENTIRE PARAGRAPH IN ALL CAPS” fail.
- The “I’ll just backspace over an entire line to fix a single error and retype the entire line all over again” remedy.
- The “I’ll save when I get to the end” routine.
Who’s gonna teach it? Are we going to assign our unskilled and already over-taxed teachers the futile task of teaching children to become keyboard maestros?
Or in the end, will students be left to fumble about in the dark, developing and habituating a range of downright unproductive habits?
Will we breed a generation of QWERTY ninjas?
Or a generation who can’t write a post-it-note?
What will the touch screen keyboard of the future look like? The guys over at 8pen think it’ll look like this:
8Pen is an entirely gestural keyboard available for download free (although it did have to retreat from its initial price of $1.50) from the Android Market. As you can see it takes a welcome departure from the dreaded QWERTY layout, giving you an interesting but altogether unfamiliar input mechanism. To their credit 8pen have realised that the QWERTY layout is completely dated and was never designed to be used on dainty devices like touchscreen based mobile phones (or anything but typewriters). 8pen is designed exclusively with touchscreens in mind and strives to give the users a fast and natural way of writing on small devices.
Take a look at the video below for a detailed description on how the interface works.
Still confused? …so was I. Even after numerous viewings I still didn’t quite get it. If even 8pen themselves can’t clearly describe how to use their app how can they expect anyone else to use it?
8Pen claims that its advantage lies “mainly in the fact that it is possible to input text faster than using conventional layouts on small controllers”. This may be true with bucket loads of practice, but while using it for the first time there is a very steep learning curve to the point where you may struggle to write this sentence within a couple of minutes!
Once you have gotten over the shock of the first couple of hours using 8pen and you begin to feel comfortable using the new layout, the creators have also given you the option to strip everything back and just type without using any visual cues giving you a clear view of the whole screen. This may sound like a great idea but I think I may need years of dedicated training and perhaps a brain transplant to become that comfortable using this system.
Here’s a video of someone using 8pen on super hard difficulty!
That said it’s got over 100,000 downloads and some pretty rave reviews with some punters saying the learning curve is flatter than initially thought. 8pen is an admirable idea and I’m all for dedicated touchscreen interfaces and the destruction of QWERTY but I’m yet to be convinced that this is the keyboard of the future. But don’t mind me, give it a whirl. I’d love to hear what you think of this daring new input method.