Author Archives: John Lambie

About John Lambie

Designer, Inventor, Usability freak and Entrepreneur. I like things that are simple, easy to use, fast to learn and fun to play with.

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.

print_icon_key

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 DamnYouAutoCorrect.com to see just how well this works.

peanuts

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:

dreamstime_l_17534811_cellphone_Med

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’.

4,709 Comments

Filed under History, Interfaces, Usability

Rewriting the Keyboard: Swype

If yasd;laskd;lasd;lasou have an newish Android phone, you may have already tried Swype: a text input application that promises to make typing via your touchscreen device significantly faster.

With over 50 million installs, Swype is the most popular alternative keyboard for Andriod devices. And with good reason. Swype is a gestural text-input technique specifically for touchscreen devices that represents a paradigm shift in word creation. Instead of trying to replicate the tap-tap-tap of a real world keyboard, you just trace your finger over the keys – just like joining the dots –  linking letters to form words in one fluid motion.

Swype

While there is a learning curve, Swype is a lot more intuitive then you might expect. It adds a space automatically after each word and includes robust auto-correct and text prediction features — de riguer in QWERTY-based keyboard these days. It also includes some neat gestures like moving the traced line above the keyboard to automatically capitalise a letter. And you have the choice of tapping or swyping.

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It is also possible to personalise your Swype experience, from choosing how often the suggestion box appears to setting the balance between speed and accuracy. It may take a while before you find a setting you’re comfortable with but it’s uplifting that such a wide range of options are offered.

But it ain’t perfect. It does require an intimate and intuitive knowledge of the QWERTY key order. And because you’re supposed to maintain contact with the screen while swyping, your finger obscures a sizable chunk of the keyboard – so you can’t always see where your finger should be heading next. And because you swype across a range of letters enroute to your desired letter, the text prediction isn’t always on the money – especially within the “U I O” letter cluster. The larger tablet version is pretty tiresome as your finger has to travel greater distances to complete each word.

It also raises a critical question – in creating Swype, the developers are relegating us from 10-finger texting to just one. Is single digit dexterity really a step forward?

Is Swype as good as it gets?

Could it be improved with a key layout optimised to reduce the tedious horizontal scrubbing back and forth?

Could we increase both speed and accuracy with a more intuitive keyboard layout?

4,247 Comments

Filed under Innovation, Interfaces, Mobile

Textees: A Keystroke of Genius

Say good-bye to embarrasing typos, unpredictable predictive text predictions or incorrect auto-correct corrections. Just roll one of these little rubber numbers onto your errant digit and Robert’s your relative!

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Introducing Textees – a wearable solution to texting on those tiny, squished-up QWERTY keyboards on your otherwise easy-to-use touchscreen device. Both low-tech and low-allergenic, you can finally hit the letter you were aiming for.

Red Textees

Who needs fancy-pants hi-tech wizardry like lexical dictionaries, semantic prediction and pressure sensitive piezo-electric sensors when you can solve the problem with a stylish, go-anywhere mini-fingertip in 6 fabulous flavours? The fact that they look like upside-down rubber bondage undies (with attachments and accessibility options) only adds to the fun.

Thanks Textees!

2,761 Comments

Filed under Hardware, Innovation, Mobile, Usability

Apple’s keyless keyboard: Once more with feeling

A recently published patent application indicates that Apple is finally looking to address the major gripe that people have with touch screen interfaces. They acknowledge in their patent that other touch sensitive devices lack the tactile, button-like reassurance of a traditional keyboard. In other words, you have no clue whether you’ve hit the right key or not.

Apple's keyless keyboard

Apple’s game changing design incorporates “pressure sensitive piezo-electric sensors” which can distinguish between deliberate keystrokes and accidental finger taps. Their keyboard design won’t actually have any individual keys; instead it will deliver one pleasant vibration for an accurate hit and another harsher vibration for a miss hit. Instant fingertip accuracy feedback!

They also note that the new design could incorporate any form of input-surface device for a computing system, not just a traditional QWERTY layout. As there are no actual buttons, any layout can be lit up from underneath the glass.

virtual keyboards can now get physical

So is this the start of Apple opening its doors to the possibility of more intuitive and interesting input methods?

And will all these changes add up to improved user experience while typing – for instance, a keyboard built around the shape of our hands and the differing length of each finger rather than rigid horizontal rows?

And can it deliver the holy grail of truly mobile touch typing?

I for one sincerely hope it’s a yes on all counts!

3,630 Comments

Filed under Hardware, Innovation, Mobile, Usability

Mobile Computing. Solved.

Who says you can’t walk, chew gum AND type at the same time?

The Mobile Computing Solution

2,190 Comments

Filed under Fun, Innovation

Tablet Keyboards – Why I’m Still All Thumbs

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.

Thumb-board

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.

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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?

2,161 Comments

Filed under Mobile

Biting the handwriting that feeds us

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.

The 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?

1,964 Comments

Filed under History

Rewriting the Keyboard: 8pen

What will the touch screen keyboard of the future look like? The guys over at 8pen think it’ll look like this:

Android phone with 8pen

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.

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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!

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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.

3,324 Comments

Filed under Innovation, Mobile

The Evil that is Auto-Correct

From Mashable Mobile: New Blog Takes on the Evil That Is Auto Correct.

Ever had one of those moments when — after painstakingly composing a text and sending it off into the world — you realize that your phone has completely mangled what you meant? Yup. We all have. Which is why the blog Damn You Auto Correct! is so ROTFLMAO hilarious.

Would you like a cherry on your gelato?

Check it out at: http://damnyouautocorrect.com/

Just another example of companies investing vast sums of time, effort and money into clumsy workarounds for a chronic problem. Instead of addressing the core issue – the confusing QWERTY layout – we invent ways to “intuitively” correct our typos by guessing what we’re trying to type. Perhaps a more intuitive keyboard layout would reduce errors and thus our need for these hilarity inducing “solutions”.

3,613 Comments

Filed under Mobile

The Ergonomics Myth

Ask most people why why have a scrambled keyboard layout and they’ll unblinkingly say, “Ergonomics” or “Usability”.

When we first encounter the garbled mess that is a QWERTY keyboard, our immediate response is a stunned, “WTF???” followed by an imploring “Why?”

Perhaps we assume it could only be this messed up for a reason. Perhaps it helps us:

  1. Learn the keyboard arrangement quickly and intuitively
  2. Type faster
  3. Type with fewer mistakes, or
  4. Type with fewer injuries or long term damage to our fingers, hands, wrists and arms.

None of these is true.

QWERTY is the sub-standard response to a mechanical design flaw. A design flaw dating from 1878. A design flaw that no longer exists. The ergonomic and usability needs of the billions of poor people forced to use QWERTY were not even considered as part of the solution to this glitch.

The QWERTY “solution” was all about the machine itself: “How do we stop the keys from jamming?” not “How can we make typing, easier, faster, more intuitive and mistake free?”

And the consequences of that “design fix”:

  1. QWERTY takes years to learn and master
  2. It is no faster than any other system that requires years of dedicated practice
  3. Its nonsensical order of the letters proliferates mistakes and has spawned entire industries making products helping us fix these mistakes (think of the Bette Nesmith Graham and her wonderful ‘Liquid Paper’ story)
  4. Its rigid linear layout and confusing letter placement cause millions of crippling injuries every year.

QWERTY more ergonomic? That myth is definitely busted.

2,897 Comments

Filed under History, Usability