Posts Tagged 'keyboard'

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.

28 Things Everybody Should Know, Part XXI

Try to break your system before someone else does.

Product testing is often overlooked by developers whose products aren’t a threat to anyone’s safety, or for which laws don’t exist to mandate testing. But the majority of all products and services are designed for a market not comprised of like-minded developers, and users will inevitably end up making mistakes not accounted for during the development process.

Another problem with experience design is that developers often test their own products in the way they’re meant to be used, without exploring different approaches that might inadvertently–or even purposefully–cause the system to fail.

Corner cases are situations beyond those normally anticipated by developers, where a user might push the abilities of a product further than it was constructed to support. In certain scenarios, such as with load-bearing pulleys and cables, corner cases must account for wide margins (a pulley I have states its limit at 500lbs, but I suppose it will probably sustain twice that without breaking–the company probably severely understated its abilities to prevent accidents and ensuing lawsuits), whereas electronics like computers don’t need such a large safety net (many people safely overclock their systems, threatening little more than the longevity of the computer itself).

Borrowing from Murphy’s Law, wherever there is the possibility to break a system exists, someone will find it sooner or later, and it’s best to catch it and fix it (or create an acceptable workaround) before it hits the shelves and starts causing problems.

By way of example, most keyboards today only recognize four keys pressed at one time. Honestly, the keyboards themselves probably recognize many more than that, but probably refuse to relay the extra signals to the computer. I don’t know exactly why they do this, but seldom are more than three keys ever used simultaneously, and it’s possible that too many signals at once could cause some applications to go a little crazy. (In fact, it may be a Windows problem–I don’t recall experimenting on a Mac.) But with all the various programs out there, most only really dealing with one or two keystrokes at a time, limiting the operating system’s recognition of more than a handful of keys undoubtedly has solved some problems. And it’s still more than you could ever press at the same time on a typewriter.

This is a screenshot of LEOGEO, a website I discussed earlier. Under normal circumstances, the gray letters expand to display a link when the user rolls over each one, and reverts to its single-letter state when the cursor rolls away. Essentially, only one link is in its full state at any given time.

In Flash, the commands used to trigger events with the cursor rolls on and off buttons are on(rollOver) and on(rollOut). However, there are a few more states designers often fail to account for, and one in particular can result in multiple rollover states the designer hadn’t planned for: on(releaseOutside). This tells the computer how to act if a user clicks the mouse button down, drags the cursor away from the button on the screen, and then releases the mouse button. Without declaring a releaseOutside event, the button stays in its rollOver position until the cursor rolls back on and off the button a second time.

LEOGEO’s buttons weren’t scripted to handle this unexpected behavior, which can occur when a user is moving the mouse and clicking multiple buttons rapidly–or whenever I decide to test buttons to see what will happen. Once a website goes live, there’s no telling who will use it, and if every unlikely problem isn’t anticipated, it will very likely turn up at the most inopportune time.

The best way to make sure a system won’t break is by doing everything possible to break it. Automotive companies crash test their own cars extensively, using their findings to improve on future models and features. Unfortunately, many developers don’t have the mindset of a product tester, and certainly don’t think the way typical users do, so without knowing what it takes to break a system, they can’t possibly know how to prevent such a breakdown.

28 Things Everybody Should Know, Part XIII

Embrace tactile feedback as much as possible.

My favorite cell phone design was a monochrome clamshell with little in the way of frilly add-ons. Besides the nigh indestructible casing and small real estate it occupied in my pocket, I loved the distinction I could feel between each button without having to look at the keypad. If I knew a contact’s place in my address book, I could flip the phone open, push two buttons, and the phone dialed the appropriate number without the assistance of my eyes at any time. Even taking voice-triggered dialing into consideration, this remains the fastest I’ve ever seen a mobile phone dial a number.

The shrinking and slimming of phones has taken quite a toll on keypad designs, cutting back on the noticeable differentiation between individual keys, and the most extreme example of this, the full touchscreen phone, has been in high demand since the launch of the iPhone. Large touchscreens have a wide variety of uses, but one thing they fall short of providing is a keypad, which generally isn’t a problem since most of the time users select contacts from a list instead of using conventional dialing.

I’ve found that phone keypads manufactured after around 2002 have been ignoring the spacing between keys, and often, the tactile clicking that comes with pressing those keys, to accommodate smaller overall phone bodies. Some companies find creative ways around this lack of sensory feedback by adding a little of their own.

This phone features raised beads, almost like rhinestones, on each key, giving the user a sign as to the approximation of each button. Not only do the number keys have beads, but the navigation and phone option keys as well.

Most computer mice, have scroll wheels that provide a soft click for each time the mouse sends a signal to the computer. That way, users will have an understanding of how much they are telling the computer to scroll up and down. Many Microsoft mice don’t include this feature, and I have a friend who appreciates the lack of a clicking scroll, while the absence makes me somehow feel uneasy. My mouse, the Logitech MX Revolution, can switch between clicking and smooth scrolling for gliding through long documents and web pages, and after two years with the MX, I can’t imagine using anything else.

I used to play a lot of computer games in the days of DOS, and most of those games used the Ctrl and Alt keys due to their location on the keyboard. I love those keys, and have found that one reason is the gap between the two. (There are several important gaps in between certain keys that make navigation much easier for users, which I will discuss in a later post.) But with Windows 95 came a new key, one that fit neatly between Ctrl and Alt : the Start key.

So this is my keyboard today. I no longer play DOS games, but the modifier keys–Ctrl, Alt and Shift–are an absolute necessity when dealing with applications like Photoshop. (Furthermore, accidentally hitting the Start key activate the operating system’s Start menu and forces the focus off the current program.) So that gap I grew up with means a lot to me. The same goes for the other side of the Space bar, where I’ve removed the Start key and the Context Menu key.

Most users appreciate a level of feeling to their actions, something beyond simply seeing and sometimes hearing what they’re doing. The more senses an activity offers response to, the more viscerally connected a user will feel to the activity, and possibly, every factor involved in the process: equipment, network, manufacturer and service provider, all of which should show an interest in how an activity responds to the user.