Category Archives: 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

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:

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


Filed under Innovation, Mobile, Usability

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

It had to happen: Texting error leads to lockdowns at West Hall middle, high schools

A recipe for disaster:

  1. A usability nightmare: QWERTY on a touchscreen

  2. An algorithm that makes the initial mistake even worse: Auto Correct

  3. Paranoia

As reported in the GainesvilleTimes News:

Texting error leads to lockdowns at West Hall middle, high schools.

Auto correct fail

An auto corrected text message, accidentally sent to the wrong number, was the catalyst to lockdowns Wednesday at West Hall middle and high schools. Just before noon, law enforcement and school officials issued the lockdowns after a West Hall community member reported a threatening text message. The text, saying “gunman be at west hall today,” was received and reported to police around 11:30 a.m. But after police tracked the number, they learned the auto correct feature on the new cellphone changed “gunna” to “gunman.” The message being sent to the wrong number added to the confusion. Read more


Filed under Mobile, Usability

Keyboard Wars: Clunky QWERTY crushes dextrous Dvorak

The QWERTY keyboard layout was a somewhat necessary invention in the early days of the typewriter: keys placed in a certain order so they wouldn’t jam or get stuck. There was no ergonomics or usability involved. Just a jumble of letters, rearranged to fix a mechanical design flaw. The one exception perhaps, was the letter ‘R’, which was placed in the top row so that their salesmen could type the word ‘typewriter’ with one row of keys. Perfect for sales demos. Not so great to those who had to type anything else.

So in 1936 when Dr. August Dvorak — after careful analysis of physiology of the hand, and analysis of letter frequency — patented his eponymous keyboard layout, it seemed logical that people would welcome it with open arms. But in the 90 years since its invention, widespread adaption has never looked remotely likely.

The Dvorak Layout

Dvorak identified many key issues users had with QWERTY and, along with his in-depth usability findings, based his layout on these conclusions:

  • Letters should be typed by alternating between hands, allowing the typist to build a rhythm to gain speed and accuracy. i.e vowel-consonant-vowel-consonant etc.
  • Most people are right-handed, so the right hand should do most of the typing. A little unfair to lefties but coldly logical nevertheless.
  • For maximum speed and efficiency, the most common letters should be the easiest to reach. So these keys are placed in the middle (home) row.
  • The least common letters should be on the bottom row, which is the hardest row to reach.
  • The most common letter combinations should not be typed with adjacent fingers.

With these improvements, Dvorak keyboard converts claim:

  • reduced finger motion and less finger, hand and wrist strain. 5,000 high usage words can be typed on Dvorak’s home row. QWERTY? A mere 300 — mostly non-high usage.
  • increased typing speeds
  • drastically reduced error rates compared to the bog standard, QWERTY.
  • They also claim it’s faster the learn. Most telling me it takes less than a month to aclimatize.
  • and that it’s nothing but a pure joy thereafter.

This video (breathtaking in it’s tedium) shows what 117 words per min looks like on a Dvorak keyboard:

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Ergonomic Nirvana! And oddly musical in its rhythm. Looks and sounds amazing right? Should have been a no brainer. So what where Dvorak’s major barriers to adaption?

First, there’s the “network effect”. This dictates that it’s not the best technology that wins, but other factors such as cost, availability, speed to market and critical mass. Dvorak was up against three powerful network effects – manifested via education, manufacturing and distribution.

Education: QWERTY had the first mover advantage. It had millions of white-collar serfs in typing pools who’d already spent years of their lives and vast sums of their own money ingraining the uncomely QWERTY system into the very fibre of their being. Who would pay for the retraining? Employers? They didn’t have to pay the first time, so why would they cough up this time?

Manufacturing:  The cost of setting up a a second assembly line and machining a whole new set of parts gave the dominant player a distinct lead and the latecomer immense costs of entry.

Distribution: By this stage, the world’s entire typing pool would need to be given a second typewriter. This cost would have to be borne by the employer. Enough said.

IMHO, the real reason Dvorak failed to fly was this: While it’s obviously a more effective design, it’s still, at first glance, a mad jumble of letters. Think back to that sinking feeling when you first encountered QWERTY. That realisation that you were about to face an excruciating learning curve paved with blood, sweat and tears. One doesn’t just have to relearn the alphabet into some seemingly random sequence, but also assign one of ten fingers to each key. It requires a complex conversion of cognitive and spatial memory via rote learning and endless repitition into instinctive muscle motor memory.

Now, have someone tell you that you have to go thru that all over again. If it was so painful the first time, who but a crazy person would put themselves though it a second?

So obsessed was Dvorak with logic and efficiency, he lost sight of intuition. It sounds like a good idea. It just doesn’t look like one.

Any Dvorak users out there who can share their experiences?


Filed under History, Usability

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!

YouTube Preview Image

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!


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!


Filed under Hardware, Innovation, Mobile, Usability

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.


Filed under History, Usability