Number Keypad Hello Folks.

I just wanted to understand what research results show why the number keyboard consists of letters which are not used. Why is this needed? The number keyboard should have only numbers, right? According to Nielsen Norman UX principles, things which are not used or cannot be found are equivalent to not having those things.

  • 2
    Adding to the answers below: the reason the letters are still included on physical keypads is often because it's cheaper for manufacturers to leave them in rather than to pay for all the retooling, redesigning, and other workflow alterations required to make the change. Unless there is some market force that overcomes this inertia, keypads will have letters on them for some time to come. Commented Sep 26, 2017 at 7:28
  • @AndrewMartin: If that company depends so heavily on their keypad production, surely there would be some savings from the reduced need to print, engrave, glue. Less letter maintenance, decreased quality assurance. And surely, they modified their production lines over the last decades several times. While I principally agree that feature removal can be unlucrative, my guts tell me it's not so much relevant in this case (but of course, I may be all wrong; I am not so much into the keys- and keypad-industries).
    – phresnel
    Commented Sep 26, 2017 at 9:00
  • 1
    @phresnel: everything has an opportunity cost. If the part you've been using for eons is still available and does the job, not only do you have to justify the cost of switching it, but you also have to justify that doing so is better than all the other things you could have done with that expense. It's rarely worth the hassle just to remove some letters. Commented Sep 26, 2017 at 23:33
  • 1
    @whatsisname: Yes, that's what AndrewMartin and I said already. I also presented some points why it may be worth to remove the letters (if removal is needed at all, given that machines are often replaced alltogether). You're not adding anything new to the discussion.
    – phresnel
    Commented Sep 27, 2017 at 6:44
  • 2
    The question lacks context. What are we looking at here? A mobile phone with a physical keyboard? Phone with touchscreen and virtual keyboard? Computer extra numeric keypad? Door lock? Nuclear weapon control panel? Or something else? Commented Sep 27, 2017 at 7:45

4 Answers 4


Here's why:

Current Scenario

Such keyboards appear in two cases:

  • Number keyboard - Such keyboards ONLY appear when you need to dial-in a phone number or search for a contact. The need of having the letters is because of the functionality that allows the users to even type out names. People don't remember numbers anymore but traditionally, a dialer has to allow a number input. Such a keyboard would however allow you to actually type in a name.

  • T9 keyboard - Current touch phones still have the option of a T9 input pattern which is/was seen in the phones we now call "feature phones". The purpose could be throwback or for convenience (for people who have wide fingers and find it hard to hit the QWERTY keys accurately)

In the past

Feels weird to call the T9 keyboard as the "past" but yeah, let's consider it as they have almost disappeared.

For those keyboards, the letters HAD to be put with numbers as the primary action was dialing a number while text inputs were still considered secondary.

Keypad Telephones

Yes, physical keypad phones also had a similar keypad and even people born in the 90's (like me) won't know why. So, why did they have letters?

I haven't personally used it but there was a time when phone numbers used to ACTUALLY start with letters. The area codes weren't used to be numbers rather were actual initials.

Like RE7009 (RE=regent)

If you see advertisements from the 70's through early 90's, you'll notice the use of letters at the end of phone numbers. Like 1800-100-LOVE or 1800-100-TALK

The letters weren't actually letters but used to represent the numbers you're supposed to hit on the phone depending on the letters below them. That was because it would easier to remember 1800-100-LOVE rather than 1800-100-5683

  • 27
    I feel it's necessary to point out that--at least where I'm from in the United States--seeing "phonewords" (as DPS points out) as part of a business's phone number is still highly common. Commented Sep 26, 2017 at 13:24
  • I still hear them today: 877-241-LUNA!
    – AAM111
    Commented Sep 26, 2017 at 18:12
  • 2
    1-800-GOT-JUNK, 1-888-ROGERS1, 1-800-FLOWERS
    – scunliffe
    Commented Sep 27, 2017 at 1:41
  • 3
    As someone who grew up with this type of phone, I can't let "Yes, physical dialer phones also had a similar keypad" pass without comment.
    – TripeHound
    Commented Sep 27, 2017 at 9:55
  • 2
    @TripeHound - haha! My apologies. I will make an edit Commented Sep 27, 2017 at 9:58


Phonewords are mnemonic phrases represented as alphanumeric equivalents of a telephone number.2 In many countries, the digits on the telephone keypad also have letters assigned. By replacing the digits of a telephone number with the corresponding letters, it is sometimes possible to form a whole or partial word, an acronym, abbreviation, or some other alphanumeric combination.

Phonewords are the most common vanity numbers, although a few all-numeric vanity phone numbers are used. Toll-free telephone numbers are often branded using phonewords; some firms use easily memorable vanity telephone numbers like 1-800 Contacts, 1-800-Flowers, 1-800-FREE-411 or 1-800-GOT-JUNK? or 1-800-BATTERY? as brands for flagship products or names for entire companies.

The main advantages of phonewords over standard phone numbers include increased memorability and increased response rates to advertising. They are easier to remember than numeric phone numbers; therefore when businesses use them as a direct response tool in their advertising (radio, television, print, outdoor, etc.), they are proven to increase response rates by 30-60%.

  • 5
    The NPR show "Wait Wait... Don't Tell Me!" still uses this for their phone-ins: 1-888-Wait-Wait/1-888-924-8924 although you'll notice that they don't actually require the last 't'/8. However, due to the way the telephone system works, this doesn't matter. Commented Sep 26, 2017 at 7:32
  • @AndrewMartin It doesn't matter on landline phones, however it does matter on mobile phones :D
    – Emilio
    Commented Sep 27, 2017 at 23:37
  • These "phonewords" are also called Vanity number. Used mainly (as stated in advantages) for marketing & accessibility purposes because they are memorizable.
    – hc_dev
    Commented Feb 21, 2021 at 12:30

ATM keypads

enter image description here

Multiple banks suggest to create ATM pins using letters or words that you would easily remember.

See here and here.

  • Doesn't the ATM keyboard mirror phones, and not the other way round? Commented Sep 26, 2017 at 16:32
  • 2
    @ArturoTorresSánchez While phones predate ATMs by decades, it would be reasonable to say that they have letters for the same reason (so that you can enter mnemonic names), it's not simply a copycat.
    – Barmar
    Commented Sep 26, 2017 at 17:20
  • 2
    Interestingly from a security perspective if you tell account holders to use pins made from letters you are eliminating 2 out of 10 of the pool of possible digits a person may use, making the pin effectively easier to guess..
    – James T
    Commented Sep 27, 2017 at 7:48
  • @JamesTrotter It's only easier to guess if the resulting PIN is the same length, which seems unlikely. For a lot of people, words are easier to remember than numbers, so they'll likely end up with a longer PIN. Commented Sep 27, 2017 at 13:32
  • 1
    @AnthonyGrist As far as I am aware the de-facto standard for pin length is fixed at 4 digits. I think some countries have up to 6 digits, but they are always of a known length regardless. This is certainly true for banking in the UK, at least.
    – James T
    Commented Sep 27, 2017 at 13:52

Historically, the letters were intended as a mnemonic device because the phone company didn't expect people to be able to remember seven-digit numbers.

For example, my friend's phone number started with "CHurchill 9." Churchill starts with CH, which corresponds to the 2 and 4 on the keypad. So actually, my friend's number started with 249. (And by starts with, I'm referring to the exchange, not the area code.)

Another example is from the television show "Happy Days." On television in the U.S., fictional phone numbers typically start with 555 because those numbers aren't normally assigned to phone customers. Since "Happy Days" was set in the 1950s, when mnemonic exchanges were commonly used, they would give phone numbers as "KLondike 5", because the K and the L both correspond to 5.

Note that there are no letters associated with 0 or 1. This was because letters were used only to indicate the exchange, and exchanges couldn't start with 0 or 1. Also note that certain letters, like Q and X, were originally omitted, since it was hard to find mnemonics with those letters.

The fact that all the dials and keypads already had the letters, made it possible for later services to allow users to spell things out. For example, an internal company phone directory could allow you to call your coworker by spelling their name on the keypad. You could call an automated service for movie times by spelling the first few letters of the movie you wanted to see. Note that now the Q and X became important, and different services handled them different ways, such as assigning them to the 1 or 0 key.

Later, it became common to add Q and X to the keys where we typically see them now. By now, people were using keypads for PINs, and many did (and do) use words as a mnemonic for remembering their PINs.

SMS messaging became popular before touchscreen phones and even before cell phones with slide-out keyboards, ensuring that the mnemonics on the number pad remained useful for decades to come.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.