Sunday, April 15, 2007

QWERTY Quandary

Why do Blackberries and other handheld electronic devices have QWERTY keyboard arrangements? QWERTY is for touch-typing, which relies primarily on muscle memory. If you ask me (a touch-typist) where a particular letter is on the keyboard, the fastest way for me to get the answer is to move my fingers as though I'm typing, not to recall the location from visual memory. But on a handheld device, you can't do standard touch-typing, so you're back to hunt-and-peck, which works just as well and probably better with the keys arranged in alphabetical order.

(Of course, if you use a Blackberry often enough, you'll start to develop muscle memory in your thumbs -- but this will be distinct from the muscle memory of touch-typing, and could develop as easily for an ABC keyboard as for a QWERTY keyboard.)


Jadagul said...

Or for some other layout designed to optimize thumb-typing. QWERTY is a layout designed for standard touch-typing (contrary to popular belief, it's actually pretty good as a layout; Dvorak is arguably better, but only by a few percent). We could use the same sorts of principles for developing a keyboard that's maximally ergonomic for thumb-typing; I, too, am curious why no one has.

Chris said...

Another question is when will everyone move from the sub-optimal QWERTY arrangement to a more efficient typing layout?

Glen Whitman said...

Chris -- the evidence for the inferiority of QWERTY is thin at best. This article by Leibowitz and Margolis debunks the myths about QWERTY. It turns out that most of the evidence showing the Dvorak layout is better is from studies conducted by Dvorak himself, and it appears that he probably doctored the data.

Gil said...

I think the answer is obvious. That's what people want. They're familiar with the layout and believe that they'll have less trouble with it than an alternative. People may be wrong. But, until they're convinced, companies will make more money catering to their customers' demands.

Before we start pushing everyone into a "more efficient" keyboard layout, why don't we push them into a more efficient language?

Surely, we can devise one that captures the most frequently-used concepts into shorter (and easier to pronounce and spell) words, etc.

I think this is unlikely to happen for much the same reason as keyboard revolutions are unlikely. For most of us, the apparent benefit doesn't exceed the apparent cost.

Kevin B. O'Reilly said...

I've owned at least half a dozen PDAs/electronic organizers throughout the years and a number of them featured an alphabetic order layout. That seems to have died out, so clearly there's some consumer preference there.

Even as a touch typist, I've pretty good recall for what letter is in what location just by visualing the keyboard. I don't think it's a huge advantage over another keyboard layout because as you say you're not toucch typing. Even if you know where the keys are by sight you're still hunting and pecking with your thumbs.

Still, it doesn't seem that the QWERTY format would be disadvantageous to any other layout, so why not use what people are already accustomed to?

Glen Whitman said...

Okay, after reading Jadagul, Gil, and Kevin's responses, I think I've realized what the answer is.

Unless an electronics company wants to design a whole new keyboard and justify it to the public -- pretty unlikely -- their only real options are QWERTY and ABC. And QWERTY was designed, among other things, to generate back-and-forth movement between the two hands (rather than placing too much burden on just one hand). That probably gives QWERTY an edge over the ABC layout when it comes to typing with both thumbs.

Anonymous said...

As Kevin says, PDAs used to use an alphabetical ordering. Since computer keyboards use QWERTY, I'd guess that recent PDAs switched to QWERTY in order to distance themselves from older PDAs and make themselves seem more like full computers.

Gil said...

One cool solution would be if they could make the layouts dynamically changeable by the user.

Then, individuals could decide if they wanted to try out different layouts that others claim are more efficient and worth the learning effort.

It wouldn't be that difficult to dynamically change how areas are labeled. But, making a changeable surface that is easy to type on seems like more of a challenge.

abs said...

I think the real problem with QWERTY is evident in the BlackBerry Pearl's keyboard. It's still a QWERTY layout, but since the Pearl has fewer buttons, most have two letters on them and users rely on software to predict the words they are entering. The problem here (as it is with mobile phones and the 10 button ABC layout) is not that the software isn't mature, but the English language is too ambiguous to support the Pearl's layout. Far too many words are made with the same combinations of two or three letters that are represented on the same buttons due to the compressed QWERTY layout.

Glen said...

The iPhone will be an excellent opportunity to try other layouts at zero cost. I expect to see plugins to change the keyboard to dvorak, one-handed dvorak, or even stranger things such as fitaly.

ABC could work if there were ONE standardized ABC layout across multiple products that peopel could be generally familiar with. Since there isn't, it's less work to remember qwerty. Not worth learning a new format just for one soon-to-be-obsolete device.