Thursday, April 7, 2011

Input on mobile devices - The long awaited follow up

Remember my last post?  I said I was going to give the Swype beta a try?  That was back in January.  I'm still using it and can't see a reason not to continue with it.  It's a very good blend of gesture based input with the keyboard layout I expect.  That's not saying it's perfect.  I still sometimes struggle with things like entering times because including the colon (:) triggers the auto complete.  I also wish entering "your" would allow me to select "you're" from the options of what you might have meant.  But these are quibbles and on the whole I'm very happy.

I thought you might like to know.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Input on mobile devices

Since the last time I posted (I know, way too long ago) I've changed my phone from a Palm Treo 800w (Windows Mobile 6) to a HTC EVO (Android).  I've got to say I love my new phone.  It does everything I want it to do seamlessly.  This includes managing my Google calendar and Gmail, Twitter, Facebook, etc.

One of the things I was apprehensive about in making the switch, though, was the lack of a physical keyboard.  I've always benefited from the tactile response you get from actual buttons.  For example, I drive a first generation Prius.  In my car the radio station presets are exposed as "buttons" on the center display screen - so no physical buttons.  To change the radio station I have to press the "Audio" button on the dashboard (that's a physical button) then look on the screen to press the preset station "button" to change the station.

Which means taking my eyes off the road.

While driving.

So I've learned to hate the on-screen buttons (and to content myself with one radio station that I rarely switch from). What I didn't anticipate with the phone, however, was the fun I could have experimenting with different input methods you get when the physical keyboard is eliminated.

The EVO comes with a standard on-screen QWERTY keyboard.  There are options for having the phone vibrate for each key press (do you call it a key press when there are no keys?) to provide that tactile response I mentioned (although, again, there's no way to determine which "key" you're on without looking at the screen).

And I was merrily using that when one of my co-workers, Pat, directed me to 8Pen.  Now I could try to describe 8Pen, but really you should go to their web site and watch the introductory video.  Go ahead and watch it, I'll wait...

Pretty cool, right?  I thought they made a compelling case for ditching the QWERTY keyboard.  So I tried it. I installed 8Pen and made a decision to go cold turkey.  I knew there would be a learning curve and it might take a while to adapt.  It has a number of improvements over the default keyboard. For example, the auto-complete functionality is much than the default.  However, after a month without using the default keyboard I decided to ditch 8Pen.  It's not that it doesn't work as advertised - it does.  But even after a month I was still being slowed down trying to find certain letters.

Why was that?  Why am I measurably faster using a QWERTY keyboard?  I think the answer is explained by a blog post I read several years ago.  Back when I still read the JoelOnSoftware blog this post resonated with me.  The central point that I took from it is users have a positive or negative experience with software depending on how that software conforms to their previous experiences.  That bias is called the user model.  Well, after 25+ years of typing on QWERTY keyboards I'm really efficient at locating letters in that arrangement.  Additionally, because I continued to use a QWERTY keyboard throughout the day on my laptop and desktop my assimilation of the 8Pen layout was constantly being subverted.  So I cried "uncle."

The good news is that Pat came to my rescue with a link to the Swype beta.  It has the benefit of the QWERTY layout while embracing a gesture based style of input.  It's been a week and so far I'm really enjoying it.  It's not perfect either, of course, but I'm willing to at least give it a month like I did 8Pen.

Stay tuned.