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?
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 DamnYouAutoCorrect.com 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 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?