28 Things Everybody Should Know, Part XXIV

Some conventions just aren’t worth messing with.

More often than not, it would seem that analyzing and redesigning a piece of hardware or software to increase productivity would be a good idea, especially if such changes include faster, safer, cheaper or simpler operation. A good example is Leo Beltracchi’s implementation of a graphical display system for nuclear power plants in the late 1980s, eliminating the need to frequently compare numbers to ensure the temperature of a reactor core is within a safe margin. This replaced confusing numerical data with a simple curved line portraying the temperature at which liquid inside the core begins to evaporate, and a dot representing the core’s current temperature. This system, still in use today, is no doubt responsible for a drastic improvement in modern power plant supervision, if not the prevention of fatal accidents that would have happened due to a couple easily missed equations.

Consumer products, such as cars, electronics and appliances, often receive updates when laws or demand calls for them. Airbags, scroll wheels, touchscreens, a fourth razor blade–these are all added features meant to improve some aspect of an existing product. Without improvements like these, consumers would have less reason to replace their products with new ones.

There are, of course, improvements to products that don’t necessarily boost their efficiency. For instance, the Dvorak keyboard, an alternative to the much more common QWERTY layout, shows a decided increase in performance with users who are familiar with its key placement. However, the QWERTY layout has been around for over 130 years, and most computer users have never seen a Dvorak keyboard. The QWERTY layout has become an established standard in computing, and to replace it with the Dvorak layout would not only mean somehow convincing the entire world to give up what they’ve grown to know and learn a completely new system, but the cost of replacing every keyboard with the updated layout would hardly be worth what little increase in typing speed would result in the change.

Similar attempts to update the keyboard have been made with keys other than the numbers and letters. Supposedly, these changes are meant to better the intuitive nature of the keyboard, but to a user who has spent a lifetime working with a specific layout, the outcome is just the opposite.

These six keys–Insert, Delete, Home, End, Page Up and Page Down–are grouped in this order on most modern keyboards. Because of their location relative to the arrow keys, they can easily be found without the user looking down from the screen. In fact, I use the Delete key more than I use Backspace, due solely to its location, and have become used to moving my cursor to the left of a character rather than the right before deleting it. As a user from the days of DOS, I still use the Insert key from time to time, as Copy, Cut and Paste all used the Insert key years ago, and many applications still have that option. The rest of the keys in that cluster are frequently used in navigating many types of documents and browser windows, and the wonderful thing is that I never have to look down to use them.

Here is a keyboard which breaks that established six-button group, eliminating the Insert key and rearranging the rest. Home and End are now left and right of each other, which makes sense when considering the direction a cursor moves along lines of text in a word processor, but not so much in a web browser. The Delete key, for some reason, has doubled in size, and the orientation of the group is now vertically arranged. Even if this layout might prove useful for certain users in certain applications, changing the layout of a conventional, time-tested setup only confuses the majority of users and breaks consistency with other keyboards on the market.

Function keys, used a bit like wildcards in computing, can serve a number of uses. Most of us know that F1 will bring up help files to assist us when we’re stuck, and we know just where to find the key. Packed together in groups of four, the function keys are easy to discern from one another without having to read their labels. As it turns out, four keys grouped together are easy to count internally, so users can quickly find, say, F8 without much hassle–it’s the last one on the second group of function keys.

Here’s how the other keyboard groups the function keys, in sections of three keys each. Even if this turns out to be slightly easier for users to use, the vast majority of keyboards group the keys in fours, and keyboards that break this rule are only confusing users who have grown accustomed to the norm. Even worse, users who switch keyboards often will find more difficulty using either layout smoothly. It’s hard to develop a productive subconscious pattern when you’re forced to break the pattern half the time.

On top of the different layout, the function keys on this keyboard don’t recognize commands that others do. F2 doesn’t rename files, F3 doesn’t search, Alt-F4 doesn’t close applications and F5 doesn’t refresh pages. They don’t even do what their labels say they’re supposed to, unless they’re used in Microsoft Office applications. What good is a new layout when it must be relearned and fights every convention we’ve established in the past?

Fortunately, changes like this aren’t as common as changes that actually improve on the user experience. Users are often reluctant to accept change, which is probably a good thing. Without sticking to a few consistent, global standards, we’d be reinventing the wheel with each new product we develop.


1 Response to “28 Things Everybody Should Know, Part XXIV”

  1. 1 dp August 28, 2009 at 2:59 am

    Everyone does this! Microsoft, Logitech, basically anything you find at best buy or staples. It’s SO ANNOYING!!!

    I mean yes if you go to newegg.com or cyberguys.com and really search, you’ll find atandard keyboards with the NORMAL FREAKING LAYOUT the way it’s supposed to be. My favorite by far is the Dell replacement keyboards for around $15. They’re sorta cutesy, but the keys are for the most part where they’re supposed to be (well, except the PrtnScrn,scroll lock,pause are pushed over to the right, but at least they’re not all curvey with tumors and shit. But why do you have to go to such an effort just to that you can keep from making mistakes when you touch-type and decide to hit HOME while holding shift without looking and accidentally delete your files.

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