The Invincible QWERTY

My old friend and Usability Friction reader Omar Ikram sent me a link to 3 Ways the iPad Could Kill Qwerty. It’s an interesting read. But I can’t help thinking the author has got the wrong end of the stick. I think whist we are using our fingers to type, QWERTY is here to stay.

The link above proposes 3 competing technologies that could unseat the QWERTY keyboard as the interface mechanism of choice, especially on the iPad. I’d like to respond to each of them before making my point.

Swype

This one isn’t really replacing qwerty as such – rather providing an alternative mechanism to typing individual keys. This is an interesting technology, but I think it has a number of flaws:

  • On the iPad this would be a really poor technology. On a small screen – great – it reduces the need to hit a tiny individual target key. But on the iPad – a device with a keyboard almost the same size as on a MacBook (and much bigger than many netbooks) you’d have to slide your finger way too far for this to be pleasant to use. Even one-handed I suspect I would rather type normally
  • Another problem is that unless you know where to slide your finger to (i.e. you know the qwerty keyboard well) you will struggle. If you watch the video in the above link the user’s hand is obscuring a good amount of the keyboard. Users who aren’t that familiar with qwerty wont be able to make those smooth meaningful gestures that can be quickly interpreted by the software.
  • It is also quite confusing to a non-familiar user. The UI presents keyboard style buttons. But you never “press” these buttons, you slide across them – this creates a an uncomfortable conflict between the visual representation and the desired interaction.

So in a nutshell Swype doesn’t remove qwerty anyway – just gives a new and interesting way to interact with it. But I’d like to see this develop further – maybe in time it will take off. Mobile phones are a hotbed of interface innovation so who knows – if it can gain traction here and the problems I have identified above can be mitigated then maybe it will become widely used.

Thick Buttons

The author is ill informed here. Thick Buttons is just a poor copy of a technology the iPad already has! Thick Buttons implementation is continually resizing the buttons on the screen based on a key’s probability of being struck next. This makes them jump around and be a moving target whilst you are trying to type! I can’t imagine this being anything other than maddening! The iPad’s OS has a superior implementation – the hit zone for the buttons resizes rather than the buttons themselves.

This video was released by Apple around the time when the iPhone was released – have a look at around the 2:40 mark for a demonstration of Apple’s implementation:

Phonetic Typing

Hmm. I can’t really see that approach taking off with the average user! Even the original author discounts this one! Probably more likely to remain as an academic exercise!

My take

How much time do you have invested in the qwerty keyboard? Years? Decades? For the vast majority of us it’s the only keyboard we’ve ever known (not withstanding pecking at a number pad on our mobiles back in the pre-iPhone days!) The DVORAK keyboard, despite being shown to increase typing speed, has gained little traction. To those of us who have been typing for so long, our fingers just “know” where to go. It’s almost muscle memory. We don’t think about typing we just do it. With practice we can even type reasonably fast on tiny phone qwerty keyboards.

So what might ultimately replace qwerty? Speech recognition? It’s the holy grail of data input. But even if the speech recognition was perfect – compensating for regional dialects, accents and slang. Even then, would you want to be in a office full of people talking in to their computer? The noise would be unworkable and how would you write personal emails?!

Could subvocal recognition (if it can develop far enough) overcome this drawback? Quite possibly, but I certainly type differently to how I speak. Would I want my written word more closely match my spoken word? No, not really. The written word doesn’t have the tone and inflections used in speech, so we use different words to achieve the same ends.

We know there are better ways of inputting data. We know the DVORAK exists. But how many of us want to learn it? How many of us have time start again? We introduce children to the qwerty keyboard when they are so young. By the time they are old enough to do anything about it they might have over 15 years of practice! Despite its flaws, can many people say their text entry is slow enough to warrant the learning curve? Even then, would you consider a different input mechanism or just look at ways to speed up your typing?
Then if you did learn another input mechanism – how would you cope when using someone else’s computer? There’s a lot of qwerty keyboards out there!

Inertia is a powerful thing. When something has been around for over 100 years it’s built up a lot of inertia. So, it will take something several orders of magnitude faster, trivially simple to use and quick to master before anything stands a chance of unseating qwerty. But I doubt it will be in my lifetime.

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