Category Archives: Innovation

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

The Dirt on QWERTY, Part 1: The typewriter goes wronger

Today, the ubiquitous QWERTY system is recognized as the standard for keyboards and touchscreen keypads, but why is this so?wtf1 While literally billions of us use the system, few ask the question “why QWERTY?” – and fewer still can answer.

Is it ‘just the way it is’? Was QWERTY designed to make typing faster, as is oft the reason put forward? Hardly. In fact, the QWERTY system was designed to make typing SLOWER. That’s right, dear reader, QWERTY was not designed for your typing convenience.

Now let us take a brief jaunt into the murky past to get to the bottom of the QWERTY conundrum…

Where it all began

The first typewriter was patented by a fellow by the name of Christopher Sholes in 1867. The letters were arranged in a common sense intuitive order – good old ALPHABETICAL order.

qwert These mechanical devices required buttons to be pressed which would activate levers that in turn would press metal heads to paper, thus imprinting the characters.

A brilliant invention, yet a design flaw became quickly apparent. When users typed too fast, the levers were inclined to jam, requiring typists to continually untangle a mess of jammed levers. Such a vexation was this for typists, that the device needed to be redesigned.

typewriter_jam In 1870 the original layout was slightly reconfigured. The vowels were raised to a separate level, as were the numbers, leaving two rows of consonants. . In terms of the jamming issue, the layout proved superior to its alphabetic predecessor, but not by a lot.

Then, in 1873, the design was completely recombobulated. The QWERTY keyboard, as we know it today, was developed by E. Remington and Sons, based on the design previously patented by Sholes. The QWERTY design effectively reduced the jamming problems by separating the commonly used letters thus separately the levers.

The QWERTY layout also allowed salesmen to impress buyers by demonstrating typing the word “TYPEWRITER” on just the top row. How cute.

Whilst the QWERTY configuration was a marvellous triumph over a mechanical problem, the side-effects were dull, dull, dull. Firstly, typing speed was slowed down, and secondly, the illogical array of letters made learning to type something of a nightmare. Here’s a poorly rendered graphic to illustrate my point:


2012 – QWERTY? WTF?

Leaping forward in time to the present day, you may notice that there ain’t too many levers on your touchscreen devices.

So, dear astute and curious reader, would this not beg the question “why are we still using QWERTY?”?

IMGP0527 So why ARE we still using QWERTY? Find out why as the story continues in The Dirt on QWERTY, Part 2: The typists’ ball.

Pandora Karavan

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

Siine Keyboard. When Words Fail Me.

If a picture speaks a thousand words, how many words does a pictogram speak?

Not many, it seems. Meet Siine: QWERTY plus pictograms. Its value proposition is that you’ll take less taps to write out a phrase or sentence than a normal keyboard. Less taps maybe, but a helluva LOT more time — since you’ll spend ages browsing its  library of pictograms to find the right icon.

See, you really can type out multiple words just by tapping on different icons or by tapping on a single one multiple times. BUT you’ll either waste too much time fiddling with your message (scratch that, maybe this word is better) or discovering new stuff on the keyboard (ooh, what happens if I tap this one more time?). At one point, I totally lost my train of thought while scrolling thru the icons in the menu.

To make matters worse, they’ve even attached a marketplace to the keyboard itself called the Siine Gallery where you can download even more pictogram sets. Hooray, more icons to waylay me from typing and getting things done!

Granted, the icons are somewhat of a feature that’s tucked away to the side and you still have the QWERTY for back up, right? Wrong. The standard keyboard itself sucks big time. The return key isn’t in the usual place and the backspace doesn’t register long presses for continuous deletion.

In my honest opinion, Siine is more a toy than a keyboard. I really don’t want my keyboard distracting me from the serious job of converting my thoughts into words. I’m having a hard time as it is thinking without having my own keyboard getting in my way.

If you want to try it out though, you’re welcome to download it from the Android Market here or just check out their demo video:

YouTube Preview Image

So is this keyboard a Siine of the times? Or a Siine of things to come?


Filed under Innovation, Mobile, Usability