Category Archives: Interfaces

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.


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 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 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:


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’.


Filed under History, Interfaces, 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

Quaint, but no banana

So you have lashed out and purchased your lovely new iPad, and it’s love, so naturally you’re seek ways to make it truly yours. You want to instil upon the device an expression of your own unique personality – a kind of consumerist bonding ritual, perhaps.

There are a plethora of accessories on the market, from covers in an almost infinite array of colours and designs to an overwhelming choice of stickers, faux crystals and the like. Since the boom of mobile technology, designers are presenting us with an ever-expanding choice of accoutrements – their inventiveness escalating by the day.

Check out this très novel device – it mods your 21st century tablet into a mechanical typewriter of yesteryear.

While there is an undeniable charm to the retro design, would this kitsch apparatus add value to your iPad in terms of functionality as a text input device?

Sorry hipsters – quaint, but no banana.

No doubt the initial novelty of imagining oneself to be a 17th century author would lose its shine quite quickly – perhaps in the time it takes to upload an enigmatic picture of you with it, treated with just the right retro filter. The device would then gather dust on the shelf along with the Box Brownie and other charming objet d’art.

You see, the world has made giant leaps since the typewriter in terms of technological advancement – the mechanical has become digital, facilitating a logarithmic increase in functionality.

If you know your history, the letters of the typewriter are in that seemingly random order because typists of the day became too fast and the printing mechanisms became stuck. The mechanical problem was solved by separating the most frequently used letters as much as possible. That’s right – it was a move to slow typists down.

The fact is, the conception of the QWERTY keyboard was not motivated by the need for optimal usability, but by the need to solve a mechanical problem.

Funny thing is, although keyboards are no longer mechanical, we have inherited the QWERTY keyboard from this device manufactured in seventeenth century. The continuing unthinking adoption of the QWERTY system is the technological equivalent to an aberrant gene, and successive generations are inflicted with it.

We are being lavished with more devices and apps than we can eat, yet we can only await the evolution of text input technology with giddy anticipation.


Filed under Fun, Hardware, Interfaces, Usability

Kids these days…

Phone Generations


Filed under Fun, Interfaces, Mobile

Wingz SmartKeyboard: Will It Fly?

I haven’t covered keyboards lately, so I thought it was high time I did. I discovered the Wingz SmartKeyboard while browsing Kickstarter. It’s designed to solve the usbaility issue of texting on a touchscreen.

Wingz SmartKeyboard

Wingz SmartKeyboard

Wingz can connect as a bluetooth keyboard to a tablet or smartphone. But it’s also a “mobile device” itself — since the touchscreen panel at the middle actually runs on Android. You can actually stick a sim card in there to make calls and send texts.

While this is one way to solve the keyboard problem of touchscreen devices, I still think that lugging around yet another “too big for my pocket” device is a step back from mobility. And what would be the advantage of this over a Bluetooth keyboard?

I personally own an Apple Wireless Keyboard, the slimmest such device around, and even I don’t carry it around often. I tried carrying it around to pair with my iPad for writing on the go but the two device combo just doesn’t work well in actual usage. I just conceded defeat and bring a laptop when I need some writing done.

As an accessory, I would put Wingz on the same shelf as the Bluetooth headset, the external USB numeric keypad and the touchscreen stylus. It’s possibly useful for some people but for most it’s too much of a fiddle.

As a companion to a tablet or smartphone, I don’t think yet another device is the answer and certainly not one as expensive as this ($240). Every mobile device already has the best input method available: its own screen. It’s not tactile but it is very portable. So I guess the problem really is software and not hardware. Let’s stick to making virtual keyboards better first.

So does Wingz have the wings to fly? It’s certainly crashed and burned on Kickstarter – not even raising 1% of it’s $54K target.


Filed under Hardware, Interfaces, Mobile

HTC Rings Down the Curtain On QWERTY

The touchscreen has finally convinced a major manufacturer that sticking old technology into new devices doesn’t work. That and the fact that market doesn’t seem to be fond of buying these fatter, uglier phones. I know, I know: this is actually about physical keyboards being phased out, regardless if it’s QWERTY or not, but I’ll take it as a win nonetheless.

A QWERTY board on a mobile is just too clunky. No wonder more than one manufacturer has tried to hide it using sliders or by tucking the keyboard out of sight. Even RIM came out with a fully touchscreen phone, despite the BlackBerry brand’s raison d’etre being a physical keyboard. Add to that the stress of having to hit miniscule keys to generate miniscule text on a miniscule screen and you have a recipe for a repetitive injury lawsuit.

But wait, you cry out, how about us folks who are 1000% more productive when using a physical keyboard on our phones?

Sorry folks, it’s called market forces. And a massive migration on a scale never seen before is forcing touch-typers to the margins.

You see, each day, millions of people around the world are joining the touchscreen generation. And the vast majority of them are blissfully ignorant of the QWERTY layout and its quirky foibles. You see, they’ve never owned a computer before. A push-button handphone maybe, but not a PC or latptop. So by adding a physical keyboard with an ancient, cryptic keyboard layout, shrunk down to Mini-Me dimensions, you’re putting a monstrous usability hurdle in their way. These users are opting for sleeker, simpler and more adaptive touchscreen-only phones.

The market has spoken. So far, HTC is the first to listen. Even though QWERTY might still be king, it’s starting to look and smell like Richard the Third.

As people download and try out alternative keyboards via app stores, the market will also start clamoring for physical versions of the better virtual ones. Who knows, Dvorak might finally make headway at last! (Or maybe something even more enlightened and evolved?)

Usability and ergonomics might not be the main reasons why HTC is axing slide-out keyboards but it certainly sends the right signal: Mobile phones need better input mechanisms than the one we inherited from typewriters.

Which keyboard do you prefer on your mobile device: physical slideout or virtual touchscreen?


Filed under Interfaces, Mobile

Letters Like Lego With the W10 Keyboard

I’ve found another unique solution to the QWERTY keyboard problem: the W10 Keyboard.

The W10 Keyboard

If you’re like me and think of letters as individual characters, it might be hard to grasp how this keyboard works. It might help to imagine that each letter itself is made up of a couple of strokes. You assemble a letter by swiping the strokes together (or tapping on them in sequence, if that works better for you).

For example:

  • l + c = k
  • c + j = g
  •     –  = e
  • l + – = r
  • c + j + l + – + – + – + l + c = greek

If it still feels greek to you, this video might help explain the concept better.



The W10 Keyboard adopts the Korean way of texting, which might be familiar to you (or completely alien, depending on what side of the planet you’re on). I’m still wrapping my head around the concept and I’m guessing you are too. I suppose it might work for those not weaned on the Latin alphabet, but for me putting together words using letters is tough enough as it is.

A few of its adopters have sworn to the increased speed and accuracy of their typing though, so I guess it does work as long as you persevere through the daunting learning curve.  And if you want to take a break, you can always cheat by going into landscape mode and using the QWERTY keyboard instead.

If you’re curious and want to try it out, you can get it for free from the Android store here.

Do you think the W10 deserves a 10 for an inspired solution? Or do you give it a 0 for making texting even harder than it already is?


Filed under Innovation, Interfaces, Mobile, Usability

An iPad keyboard that sits on top of my touchscreen… why didn’t I think of that?


This is the first product that actually made me think of trading in my Macbook Air for an iPad. I type pretty fast, the last time I checked it was around 90 wpm, and if there is one terrible compromise in computing over the last 5 years, it’s using a QWERTY keyboard on a touchscreen.

I mean seriously? Isn’t this the 21st century? Thankfully, we have solutions popping up on two fronts: The first, is getting rid of QWERTY and replacing it with something more suited for the touchscreen. And second, is getting rid of the touchscreen part, and bringing QWERTY back to a familiar place.

The latter is the direction that Isaac and Melmon of TouchFire decided to take. I know, I know… there are plenty of USB keyboards, Bluetooth keyboards, and cases with built in keyboards, but if I wanted all that, I would carry around a laptop.

The touchfrire concept is completely different, instead of making something that sits next to the iPad, they made a very simple rubbery overlay that sits on top of the screen — using the touch surface of the iPad as the keyboard itself. This saves a lot of space in your every day carry bag, and also means that there are no batteries or pairing issues… ever!

The beauty of this innovation is that your fingers can actually feel where the keys are – freeing you to look at the screen, not at the keys. Instant tactile feedback – Loving it!

The only downside I can think of is that you’re stuck using a 90 percent scaled keyboard instead of a full sized one, but for those of us on the smaller side of the hand-size spectrum, this is not a major compromise. And it does look a bit fiddly.

So, here are the details: They started out on Kickstarter, which is a platform for funding new ideas by potential buyers and they raised over $200K! Now, you better go pre-order from their website because they’ve already sold out their first production batch.

If you’re sitting in front of an iPad typing on a Touch Fire right now, let us know what you think in the comments, and even if you’ve never heard of it until now, what do you think, yea or nay?

by Elliott Williams


Filed under Innovation, Interfaces

7Notes: Turning thoughts into words and pictures


All keyboards aside, what are we really trying to do here — take our thoughts, ideas, other people’s thoughts, save them… and share them.

There are two major problems doing that with a set of alpha-numeric keys: First, you are stuck recording all of your ideas verbally. Sometimes an image is worth a thousands words, and when all you have is a set of keys, your stuck cranking out those words instead of a doodle.

Second, when you’re typing, all of your notes are linear. This can be problematic when you want to make an outline of the content and jump around a lot (very difficult). And linear notes also don’t take advantage of our spacial memory.

For these two reasons and many more, pen and paper have been king in note taking scenarios, which is why I’m always on the look out for new “drawing” methods of note taking, especially when they’re digital. A digital drawing environment gives you the benefits of pen and paper, while adding searchability, “savability”, and all the other 21st century “abilities”.

As tablets become more popular, I think we’re getting closer to replacing paper (at least for the ‘haves’ side of the digital divide). And with tablets, i.e. touch screens, we have a whole new market for software based data entry methods.

7Notes is one of these new crop and as Tech Crunch puts it: >Recognizing handwritten text isn’t trivial, which is why a new app called 7notes focuses almost entirely on this problem–and does the job really well.

In addition to doing a good job at recognizing handwriting (check out TC’s review to see how good), 7Notes also offers some extra nifty features including:

  • Predictive typing
  • Formating with color
  • Mixing text with images
  • Annotating images
  • “Social Doodling” which is the ability to share and edit other people’s files

So if this sounds like it’s right up your alley, or you have been looking for an excuse to try out that new stylus that you bought with your iPad, check them out. They have a free and premium version for the iPhone and iPad (sorry, only premium gets you hand writing recognition).

So get scribbling and tell us what you think.


By Elliott Williams


Filed under Innovation, Interfaces, Mobile

Snapkeys: Somewhere between “driving blind” and “using the force”

Well I never thought I would be stumped by a keyboard (or non-keyboard), but there’s a first for everything. After watching the video, I was left with phrases like “imaginary interface” and “faster than a pc keyboard” in my head — strong claims I know, but claims aside, the concept is pretty interesting.

You can’t tell from the video, but there are four keys and the whole alphabet fits into one of those four. You have one key that represents any letter that stands on “one point” (think F or V or T), one key for letters that stand on two points (W or N), letters that stand on a wide base, and letters that have a circle in them.

There are plenty of benefits to having only four keys: The target sized can be so large, that error is almost completely wiped out. In fact, the target sizes can be so big that you don’t even need to see the keys. That’s why they can tout the “invisible keyboard” monicker.

Sounds confusing right? It’s actually not. They have a demo on their website that is pretty convincing. After typing 4 words I didn’t need to look at the keys anymore, but your mileage may vary. And if you ever get confused, there’s always the visible mode.

Despite how fast I picked it up, I’ll have to hold out to see if: 1) this is vaporware, and 2) how good the prediction engine is. With only four keys, the machine needs to pick out of 6 different characters each time you type a letter, so the AI must be strong with this one.

The good news is that this company is trying to get their keyboard onto every smartphone company… The bad news is they have no expected release date.

Stay tuned for more, and if you have any other tastey details about Snapkeys, please leave a note in the comments.

via ubergizmo

Contributed by Elliott Williams


Filed under Innovation, Interfaces, Mobile