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  • 04.26.10

3 Ways the iPad Could Kill Qwerty

The Qwerty keyboard is holding back a true revolution in interface design. What could replace it?

iPad keyboard

As well-designed as the iPad might be, its most glaring design flaw hides in plain sight: The Qwerty keyboard. Granted, Apple claims that the device is meant to consume–rather than create–content. But if you’ve used the tablet, the typing experience immediately starts feeling ridiculous: First off, you’re never typing with two hands–no matter how hard Apple tries to convince you (as in the picture above). Instead, you’re holding the thing in one hand, and pecking with a single finger on the other.

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Never mind that it’s a gross anachronism to have a Qwerty keyboard on a device in 2010, when Qwerty was designed 130 years ago to prevent typewriter arms from jamming together when people typed too fast.

There has to be a better way, and it better succeed along a few lines: Unlike a regular keyboard, which isn’t designed to actually be looked at when you’re typing, it needs to be visually intuitive. And second, it has to be easy and fast to use with just two thumbs or a single index finger. So far, we’ve seen three basic solutions–but the winner might still be unrealized.

1. Swype

Probably the most successful innovation in touchscreen typing so far, Swype has been in trial products by Nokia and Samsung, and a developer’s kit for Android was released in February. You simply put your finger down, and drag it from letter to letter. Even if your accuracy is off, the program can make excellent guesses about what you meant to type:

This one probably wins out so far because its speed and ease of use have been proven over and over again–and it already has a shot to become truly widespread.

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2. ThickButtons

A minimal intervention into the standard Qwerty layout, it uses a predictive algorithm and a dictionary, similar to Swype. But instead, it enlarges certain buttons as you go. So far it’s only an app for Android:

The only dilemmas I see so far are the time it takes to go back and correct mistakes, and the visually jarring effect of seeing a keyboard always changing before your eyes.

3. Phonetic Typing

This one’s just a concept–and no wonder, because it’s a radical departure from everything you know. But the developer, Mattt Thompson, insists that phonetic systems are the wave of the future. The idea is to create a system similar to that of Romanized Japanese keyboards, which produce characters after you phonetically spell the syllables. But in Thompson’s scheme, a diagram has sounds, laid out according to what part of your mouth you use to create them. (The schematic is of your mouth in profile; your lips would be on the leftmost side of the diagram.)

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vowel input concept

Of course, there are glaring problems with a system like this: First off, you’ve gotta learn what all those crazy symbols mean. Moreover, if you’re literate, spelling out things phonetically introduces another layer of complexity–a new way of thinking that’s one step removed from the letters that form in your head when you’re trying to type. In a game where speed and intuitiveness are key, that might be a deal-killer.

4. Genius Alternative, TBD

All of these concepts still dance around the fact that on a touchscreen, you’re typing with your eyes as much as your fingers. No keyboard design has been made to be looked at. They are all designed to minimize finger motion when typing from a set hand position.

One way to create better keyboard is to create a new hierarchy of letter organization that is better in tune with your mind as it thinks, for example, “q” and goes searching for it on a screen. Just like Qwerty, it’ll probably take some time to get used to, but imagine an alphabetical matrix, where letters are place in some rational layout that makes them easier to search for, or some hierarchy made to reduce how many times your eye darts around looking for a letter.

Just as keyboards were first laid out to minimize finger movement, so too should touchscreens be laid out to minimize eye movement. This will take some serious linguistics research, but it’s by no means impossible. But it’s necessary, because Qwerty is probably the single biggest thing still holding up the revolution in interface design that’s been promised ever since the iPhone came out.

About the author

Cliff is director of product innovation at Fast Company, founding editor of Co.Design, and former design editor at both Fast Company and Wired.

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