Monthly Archives: October 2013

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