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I have loads of problems with the small keys on my smartphone as my fingers cover them completely. I guess most people have the same problem.

The Qwerty keyboard layout was designed for ten-finger typing. On a smartphone, that is completely impossible.

It's probably a better idea to 'overload' keys and have less, but bigger, ones. Breaking away from the 'good old' Qwerty.

Are there studies related to typing on the smartphone with different keyboard layout configurations? Are there alternative keyboard layouts available to download and use?

Note: this is unrelated to language.

Edit: I've awarded the 100 bonus to the only working non-QWERTY proposal.

I've tested Swype, and it's very nice because it's very forgiving. You can Swype completely past some letters and still get the correct word. On the other hand, it's still QWERTY. There are two things I don't like.

  1. The word-proposal mechanism sometimes gets it wrong*.
    • I tried to Swype 'Heineken', a word that wasn't in the dictionary. It was replaced by another word. I typed 'Heineken' letter for letter and it was replaced by the same word... The Swype default is picking the closest match of words inside the dictionary. You can get 'Heineken' by choosing it from the proposed list... Tedious and error prone.
  2. The word-proposal bar shows/hides while typing, producing a, very irritating, moving-target effect.

I'm testing and using MessagEase at the moment. It has a learning curve. Some of the letters are... not where I'd expect them (probably QWERTY getting in the way). It's not nearly as forgiving as Swype (when you swipe a letter slightly wrong, you obtain the wrong letter). You have to type letter for letter, but with the dictionary installed, it's slightly faster. You have to delete letter for letter. I'll be using this keyboard during one month and report back if it's for keeps.

A combination of Swype and MessagEase would probably be a winner for me.


See xkcd for fun.

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I'm asking to obtain a better keyboard layout, not to create one. –  GUI Junkie Jun 21 '12 at 5:52
    
I can imagine a layout where the vowels are more or less in the centre. The most frequent letters on the left and right and infrequent letters on the outside. That could be based on analysis of letter frequency per language. Also, frequent letters could be a tat bigger with more finger space. Combined with Swype... –  GUI Junkie Jun 21 '12 at 15:07
    
I've just added a new reference to my answer below. A new layout being promoted by an Australian inventor. See link at the bottom of my answer. –  Jay Jul 11 '12 at 8:19
    
From the beginning, the QWERTY keyboard was designed for typewriters. The design is made to prevent the different metal stags holding the letters from getting stuck together. There are keyboard designs that improve writing speed, but since QWERTY has been standard for so long, people seems to prefer that anyway. –  Henrik Ekblom Jan 22 '13 at 13:51

9 Answers 9

up vote 8 down vote accepted
+100

There is a keyboard on the Google Play store called the MessagEase Keyboard that has a completely different layout to a traditional keyboard. I've inserted a screenshot so you can have a look.

Message Ease Keyboard

You type by just sliding a thumb across the letters you want and while it's completely different, actually only takes an hour or so to get used to and not much more before you can type really quickly. I'm not sure what studies were done on it but there must have been some as all of the most used groups of letters are near each other - I'm sure a bit of Googling will help you on your way.

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+1 for interesting (: –  Lisa Tweedie Jul 2 '12 at 10:44
    
+1 for I'll give it a try –  GUI Junkie Jul 2 '12 at 14:39

I believe much of the innovation over the next few years will be in things that avoid this type of input altogether (e.g. Voice, gesture, sensing). The progress in these areas signal that keyboards are inherently limited for some applications.

Most of the variations in input are still based on the QWERTY layout. Products like SWYPE and Blackberry's new '10' OS have tried some improvements

  • Blackberry: enter image description here
  • Swype: enter image description here

There is a reason QWERTY has persisted:

Back when we were typing on mechanical typewriters QWERTY helped to ensure that commonly used keys were spaced apart from one another to avoid the striking arms to clash. Therefore it was both about space and reduction in speed.

There was times where people tried to introduce an A-Z keypad. However because people had a trained muscle memory and preference for the QWERTY layout they stumbled across the a-z layout.

Older phones, you may remember assigned about 3 letters to the numbers on the keypad. This was again building on an earlier time when only numbers appeared. These were in A-Z layout. I can remember having trouble initially getting used to switching to this.

Today, several phone makers use techniques to improve on the status-quo. For example Apple virtually changes the target size of letters based on a prediction of your input. That is, if it figures you are more likely to type 'E' next, the target area for the E key is enlarged. [Reference article]

EDIT (Adding my point about DVORAK to main post):

The DVORAK keyboard is interesting. It came at a time when focus on efficiency of movement for repetitive tasks (a precursor to modern UX in a way. Though much more limited in scope). A bit like betamax it was superior in many ways but failed to take off because of the perceived inefficiency of change. QWERTY had a network effect due to it's penetration. This persists until today. Being intuitive is sometimes about not being too far ahead of your users.

References:

However if you want a novel alternative to QWERTY then take a look at this:

Weird keyboard

I have to say I can't see this working well. Unlike the DVORAK keyboard there is little research to show it would be better. Therefore it's novelty value only (until tested).

In conclusion:

Though some alternative layouts may be 'superior' by some measures. The QWERTY rules because of it's familiarity. It's most likely successor? No keyboard needed at all. Why? The context has changed.

Edit 2: I just saw this article which covers a new keyboard invention...

...[it] has been designed for optimum use with just one finger or to split itself in two to make typing easier with two thumbs. The keyboard is in alphabetical order with the letters split over five rows instead of three and it is able to be flipped for easier use by left handed people....

Alternative A-Z keyboard layout

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and moments ago SwiftKey version 3 was announced: techcrunch.com/2012/06/21/… –  Jay Jun 21 '12 at 14:10
5  
Minor correction...QWERTY wasn't intended to slow typists down at all (that's a bit of a myth). It was designed to avoid common letter pairs from being next to each other to avoid jams (as correctly stated). –  DA01 Jul 1 '12 at 8:44
    
Interested by Apple virtually changing key size based on prediction ... have you got a reference to this? –  Lisa Tweedie Jul 2 '12 at 10:46
    
@LisaTweedie Here is a comprehensive article comparing the iPhone and Android keyboards that includes a reference: ignorethecode.net/blog/2009/08/07/… and here is another article that mentions the Dynamic touch zone: pogue.blogs.nytimes.com/2007/06/27/iphone-keyboard-secrets –  Jay Jul 2 '12 at 10:53
    
Cheeers ... and +1 (: –  Lisa Tweedie Jul 2 '12 at 10:55

Finger pecking is not a good method to enter information. Rather than trying to adapt the keyboard we should adapt the input mechanism. There is plenty of research going into virtual keyboards based around video and finger based input. Some are even available commercially. And of course voice is improving rapidly. Hopefully we won't be dependent on tiny mobile screens for text input for too much longer.

However one advantage of software keyboards is they can change dependent on context. This can be dependent on things like:

  • the task.
  • the individual user
  • Data

Task based keyboards

It looks like HTML5 has already addressed some of this.

So for an email field the keyboard has a ".com" key or a number field has a numerical keyboard.

In a recent talk on mobile design Luke Wroblewski argues that these HTML5 different keyboard layouts set up for different input types (minute 42) makes complex input much more achievable.

I'm sure these will develop as more contexts are explored.

the HTML5 keyboard layouts for several input types

Individually configured keyboards

This paper describes a technique where the individual can customize the keyboard to their own specifications (also here from CHI 2012).

enter image description here

Keyboards improvements based on data

This group did a study based on a typing game they released in the app store and changed the configuration of the keyboard based on the data. However changing the keyboard improved the error rate but made typing slower. In other words it is complicated!


As an aside my own view is that in the english speaking world we should stick with a QWERTY layout. It is demonstrably quick to use once you have been trained and we now have a culture based around it. In my experience it takes around five hours for the average user to become a touch typist based on the QWERTY keyboard (and I have taught kids as young as five to do it). Touch typing is a skill we should be teaching our kids in school before they develop a habit of finger pecking. If everyone was a touch typist we would be demanding better input mechanisms on our mobile phones!

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Thanks Lisa, interesting reads and point of view. However, I feel that, on screen, we should be able to improve speed using a different layout. I'll give MessagEase a try. They claim to reach 63wpm, not bad on a touch screen. –  GUI Junkie Jul 2 '12 at 14:38
    
Might give it a go myself.... see if it changes my mind (: –  Lisa Tweedie Jul 2 '12 at 14:45

Recently leaked was a new keyboard layout for single-hand use, from Windows Phone: New Arc soft keyboard may be coming to Windows Phone 8.

The keys are arced in order to be used with the thumb, and whilst QWERTY in layout, different keys share the same buttons indicating some sort of alphanumeric-style interface (maybe returning to the old standby of predictive text?).

From the leaked presentation:

Curved keyboard on Windows Phone

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1  
+1 for a leaked document like the different sizes for the different keys (: –  Lisa Tweedie Jul 2 '12 at 11:28
    
This is pretty rad lol, would you triple tap like an old t9 phone for tap cycle between q-w-e. –  dannydev Jul 2 '12 at 15:40
    
Who knows! I'd expect to see predictive software though, so you don't have to repeatedly tap keys. –  dhmholley Jul 2 '12 at 15:46

You might find something like swype useful if you have a supported device. As much as I enjoy the hardware keys they've certainly done quite a job on the predictive bits. You just need to be in the neighborhood of the keys you desire and it'll more than likely guess the correct word you're going for.

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OK, I've activated Swype. Let's see how it goes. I believe I had a bad experience some while back with Swype, but maybe... –  GUI Junkie Jun 21 '12 at 9:27
    
Swype is useful, it works pretty nicely. However, the layout is the same old Qwerty. This means the swipe is longer than strictly necessary. –  GUI Junkie Jun 21 '12 at 15:04

Please remember that differentiating from the standard patterns often leads to a situation where a user need to learn everything from scratch. In case of keyboard layout, there are two, main, most commonly memorized patterns: qwerty layout and phone dial layout. Finding better keyboard layout may be an interesting academic activity, but also a change which is painful to introduce.

Taking the UX point of view we often try to fulfil a user's need or to solve a problem. I'd ask myself a question: is a new keyboard layout a need, a problem - or - just one of the solutions? Matt already suggested SWYPE as one of the other solutions. As a user I would vote for swype, not for a new layout...

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2  
Typing with the 'hunt and peck' method used on smartphones, really doesn't justify maintaining the current keyboard layout. I was wondering whether work had been done to improve 'peckability'. –  GUI Junkie Jun 21 '12 at 9:31
    
@Bartosz I disagree, unless you are using predictive software such as Swype, the qwerty keyboards on mobile phones just isn't meant for adult size fingers and the dial layout keyboards aren't very intuitive due to all the overloads. I think that users would gladly learn to master a new keyboard if it enables them to type at a normal pace and without mistakes. –  Danny Varod Jun 21 '12 at 10:29
1  
My point wasn't to justify the current keyboard layout. I agree it isn't user friendly. Nevertheless, users are familiar with the current layout and (based on that) they are able to find a proper key. At the same time a couple of new ideas failed to succeed because of learning cost. –  Bartosz Rakowski Jun 21 '12 at 10:52
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Not everyone 'hunt and pecks' on a smart phone. I can type fairly fast and that's in part due to the familiarity of the QWERTY standard. –  DA01 Jul 1 '12 at 8:48
    
@DA01, are you 10-finger-typing? My fingers are too big, or my phone is too small to do that. –  GUI Junkie Jul 22 '12 at 15:03

To thoroughly answer this question we have to first examine:

  • How mobile phones are usually held
  • Which movements are natural (ergonomic) while holding a mobile phone
  • What are the pros and cons of existing implementations


Mobile phones are usually held in one of the following positions...

a. Phone is vertical, held in dominate hand, thumb is horizontal above phone, fingers are horizontal below phone

b. Phone is vertical, held in non-dominate hand, thumb is horizontal above phone, fingers are horizontal below phone, other hand is above phone with fingers hovering horizontally above phone

c. Phone is horizontal, held in both hands, thumbs are horizontal above phone, fingers are horizontal below phone

d. Phone is horizontal, held in non-dominate hand, thumb is horizontal above phone, fingers are horizontal below phone, other hand is above phone with fingers hovering horizontally above phone


Movement of hand

Ergonomic movement are movements in which the entire hand moves along with arm, without rotating around wrist. This includes up/down movement of fingers (relative to their orientation), movement of arm side ways up and down and it does not include bending of the thumb joints other than subtle movement of the carpo-metacarpal joint.

In position (a), non ergonomic movements include using thumb to type. Possible ergonomic movements include horizontal movement of fingers (below phone).

In position (b), non ergonomic and ergonomic movements of holding hand are the same as (a), the hovering hand has more ergonomic movement options, however, with mobile phones this position is not always possible, as the other hand is often required for interactions with environment.

In position (c), each hand has the same ergonomic and non ergonomic movements as in (a), however, relative to the phone their movement is different, as the phone is now horizontal.

In position (d), the movements are the same as in (b), however, relative to the phone their movement is different, as the phone is now horizontal. With mobile phones this position is not always possible, as the other hand is often required for interactions with environment.


Existing implementations

  • Soft keys - keys are dynamic (context dependant) and do not provided feedback. With mobile phones the keys are small and close together, often resulting in typos and in the need to look at the keys, instead of at the display area in order to get things right. Layout is usually qwerty and their are programs such as swipe which can increase productivity by saving lift/push time and offering correct words from dictionary.

  • Pull-out/attachable keyboard - keys are constant, provide feedback. Limits holding position to (d).

  • Dial-pad - keys are usually constant and usually offer feedback. Due to the limitation in amount of keys, Each key has many overloads, requiring multiple clicks for the correct key, or a predictive dictionary for common words.


Now that the background has been covered, lets examine how to provide a more optimal experience covering ergonomics, providing feedback, enabling one or two hand use and of course, reducing typos and increasing productivity.

Out of the box thinking - I once saw a prototype of a gamepad with a qwerty keyboard at a game developers convention. I assume it didn't launch, since I can't find it anywhere online. The design, however, was ergonomic and it took 0-time for me the get the hang of and type quickly without mistakes. It looked like a standard gamepad, however, instead of buttons and controls on top, it had qwerty labels and underneath it had small buttons with the layout of the labels (more or less, I saw it about 6 years ago and didn't have a camera on me). You held it with two hands and moved your 8 main fingers underneath to type.

Back to phones - What if you could hold your phone in either position (a) or (c) and type with 4 or 8 fingers accordingly, without stressing your thumbs and with both physical and visual feedback?

Now imagine a phone, that has columns of keys bellow it, each with a corresponding virtual key displayed on the screen more or less above it and with subtle swipes of you thumbs on the screen (using only you carpo-metacarpal joints) you could change mode (e.g. numbers and symbols vs English vs another language).

Using 3 columns from each side, 5 keys per column, you could provide 3 keys per finger, no matter which orientation or hand (or both) you are holding the phone at. Since you fingers are horizontal (see positions (a) and (c)) and not vertical (e.g. desktop qwerty keyboard), the arrangement is in 3 columns of 5 per hand and not 3 rows of 5 per hand (as in regular qwerty keyboards).

The two-hand layout for a horizontal hold of phone would look like this:
enter image description here
Notice that the same fingers would be moving the same way for the same keys as in a regular qwerty keyboard.

The right-only-hand layout for a vertical hold of phone would look like this:
enter image description here
And after a swipe of thumb on screen, to signify that you have moved your right hand to the left side:
enter image description here
These layouts too, are meant to simulate the right hand movements when typing with your right hand only on a regular qwerty keyboard.

And for left-only-hand:
enter image description here
And after swipe of thumb on screen:
enter image description here


By using the same physical keys differently, depending on orientation of phone and proximity detection of hands to determine which hand is holding the phone, these different layouts of keys could be implemented with one set of 30 keys.

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Thanks for your thoughtful answer. Interesting idea, to be sure. –  GUI Junkie Jul 1 '12 at 6:09

If you need a collection of innovative keyboard layouts, you can go to this website. Some of them are not listed in the answers above.

http://android.appstorm.net/roundups/productivity-roundups/15-awesome-keyboards-for-android/

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Thanks for the feedback. I'm still using MessagEase. It could be improved. 8Pen sounds interesting, but 'hard to use'? –  GUI Junkie 2 days ago
    
Also funny that a specialized website doesn't render well on Android :-/ –  GUI Junkie 2 days ago
    
I've read in a blog says that using 8Pen will slowly make your thumb tired because you have to circle it so much. Although, I think if you need to type a lot, you should use keyboard for 10 fingers; if not, a little tiresomeness is not a problem :-? I admit that 8Pen is pretty attractive and MessagEase is ugly. –  Ooker 2 days ago
    
Both of them will of course be improved in the future. –  Ooker 2 days ago
    
See this question on User Experience too. It has good relevant information. –  Ooker 21 hours ago

Adding to the list of new alternatives, here is one innovation in the making:

Minuum Keyboard

enter image description here

Project promo video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=niV2KCkKmRw

On the cool side, the input does not have to be a touch screen, as it is mostly based on motion in one dimension only.

On the problem side, it seems to depend more on dictionary word matching, than anything I have seen before. Don't know if that will be a problem.

enter image description here

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