iPhone: Still the Best Mobile Keyboard

an iPhone keyboardIn yesterday’s TechCrunch post, “Hey Apple, What The Next iPhone Really, Really Needs Is A Much Better Keyboard“, Natasha Lomas argues that the iPhone keyboard is lagging behind its competition. I disagree.

I’ve spent the last six weeks using a combination of Android’s built-in keyboard and SwiftKey, and it’s been an interesting opportunity to think about the nuances of keyboard design. Of course there’s room for Apple to improve; but I believe they still have the best keyboard in the business.

Defending QWERTY

Lomas writes,

Qwerty keyboards owe their letter layout to early mechanical typewriters…Qwerty letter order made sense when the metal legs arranged around the typewriter’s amphitheatre needed to be positioned to avoid clashing with one another as they can-canned their letters up and over to stamp on the ink-soaked ribbon…Such mechanical thinking is clearly redundant in today’s digital word [sic].

QWERTY was, indeed, devised to avoid jamming typewriters. But a digital world doesn’t eliminate the need for mechanical thinking; it just changes the machines we think about – in this case, our hands.

QWERTY’s design kept keys apart that were likely to be pressed in quick succession. Think about how we operate our mobile keyboards when we want to type fast: two hands on the phone, thumbs tapping. Repeatedly tapping one thumb is slower and less comfortable than alternating thumbs. A design like QWERTY’s that maximizes the distance between successive taps increases the frequency of thumb alternation, arguably improving both typing speed and ergonomics.

Next Word Prediction and Cognitive Load

Next word prediction, for starters, has broken the traditional letter by letter rhythm carried down from the days of mechanical typing. It’s a big step up from auto correction (which, yes, the iPhone has).

For those who haven’t tried it, next word prediction (which most Android keyboards have) provides the user with a set of possible completions for whatever she’s typed so far. The most common implementation is a horizontal bar, just above the keyboard, containing three completions. It may not even require that you start a word: it can predict based on the context you’re in and the words you’ve already typed.

Which is great, right? Every time it guesses your word you can avoid typing it. Except that it’s not that simple. Typing efficiency is about more than the number of taps required. It’s about decision-making or cognitive load. Looking at a set of three words takes time and brainpower. How many taps’ worth? I don’t know. But there’s a cost to pausing whatever you’re typing, looking at a set of choices, and picking one.

And that’s not the only decision involved. With autocorrect, you have either zero choices (no suggestion is present) or a simple binary choice in the context of your current thought process: is the word in your head best represented by whatever you’ve typed, or by the thing that’s popped up next to it? With next word prediction, you’re faced with a constant, less contextual decision: do I keep typing what I’m typing, or do I take a look at the choices the keyboard is offering me (which, for some reason, tend to appear in a location I wouldn’t otherwise look at)? That, in turn, can be further broken down into several decisions: Am I typing the word correctly? If so, is it long enough that it’s worth checking to see if there’s a completion available? Or if not, do I think it’s worth looking for the correct word amongst my choices?

This isn’t just theoretical stuff: when I’m typing on Android I honestly feel like I’m constantly interrupting myself to use the completion feature.

Quiet Improvement

The iPhone’s keyboard is a relic of the past in more ways than one. It has barely changed since the phone was first introduced, way back in 2007 — the proverbial ice age in technology terms.

The iPhone keyboard’s UI hasn’t changed much, but it’s improved tremendously – which is sort of ideal, since users didn’t have to adapt to anything new. I celebrated the day it stopped autocorrecting “for” to “fir.”

I can think of one UI change since the original iPhone: when you backspace after typing a word, you get a popup with alternate completions, including whatever you originally typed. I’ve never gotten the hang of using it, and I think it’s the exact problem I described above: it’s easier to correct manually than to make the decision to use the popup.

Swype

In the touchscreen era, the most disruptive text input technique that has gained significant traction was devised by Swype…Instead of tapping, the Swype keyboard lets the user drag a finger to chain letters together to form words.

While whole-word gestures are conceptually intriguing, I have some fundamental usability issues with Swype:

  • Traditional tap keyboards provide feedback for each tap above the key itself. Swype  draws your gesture as you move, but that drawing is largely obscured by your finger.
  • The atomic nature of a word gesture can be problematic. Swype corrects for missed keys just as a tap keyboard does, but you don’t have any way of knowing what it’ll come up with until you’re done with the word. It’s up to you to decide if it’s worth bailing mid-gesture – at which point it’s two taps to get rid of your mistake.
  • Lengthy drag gestures can be awkward when operating a phone with one hand. But Swype’s word gestures don’t support two-handed operation: whatever hand isn’t gesturing is just idle.

Cargo Cult Design

Again, there’s obviously room for Apple to improve – and for others to leapfrog the iPhone. But like so much in the tech industry these days, this feels like an example of cargo cult design. Innovators come up with great ideas but often don’t seem to analyze their competitors’ solutions on a detailed, task-driven level; to dig in and ask, “Why is this the way it is?” As a result, they eliminate or misinterpret areas of the product where they’re not innovating. The result is often one step forward, two steps back. And that’s a shame.

By way of disclosure: I have not tried every product Lomas brings up. This is intended as a general critique, not a comprehensive multi-product review.

iPhone keyboard image by djenan via Flickr.

8 comments
Ianthetechman
Ianthetechman

I don't know if it's because I used the iPhone for a long time but I actually like the iPhone keyboard and can type very fast on it. I have jumped shop to the android platform and sometimes I struggle with the keyboards but pretty much like the stock keyboard on the HTC one I think it's about the most responsive I have used on the android platform

DavidPrestidge
DavidPrestidge

O cmtely agree. Aplles ips keyboard o witgot a dpubt the most excellen keyboard on the llnsr and i dare say ap will cbtije to exalt it many virtures ob os to come. My thanss tk the author for recgnozing th geius that i the apple keyboard. Heres hopeong it never cuanges.

D prestidge

Google investor

Wrotteb o. My iphone

Plaee excuse the errors

cpmcgrath
cpmcgrath

Even if we accept your theories as fact, the iPhone keyboard still falls flat. When I had an iPad I didn't hate the keyboard because it didn't offer prediction, or because I couldn't swype, I hated it because the way it implemented its features was counter intuitive.

Minor example, the keys are always caps. I'll admit, to a new user all caps looks nicer. But changing case is a much bigger hint that helps new users and you do get use to small caps on the keyboard and after a while it looks just as good.


Major example - Autocorrect. This annoyed me to no end, I would type something the iPad would suggest something else, I thought, that's incorrect, and did the logic action of tapping away from the word ignore the selection and - IT INSERTS IT. Then next time I like the suggestion so out of instinct I touch the word to insert it - AND IT REVERTS IT. Yes I know there's a little X there, but I clicked the word not the X. This behaviour is so counter-intuitive I never got use to it.

adammork
adammork

great analysis of all the different keyboards. I like the cognitive load part.

I think there is a tendency to inflate the value of new & different against tried & true solutions. 

a little known fact about iOS is that it changes the width of certain keys in the keyboard depending on the characters in the current word. windows phone also does this.

Ive been using a windows phone 8 device recently and something I like from its keyboard is that it has a paste button in the space above the keyboard if there is something in the clipboard, makes it a bit easier to paste that ios where your forced to tap into the text your typing to reveal the paste bubble.

speedyink
speedyink

This sounds a lot like you're used to the iPhone keyboard more than other keyboards, therefor you type best on it.  Isn't it possible that if you had 6 years to practice on the other keyboards that their features would also become second nature and therefor quicker to use?

dfeldman
dfeldman moderator

@speedyink Sure, it's possible. And even setting that aside my own experience is only one data point. Think about it more as a catalyst for the analysis I did here. If you buy my arguments it shouldn't matter how much experience I have with the keyboards myself.

speedyink
speedyink

@dfeldman @speedyink So you're saying this article is just for iPhone users to feel better about their keyboard, not necessarily for a user experienced in neither to gather non-biased information.

It's quite clear in your arguments that you're used to one thing and you're not willing to learn another.  Your first point (not including qwerty which all the keyboards use anyway) is complaining about something new to learn.  If you had sufficient time to learn it properly, you'd know that it is something entirely optional and shouldn't even reach cognitive thought unless there's a certain circumstance ie: a long, difficult to spell word.  And that's only the way I use it, others use it differently.    

Second argument is just an excuse for virtually no improvements in 6 years.

Third, again, screams I don't want to learn how to use this properly.   I don't use swype becuse I'm too lazy to learn(like you, but I'll admit it), but I've seen people who do.  It's like watching those asian people on youtube play dance dance revolution.  It's amazing to see how fast they can type.  When you have a choice, you see that different people like different things, and it's nice that they can choose to learn them if they want to. 


dfeldman
dfeldman moderator

@speedyink @dfeldman That's not really what I'm saying. I'm saying switching amongst a bunch of keyboards prompted me to do a deeper UX analysis of keyboards in general, resulting in (a) an appreciation of what Apple got right, and (b) a critique of some of the things I see others getting wrong.

With Swype in particular, I'm sure I'd get faster with it over time and can't really evaluate whether word-level swiping has the potential to be faster than letter-level tapping. (Hence my comment in the article that it's intriguing.) The specific concerns I list aren't indictments of the entire approach Swype is using, but *are* things I think they could improve.