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While reading about the history of the computer keyboard I was a little surprised to hear that it is still the primary interface between humans and computers...

Despite the development of alternative input devices, such as the mouse, touchscreen, pen devices, character recognition and voice recognition, the keyboard remains the most commonly used device for direct (human) input of alphanumeric data into computers.

So why are computer keyboards still the most used input device?

extra credit: Will any emerging technologies be able to dethrone the keyboard as a primary input device?


I learned quite a bit about why the computer mouse has been far superior to other pointing devices in another question on UX StackExchange and am hoping to have another great discussion on the factors that lead to the success of the computer keyboard as our primary input device.

closed as primarily opinion-based by DA01, Charles Wesley, Matt Obee, Joshua Barron, Ben Brocka Feb 5 '15 at 19:41

Many good questions generate some degree of opinion based on expert experience, but answers to this question will tend to be almost entirely based on opinions, rather than facts, references, or specific expertise. If this question can be reworded to fit the rules in the help center, please edit the question.

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    You're assuming that the reason they are still the same is that they provide a good UX rather than some other sunk cost or financial reasoning. I for one don't use a typical keyboard because the UX is so poor. – JohnGB Feb 3 '15 at 21:25
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    @DA01 - I think the keyboard does provide superior UX and is not popular just because of historical use...What alternate input device do you think would take its place if the keyboard had never been invented? The only other device that comes to mind is speech input, but even today, speech input is not a replacement for a keyboard, especially for developers. – Johnny Feb 3 '15 at 22:01
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    What should they have changed into? Familiarity is very important - just try switching to another keyboard layout (or switch between a Mac and a PC). – Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Feb 3 '15 at 22:59
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    Because keyboards seriously are the best form of input (paired with a mouse) for most computing tasks. Their only downside is size which is why mobile devices attempt to emulate it. – Keavon Feb 3 '15 at 23:29
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    @cHao Yes, they don't correspond to the labels, but I didn't type by looking at the labels anyway on a QWERTY keyboard, so it doesn't matter that much. Once you retrain your muscle memory (which takes a few weeks), typing is a lot faster. – Masked Man Feb 4 '15 at 6:16

15 Answers 15

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Because of:

  • Familiarity: Everyone has more or less learned to use it and a lot of users don't even need to take a look at at individual keys to type. Although not physically, it's present and has the same layout across devices.

  • Usefulness: You can perform an incredible HUGE variety of task just with a keyboard.

  • Accessibility: It provides an accessible interface even for people capable of very little or impaired movement. For people with impaired vision there are some low vision keyboards available.

  • Learning curve: You don't need previous experience or any particular ability to start using it and get the things done.
  • Privacy: Compared with other methods as Speech Recognition, you can type anything without worrying about everyone around getting the content of your message.

  • Historical: It has been the first easy-to-use, "effortless" and efficient input device for computers, which led it to become the main input device for them. It's the heir of the typewriter, which have made the transition minimal or nonexistent.

  • Variety: You can choose between different keyboards types for different usages or personal preference. You get from standard models to ergonomic , flexible, for gaming, mini, mechanical, multimedia, spill resistance, backlit, etc. And it seems that there is no reason for not expecting new types to be developed in the future, which could probably extend and/or improve its capabilities.

  • Speed + Response + Feedback : For some applications (like Gaming) you need to be a able to react as quick and accurately as possible and keyboards provide this feature because of the minimal distance and effort needed to press a key plus the almost instant time lapse perception between key pressing action an its response on the system.
    _Additionaly, it provides you a physical feedback which is relevant to UX (even more for the people who needs to look at the keyboard to type). It also provides audible feedback which is positive unless you or your roommates/coworkers get annoyed by the key pressing sound.

  • Lack of all-purpose competitors: They could be better in some fields and for some specific applications, but they don't have, at least for now, neither the precision nor the amount of capabilities that a standard keyboard offers.

  • 15
    not to mention that it is relatively cheap – Thorsten Staerk Feb 3 '15 at 21:23
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    i'd also add it's extremely well tuned for use with hands, due to nearly 200 years of development – Toni Leigh Feb 3 '15 at 21:51
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    I'd say there's actually a pretty steep learning curve if you've ever met someone trying to hunt-n-peck type for the first time. – DA01 Feb 3 '15 at 21:52
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    It's a learning curve that the majority of people have already climbed, however. I can get an astonishing amount done with just a keyboard, due to muscle memory I can type nearly as fast as I can think... That's pretty efficient. Many people can type faster than they can write, due to a kind of 'parallel' workflow - your next two or three keystrokes can be 'lined up' as you type each letter. In fact, the keyboard is specifically laid out to reduce the number of times the same finger performs two key presses in a row. Also, I'm now totally being weirded out by my own fingers as I type this – Jon Story Feb 3 '15 at 23:26
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    If we ask "Why do we still use QWERTY?" there's basically only "historical" and "inertia" left :-) – gerrit Feb 4 '15 at 0:02
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Rewobs answer is already excellent, but for a deeper understanding it's valuable to consider what alternatives we have.

Chorded keyboard

Already in the mother of all demos in 1968 an alternative input device was proposed: the chorded keyboard (though the concept is even older).

enter image description here

The idea is that instead of moving your fingers to dedicated keys one at a time you simply press combinations of keys to trigger a specific character (it's the device on the left side of the photo, see also the keyboard as we know it and one of the first computer mice ever). Of course this concept has been developed further since then and quite interesting things have been made such as keyers (chorded keyboards without boards):

enter image description here

Advantages:

  • Fast: You don't need to move your fingers around
  • Small: It's small enough to put even on mobile devices

Disadvantages:

  • Extremely steep learning curve: It might be equally hard to become fluent on a traditional keyboard, but at least with a traditional keyboard the slope is fairly linear, on the other hand with a chorded keyboard it's practically unusable till you learn it perfectly.
  • Nobody was used to them: Traditional keyboards already had a big usage base in the typewriter world. A full keyboard made sense there for mechanical reasons and making a chorded mechanical typewriter is nearly impossible.
  • Limited options: With 5 keys you have 31 chords (key combinations). That's not even enough to cover the alphanumerical range. Now, this can be easily solved by adding three keys for the thumb as seen in the above picture (105 chords) or using two hands for input (1024 chords, though a lot of those might start to be unrealistic), but both have their own disadvantages.

Voice input

Voice input is a fairly new competitor and we all know how it is supposed to work. Wherein the problem lies as well: Too often it doesn't work.

Advantages (assuming it works perfectly)

  • Faster than average typing speeds (and possibly when perfected faster even than fast typists, although at the moment it requires calm and well articulated input)
  • Requires no physical buttons and leaves the hands free! A huge deal for example for VR environments.
  • Speaking is less tiring than moving your fingers, even if only marginally

Disadvantages

  • The technology isn't there yet. Too often things are transcribed incorrectly and in those cases corrections are extremely hard to make (*"Directors to 2st main street. No, directions. Replace directors with directions. Cancel. Stop. Oh ****, whatever."*).
  • Only works for input that is understood (languages know a surprising number of near ambiguous cases that are understood due to context). Right now that's mostly natural input, so inputting code or controlling games is out of the question.
  • As stated already in Rewobs answer, privacy is a big issue as well. Even though some people are able to read hand movements on a keyboard from a distance this is something that has to be learned specifically unlikely the ability to understand spoken language.

Gesture based input on a touch field

Although gesture based input as I think originally pioneered by Swype seems on the surface to be a normal keyboard as well in essence it has little similarity from a UX perspective. The most simple implementations works with dragging your finger over the letters of the word you wish to type, with the software reconstructing the word you meant.

enter image description here

Advantages

  • Extremely small input area
  • Usable with a single finger, although multitouch solutions exist as well
  • Usable without (a lot of) training
  • Might work in free space (relevant for applications such as VR), however this has only been explored at a very shallow level so far.

Disadvantages

  • The system has to guess what you meant, this means that as a user you have to constantly check whether the input was correct.
  • Once again the input has to be understood. Great for natural language, but in this case nearly impossible for something like code.
  • Although surprisingly fast it still doesn't come close to the speed of a typist on a keyboard (be it traditional or chorded)

Direct brain-computer interfaces

Already since the 1970s a lot of research has been done into controlling computers directly with your thoughts. Back then the brain was simply considered a black box and 45 years later we still don't have a clue how it really works. What this practically means is that although we can learn ourselves to trigger certain recognizable patterns and then detect these patterns this is far from reliable and will require an incredible amount of research before even worth seriously considering.

Advantages (assuming it works perfectly):

  • Fastest input solution imaginable if connected to thoughts, if instead learned sequences have to be triggered this might be different.
  • Perfect privacy
  • Leaves the hands and body free

Disadvantages

  • For now even more than voice input it doesn't work at all reliably.
  • It might not even be possible to make a non-intrusive solution that works reliably
  • Accepting word input (instead of triggered sequences such as 'spelling out the letters') will likely require understanding of the input with all the linked disadvantages.

Conclusion

Without repeating the other answers too much I think it's fair to say that the computer keyboard as we know it has primarily won due to its familiarity and easy learning curve in contrast to other options available at the time. Alternative input schemes have however been picking up a lot of steam on mobile devices with a lot of success. Solutions like voice input have seen some success as well and are getting better by the day, however generally speaking are considered to be too unreliable by the general populus.

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    Mind control will never work.... Think about how often you slip into a daydream and now imagine your Google search history. Carnage ensues – Jon Story Feb 3 '15 at 23:30
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    @JonStory Nope, what we've been able to do is teach a system certain patterns and then recognize them again. But that's then limited to a single person and ridiculously context dependent. I mean, we don't even get what thoughts are, for all we know we might just be looking at an effect of an effect of the original 'thought' (whatever that may be in the first place). I studied medical natural sciences for awhile and our introductory (!) chapters on the brain contained some kind of 'we dont get this part yet' in every second or third paragraph and that was just a couple of years back. – David Mulder Feb 3 '15 at 23:49
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    @JonStory Whether it's an effect would matter greatly, because it's all about the amount of data you have to your disposal. Given the number of people walking past my home I will be able to predict to some extend the schedule of the buses, but no matter what I won't be able to figure out based on that alone where the bus came from or where it's going. Now, you could tell me where a specific bus came from and I may be able to match that to my observations, but that will never give me the magical skill to suddenly know where the other buses come from and go to. Not saying that it's per – David Mulder Feb 4 '15 at 2:42
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    Even if the brain interface we practical, this would suddenly open a whole new problem related to privacy. What can be the computer see? Who is it reporting it to? – Mark Micallef Feb 4 '15 at 4:18
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    @O.R.Mapper Regarding the input of "non-speakable characters" all I can say is that it's all about understanding the input. Take for example code, I am perfectly able to dictate the code I write to another user as long as he knows the language ("Call app dot use with first argument view engine and second argument handlebars") , which is exactly the same as with natural language voice input where the input needs to be understood as well. Which is definitely a disadvantage, but hardly a reason why the technology isn't there yet. (cont.) – David Mulder Feb 4 '15 at 17:15
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Their usefulness scales beautifully with experience and developed skill

Someone who knows only a little bit of numbers and letters can use a keyboard for a variety of tasks, even without knowing about the importance of the "shift key". As each button on the keyboard is labeled clearly with what each key will output when pressed, a person can guess quite quickly and accurately what each thing does. And when you don't know? Well, just don't push it. Or, go ahead and push it - see what happens! And Shift + Key = mind blown! (Wait until they learn about CTRL and ALT! Or, ok, CMD and OPT.)

Yet with time and experience a person can, with constant "payoffs" along the way, develop into a touch-typist that can type fast enough that the speed of their fingers is no longer a constraint on their communication. They will have to pause and think - and so the maximum speed of the device does not constrain the experience of the vast majority of human operators.

The Keyboard Isn't an Island - the Software Matters Too!

In a discussion like this it's easy to forget about the fact that a keyboard is NOT a typewriter - it's an input device to a programmable computer! And this allows the experience to be modified way faster and more cheaply than new devices can be manufactured.

It's easy to forget, but some of the killer features of computers that made them what they are to day was little stuff like word processors, spreadsheets, and databases - boring stuff, but stuff that's way worse to do by hand.

Yet when people came up with new ideas of what a computer to do, they could just make new software - no new hardware needed! A keyboard and a mouse and that's all they needed to create the internet browser and - when you add in a camera - add poorly spelled text to cat pictures. Spell checkers use to be important, anyway.

Letters, Numbers, and Directions - What Else Do Humans Care About?

Another slick power of the keyboard is that while a standard keyboard now has 108 keys, and custom keyboards can have more or less, what do most keyboards now have in common? Letters, numbers, and 2D direction keys (up, down, left, right). Add a few special function keys, and that's it. That is alot, but consider all they leave out!

Keyboards Don't Waste Effort On Irrelevant Input

In terms of human communication - which is what modern computer use is about, really - what else do you need to express? Does a human need to express anger with their voice volume to a computer? Will making a sad face help the computer understand what you are trying to do? Will hitting the keys harder somehow guide the computer to understand what you really wanted it to do?

Should a computer consider how you are dressed, or your posture, or your skin tone, or make some educated guesses on your socio-economic background and gender, to better figure out what you want from them? Would people even want that?

Keyboards don't allow you to input all kinds of things, and this isn't by accident. It just turns out that the things you can't do with a keyboard happens to generally be things you can't - or don't want to do - with a computer.

So keyboards are great at allowing us to do the things we want with a computer, and the things they can't do so far have pretty much been things computers can't do anyway.

Keyboards Have Changed, and They'll Keep Changing

When we think up new stuff, we create specialized devices - cameras, microphones, and biometric scanners, for instance. And if and when things get sorted out with the tech, they often get integrated back into the keyboard (like mouse pointer nubs, touchpads, fingerprint readers, etc).

Perhaps their greatest strength is ultimately their own limitations - you get 108 (+/-30) keys, press them or don't. And it turns out that that is enough for most people, most of the time - they usually need a bit less, and rarely need many more.

And so we have the humble keyboard, where the most common variety still ignores texture, pressure (beyond on and off), sound, vision, weight, and the inexorable march of time and raise in entropy that damns us all. And this obliviousness makes computers easier to program and use, and so the keyboard will be with us for a long, long time.

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    +1 for the most obvious fact: every key is labelled. That's basically the answer right there. While qwerty, azerty or qwertz might not be the best layout, and someday we might universally switch to abcdef or dvorak (won't hold my breath), we'll never switch to unlabelled keys. In fact, we're more likely to switch to soft-labelled keys like the Optimus. – Dewi Morgan Feb 4 '15 at 4:06
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    One addition: you don't just have 108 keys, you have roughly (under X, anyway) 100 * 2^4, since each alphanumeric and many function/cursor keys can be modified with Shift, Ctrl, Alt, Meta, and combinations of them. (And you can even differentiate between left & right modifier keys.) So you can easily modify the keyboard in software to produce non-English characters, do macros, invoke window manager or OS functions... – jamesqf Feb 4 '15 at 4:22
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    @DewiMorgan - there are, however, a couple unlabeled keyboards on the market. I've been using one myself for the last few years. – Sam Dufel Feb 4 '15 at 20:58
  • @sam-dufel Good point :) – Dewi Morgan Feb 4 '15 at 21:38
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Keyboards are the ideal human/computer interface design until we can directly control computers with our minds. That's a bold statement, especially since most depictions of the future in popular culture show us all the cool ways we will be able to interface with a computer. To back that statement up, I'm going to define the problem keyboards solve first.

Keyboards exist to transfer information from a human to a computer. More specifically, they transfer information in the form of a list of values from a relatively small subset.

This contrasts to mice, touchscreens, and fancy interactive holographic devices from the future. Those types of devices transfer information in the form of a list of values from a (conceptually) infinite set. When you need to enter a word, there is one exact sequence of characters. When you need to click a button, there's an infinite number of places you can click on it.

In short, keyboards are digital, mice et al. are analog. The most useful interfaces will need both a digital and analog input, and keyboards are the ideal digital input.

One very important part of this problem is the speed at which you can enter a sequence. When using a mouse, you might need 1 or 2 clicks to accomplish a mental task (e.g. click on a link on a search page). When using a keyboard, you might need to enter a few (searching for a word) to hundreds (writing a sentence) of characters. A delay of even a few milliseconds between each character adds up quickly.

So, the problem that keyboards solve is, "entering a sequence of values from a set of several dozen, as quickly as possible". Are there better ways to solve that problem?

For motion-based input devices (using body movements to either mechanically actuate or otherwise "indicate" the action), no. The fingers are one of the two areas that humans can control with the most precision and accuracy**, the other being the face. For digital input, it's clear that fingers win (they're even called "digits" after "digital" ;) - we have 10 of them, and since we're dealing with digital data, the fingers are interchangeable (any one can press any key). Any other motion-based device would sacrifice somewhere - either the speed slows because you are using a less precise part of your body (as well as one that is less parallelized) or you are using your face and then you lose the interchangeability (raise left eyebrow for an 'e', suck in left cheek for a 'g').

So, using fingers is the fastest. Is a flat grid the best form? What about something like a cylinder you grip? Or two separate pieces that fit in each hand? Ultimately, a flat grid is the most versatile and useful. Anything that is going to be more natural, like a cylinder ringed by keys, will need more specific conditions to be used. A flat grid is easy to understand and get used to.

What about non-motion based input - voice recognition? Even if voice recognition was perfected, it would still be inferior to keyboards as a general-purpose solution, simply from people's desire for privacy even for the most trivial things. When I call the dentist to make an appointment, I go out into the hall, even though I could do it at my desk and no one would care the slightest bit. If voice-recognition becomes the standard for digital input, suddenly every single thing you do with your computer is now public to anyone within earshot.

** e.g. see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cortical_homunculus

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    -1 for the assumption that traditional keyboards are actually the best form factor and disregarding historical reasons and learning curves. As far as I know chorded keyboards for example are objectively speaking far superior to grid based keyboards when used by equally proficient users although I do have to confess that I have never used one. Lastly I also think you're unrealistically harsh against the future prospects of voice input, it does have one huge advantage after all: It leaves the hands free for other input despite not necessarily giving up accuracy once perfected. – David Mulder Feb 3 '15 at 23:46
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    +1 for backing the claim up well: I feel Mulder's criticisms lack merit, particularly given the cons he's specified against voice and chord in his own post. I'd nitpick that while they're by far the best most ideal input yet designed for the union of the ["general purpose" AND "digital" AND "stationary"] domains (and you didn't mention stationary!), other inputs do often beat them outside that niche. So unless it can be convincingly argued that computer input is likely to remain in that domain, I don't think we can claim it'll remain the ideal input. – Dewi Morgan Feb 4 '15 at 4:02
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Why are keyboards still the predominant input device?

Short answer :

The keyboard has prevailed because its tactile properties, flexibility and efficiency have not yet been surpassed by other technologies.


Longer answer:

It all boils down to what exactly the keyboard was and intended to do! The evolution of the keyboard from the printing press to typewriters and currently keyboards clearly indicate that the main objective was to produce documents in order to facilitate communication and individualize it, for this to happen the need for accuracy and efficiency was "key" (we needed to get as close as possible to verbal communication and integrate its nuances). The typewriter fulfilled this need both accurately and efficiently ( though due to the intricate moving parts it was prone to malfunction such as stuck keys) and so did the keyboard.

Keyboard Accuracy was achieved through the very tactile nature and instantaneous feedback the keyboard provides (keys are either pressed or and not pressed which makes the mechanics both reliable and accurate)

Keyboard Efficiency was achieved by the combination of both human dexterity, the versatile and flexible nature of the keyboard.have a look at the typing experience below:

enter image description here

  • Each finger rests on a particular key in the home row of the keyboard when not typing, in order to keep "grounded" and oriented at all times. The thumbs remain in the air, or very gently in contact with the keys below

  • Each finger is responsible for a vertical column of keys, which you can think of as a "home column". The column is not straight up and
    down, but rather slopes up to the left.

  • Both index fingers are responsible for an additional column, the one next to their home columns towards the middle of the keyboard.

  • The thumbs are used for the space bar, and depending on the shape of your keyboard can also be used for the "command" (Apple computers) or "Windows" (PCs) key

  • The left-hand is also responsible for all the keys to the left of its home column, including the left shift key, caps lock, tab, tilde, escape and others.

Source:Typing lessons

What the future holds:

Will any emerging technologies be able to dethrone the keyboard as a primary input device?

Other devises have so far failed or have been limited to specific audiences and usage because they did not meet accuracy and effeciency needs.

Among these technologies speech recognition is quite promising yet very difficult to achieve as speech and verbal communications are intrinsically tied to a specific context with all its nuances and intricacies,capturing these is a whole new game.. the main challenge here is:

Natural language processing and understanding

Most spoken dialogue systems wait until the user stops speaking before trying to understand and re- act to what the user is saying. In particular, in a typical dialogue system pipeline, it is only once the user’s spoken utterance is complete that the results of automatic speech recognition (ASR) are sent on to natural language understanding (NLU) and dia- logue management, which then triggers generation and synthesis of the next system prompt. While this style of interaction is adequate for some appli- cations, it enforces a rigid pacing that can be un- natural and inefficient for mixed-initiative dialogue.

So to conclude while there is sustained effort to undertsand how humans converse and provide adequate solutions via speech recognition, this is going to take time and effort and will most likely encounter diffusion and adoption challenges. So i don't see the keyboard dethroned anytime soon.

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Keyboards have won and remain unchanged because of accuracy and they conveniently have an alphabet on them which is nice.

A keyboard key has two states, pressed and not pressed, highly reliable and accurate. Spelling deficiencies and jumbo-hand syndrome can be corrected through either education or providing a keyboard which meets their size needs.

Other methods:

  • Hand-writing recognition: pfft good luck
  • Speech recognition: how many discrepancies can we count? Care to speak your password at a library? Or maybe you are more comfortable speaking your ATM pin? What happens to mutes?
  • Brainwave detection: that's not prone to errors, no way. Although, some day yes and bye-bye carpal tunnel :)
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    I think the fact the a keyboard has its own usage instructions printed right on top if it, is often underrated. Want to type an "A"? Hmm … why don't I try pressing the button labelled with "A"? This works as long as you know what a button is. Now, imagine you have never seen a mouse or a trackpad before. Would you know what to do with it? – Jörg W Mittag Feb 4 '15 at 2:59
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    "What happens to mutes" is a bit weak. What happens to people lacking hands, or the ability to use them? Such as, say... everyone on the planet? Yes, everyone on the planet at some point or another has at least one of their hands full, and probably for a much larger part of the day than they have their mouths full. If you are at a computer, for example, a mouse often fills one hand. – Dewi Morgan Feb 4 '15 at 4:09
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    @DewiMorgan I think the keyboard is one of the most accessible devices of all time. Someone missing one hand can continue to use a keyboard with great proficiency, someone with severe arthritis can use a keyboard with just their index fingers, people with no hands can type with their feet or a wand held in the mouth - in a pinch you can even use your nose! The niche status of alternatives means that accessibility is rarely an issue for them (unless designed specifically for a given disability). As long as you can depress a key, the keyboard works. Voice, gesture, chorded etc are less tolerant. – DeveloperInDevelopment Feb 4 '15 at 15:00
  • Oh, I don't disagree... much :P I agree with those who say it's the best, but when you have only one hand (I have a cat, it likes me to hold it) productivity, no matter how practiced you are, drops sharply. And yet, despite that, I've never written an app which lets me hit some hotkey to change it to chorded by using only one hand. And while it has been done, almost nobody uses such a thing. Which suggests that 1-handed typing is better than chording for almost everybody. But asking about mutes in your post without addressing keyboard accessibility felt weak. – Dewi Morgan Feb 4 '15 at 18:23
  • @DewiMorgan who are you talking to? – MonkeyZeus Feb 4 '15 at 18:29
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The reason they have stayed essentially the same doesn't have a lot to do with UX. It's mostly due the market. If you're selling a text input device, you want it to be mostly interoperable with what people are used to and with the hardware and software they are using.

There are variations, but the markets for those are small simply because most people consider the benefits of those variations not worth the drawback of loss of interoperability and familiarity.

From a UX perspective, we're mostly talking only about the familiarity factor.

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    This answer feels correct because there is really no other reason my iPad onscreen keyboard should be patterned after a typewriter which was designed to make little metal hammers least likely to jam while typing fast. – DaveAlger Feb 5 '15 at 4:27
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    @DaveAlger that's a really good point. We still use the standard qwerty on touch devices for no real good reason other than familiarity. In fact, familiarity is such a strong reason it trumps the fact that there are many better ways to handle text input than the standard qwerty. – DA01 Feb 5 '15 at 4:32
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    familiarity is such a powerful force it makes me wonder what else we are doing solely because it has been done that way in the past and not because it is the best possible user experience. – DaveAlger Feb 5 '15 at 13:25
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    @DaveAlger If that's the question that bothers you you should ask it as a new question instead of hijacking your own question. This question was about computer keyboards, not qwerty layouts and it's popularity. – David Mulder Feb 5 '15 at 17:21
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    -1 Chorded keyboards have been available for years and are interoperable with the hardware and software people are using. And as far as familiarity goes, since the keyboard was introduced on typewriters many many many new generations have been raised who have all gotten used to countless new technologies and the question here was why this hasn't happened with keyboards. – David Mulder Feb 5 '15 at 17:23
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I very much suspect that the foundation of your question is flawed.

Whilst the keyboard is doubtless the primary input device for the Personal Computer, human interaction with computers is not bound by that limit.

Just consider all the user experiences that a human may have with a computer every day.

Communication/Entertainment:

  1. Smart TV
  2. Telephony
  3. Smart Phone/Tablet
  4. The new range of fitness devices
  5. Games consoles.
  6. Heating systems.
  7. Washing machines.
  8. Fancy coffee machines
  9. Even some kettles.
  10. E-Readers.
  11. Alarm system.

etc.

Transport/Out and about:

  1. Modern Cars
  2. Modern Trains
  3. Ticket Machines
  4. Fuel Pumps
  5. ATM
  6. Automated Point-of-sale
  7. Traffic Lights

etc.

At work:

  1. This list is too long (depending on the job).

Obviously, these lists are not exhaustive and yes, I know some of the interaction with these devices may use a "keyboard like" interface. However, I suspect that the rate of interaction with PC's is dwarfed by the rate of interaction with computers in general.

The predominance of the keyboard is limited to the input of significant quantities of textual information.

The reason is simple of course, it works and its what most people are used to. Until an alternative has obvious and significant enough advantage over the keyboard it will remain thus.

In order for any change to be adopted the perceived benefits have to be significant and tangible enough to overcome the associated risks and the loss of investment in the current mechanism.

Pros

  1. It might be better, more efficient.
  2. May gain reputation as pioneer/visionary or as "cool".

Cons

  1. Conformance bias, if its good enough for everybody else...
  2. If its worse, loss of reputation.
  3. Loss of money.
  4. Old skills and knowledge will become redundant.
  5. Resources will become redundant.

Unless there is a clear an benefit or external force it is unlikely that the inertia of risk avoidance will be overcome.

It is widely accepted and known that the Qwerty Keyboard was designed to avoid jams in type writer mechanisms not for efficiency of input. Despite the plain fact and the availability of more efficient layouts the Qwerty keyboard layout remains dominant. This demonstrates the power of risk avoidance and the desire to conform. Any alternative text input mechanism must overcome these barriers.

2

I think it's incorrect to claim that keyboards haven't changed. There have been at least 3 significantly different designs since the IBM PC was introduced. From the original design with function keys on the left http://www.vintage-computer.com/ibm_pc.shtml to the AT 101+ version with function keys on the top and those annoying duplicated cursor keys, to the laptop keyboards* that eliminated the cursor keypad entirely. And then there are the various gaming and other special-purpose keyboards.

Now you may argue that the basic alphanumeric key layout hasn't changed, but at least for the sort of work flow I have, I'd guess those are at best only 2/3 of my keystrokes. Especially if you consider the chorded Ctl/Alt-alpha keys I've assigned to editor macros, shell commands, &c. For a redesigned keyboard or alternate input device to be a practical replacement for the present keyboard, it has to support all those functions in addition to simple alphanumerics.

*Which are pretty much unusable for actual work, IMHO. That's why I'm typing this on an AT-style keyboard plugged into my laptop.

  • From the typewriter keyboard to the touchscreen keyboard, the concept has remained basically the same: a large array of letters and symbols, which can most of the time be hit without chording to produce the required output. – Dewi Morgan Feb 4 '15 at 18:25
2

Love this question. Let's also remember that keyboards as a means of using the digits to communicate ideas predate computers by at least hundreds of years. I began studying piano nearly forty years ago, and about three years ago took up bayan, or Russian chromatic button accordion.

Have been a rather comfortable and fast hunt-and-pecker for decades and just this week began learning touch typing with gtypist. It's been really interesting realizing it feels exactly the same as learning/playing a musical keyboard. And as people are mentioning, auxiliary elements like a mouse, foot pedal, bellows or voice may be involved in the communication, but I think it's our fingers that have the most facility for precisely transferring concrete ideas from the abstract to the manifest.

Why is this? If I'm reading this correctly, 10 fingers can produce 2^10 possible combinations which far out-performs any other physical facility we have. Words like dexterity and even adroit and nimble exemplify the close ties between the fingers and the mind. The fingers are the primary tool in counting and measuring and the dexterous use of the muscles actually stimulates the brain, as we are generating output - the visualization of which which might be helpful in the process of conceptualization.

  • Nice thoughts, but how does this answer OP's question Why are computer keyboards still basically the same? – Benny Skogberg Feb 4 '15 at 8:40
  • I agree with @Benny Skogberg but I find your idea " I think it's our fingers that have the most facility for precisely transferring concrete ideas from the abstract to the manifest" intriguing... you could perhaps elaborate on this point. – Okavango Feb 4 '15 at 9:14
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    @BennySkogberg you're right. I allowed some of the many informative comments to lead me astray of the initial question. Will edit. – MikeiLL Feb 4 '15 at 13:14
  • @BennySkogberg - hey the question is actually "Why are keyboards still the predominant input device?", and I think, "it's our fingers that have the most facility for precisely transferring concrete ideas from the abstract to the manifest" addresses that. – MikeiLL Feb 4 '15 at 13:18
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    @MikeiLL: I think the musical instrument analogy is a good one. Consider the range of notes/chords that can be produced by a keyboarded instrument like a piano, vs those that are blown or bowed. And even many of those use the fingers to increase the range of notes. – jamesqf Feb 4 '15 at 21:19
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It takes years of practice to become a good touch typist.

It's not something you can relearn overnight - so basically the interface has to remain physically the same to be usable.


ADDED:

And I therefore because one has a 'lot invested' in using a keyboard there's a tendency to stick to the keyboard if some other method requires time and effort to learn.

So inertia basically.

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    How does this answer the question? – Ooker Feb 4 '15 at 15:39
  • I don't believe it takes years. I became a fairly-proficient typist in a one semester high school class (long enough ago that it was taught on real typewriters), and I was far from being best in the class. And as others have pointed out, you don't have to be proficient: hunt & peck will get the job done. – jamesqf Feb 5 '15 at 6:55
  • I agree I don't think I've really read the question properly. I will edit. – PhillipW Feb 5 '15 at 14:36
1

A one-sentence version of Turch's answer:

Because you use keyboard by fingers.

How many fingers do you have? Compare that number to the number of mouth (voice input), wrists (mouse). The more fingers you have, the more combinations can be done.

What about touching screen and controller, they all use fingers? I haven't had a chance to use real touching keyboard, but in the keyboard of tablet, say when I press the letter t, I can't see the letter p. But hey, maybe touching screen is not a place to use traditional keyboard layout. And controller? Well, you have to hold the button constantly in order to give order quickly. These two examples, again, are about combination. The touch screen is hard for make a combination, you can only use one or two fingers at one time, or you will mistap (unlike computer where input device is separate to the output device, phone screen needs to take charge of these two functions). The controller is limited to a number of combinations. You can make a long combo like playing fighting games in PlayStation, but it will only do one singe task.

Therefore, I want to add:

With keyboard, your fingers can make many short combinations.

  • I'm not really following what it is you're saying here. Are you saying keyboards are preferred because you have more fingers than mouths? And your last paragraph especially is very confusing. – JonW Feb 4 '15 at 15:23
  • Yes. See MikeiLL's answer. And which part of the last paragraph makes you confused? – Ooker Feb 4 '15 at 15:37
  • Because it doesn't seem to be answering the question that was asked: "Why are keyboards still the predominant input device?". – JonW Feb 4 '15 at 16:31
  • Please see my update – Ooker Feb 4 '15 at 17:03
1

Maybe the keyboard already isn't the predominant input device anymore. An estimate that is already over a year old suggests that there are more smartphones than PCs in the world. People probably don't develop software or write books with them but they search the web, write email, blog, etc.

Now, if you are a 30-something working in IT in North America or Western Europe, you probably own a computer, a tablet and a smartphone and you don't think of the latter two as serious devices replacing the computer. You probably also think of the common touch-screen typing UIs as variants of the keyboard even though they have actually become something quite different.

Personally, I grew up before the Internet hit it big with the general public and I can remember the time before Google. And when I see an interesting question while reading Stackexchange on my tablet, I grab my laptop to type more “comfortably” (for me…).

But that's not the only way people interact with computers anymore. Many don't have a traditional desktop or laptop computer or don't use it much. In the developing world, there are countries with unreliable power (rolling blackouts and power shortages is a daily occurrence in some places) and very few landlines where many people do have smartphones. Often, it's the first computer-like device they ever owned and it does not come with a keyboard.

I can't claim that I know how the future of UI will look like but it seems likely that any alternative to the keyboard will change computers and their usage so deeply that we won't recognize them as computers anymore. From this perspective, the keyboard is not predominant because it's somehow better or more common than other input devices but merely because it's a defining attribute of personal computers.

  • I don't think your logic really follows. Yes, people/devices who don't have easy access to keyboards will find other alternatives, but will any of those alternatives ever become better or predominant in general use? I think not: they'll just remain niche substitutes because the keyboard IS better for most things.. As for instance, I can manipulate files & directories on my tablet with native tools, but it's often much more efficient to ssh into it from my linux machines. – jamesqf Feb 5 '15 at 0:19
  • @jamesqf How are smartphones a niche? Speaking of manipulating files and directories is quite telling, that's what's becoming a niche use case nowadays, not even speaking of ssh from a linux machine. That's completely out there in geek territory! – Gala Feb 5 '15 at 0:23
  • The amount of people who only have touch devices is entirely overrated. They break very easily and the constant "get the latest" trend means there's a massive amount of sales. On other the hand, I'm sitting in front of my 5 year old desktop next to wife's 8 year old laptop. No need to replace either. – Clearer Feb 5 '15 at 3:10
  • @Gala: They're a niche as far as trying to do any sort of real computer-related work. For most users, it seems they're primarily a game device, secondarily a phone/text device, maybe other things like a GPS, OBDII scanner, ebook reader, music player, maybe even a TV. Most of those were not at all computer-like in their original incarnations, so the UI does not have to be computer-like. – jamesqf Feb 5 '15 at 4:15
  • @jamesqf That's exactly the logic I describe in my answer, a bit of a “no true scotsman argument” if you will. Don't misunderstand me, I like those things too but many people don't have a notion of files and directories and don't need them. Defining new devices away as not a “real computer-related work” is purely circular. If you take computer to mean a development workstation as we know it (including its keyboard) then it's always going to have a keyboard but that's trivial. – Gala Feb 5 '15 at 11:17
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The main reason is simply that the vast majority of tasks and time spent on a computer by any human deals with text. Most people don't use a computer for much other than reading or writing text in some form, be it logging on to myface, typing in the latest chicken pie recipes, reading a volume of "Lord of the Potters" or searching on yougle.

For dealing with text, nothing beats the keyboard or even comes close. The best alternative is touch screens with virtual keyboard and, frankly, my experience with those are not too encouraging. The mouse and a virtual keyboard is the third best alternative and that's a very far way of from the touchscreen.

Yes, they are also cheap, easily available, historical and all those other things.

If you could ever find a new device which would be a better alternative to the keyboard, for whatever task people do most, it will replace it. Hence we have the mouse for pointing at things -- keyboards are not great at this task. We have microphones for recording sound, which keyboards can't do at all.

We have touch screens for handheld units because it's inconvenient to carry a separate input device -- let alone use it.

Joysticks, joypads, steering wheels/pedals are used for simulators and games because they beat the keyboard at those tasks. They haven't entirely replaced the keyboard (outside the consoles) mainly because they are (still) very expensive and require a great deal of space to just have around.

Others have proposed future alternatives, including mind control. The are a few potential problems with mind control though: cost, security and convenience -- that is, if it ever becomes a generic input device.

The cost part might be driven down over time, but initially I doubt it's going to be within reach of the average datajockey.

The security aspect is in particular interesting with mind reading; if it can "read" minds, the level of detail is critical; if it's not detailed enough it will be effectively useless to you, but if it's detailed enough it might be possible for someone else to tap data directly from your mind, using various tricks to reveal information that can then be read from the device. This depends entirely on too many things I have no knowledge of.

If the connection to the computer is wireless (which I assume it will be), it must be encrypted to be considered at all -- might even have to have it encrypted even on wires.

If the connection is not encrypted and it's possible to trick you into revealing information through the device, you have absolutely no privacy when you're using a mind reading device!

Convenience is a matter of battery and weight; battery life must be good enough that it can be used for at least 6 hours (maybe even more) without a recharge.

Weight might be a problem if it makes you strain your neck or back or any other part of your body. Finally, it must be possible to turn the thing on and off in a very convenient manner, preferably using mind control.

-2

Eventually speaking to a computer will dethrone keyboards. HCI experts have been saying this since the 90s.

Better keyboard experiences have existed since the 30s (DVORAK) but the cost of re-learning to type is too high and convention wins out. In many situations, convention always wins. We have 60 seconds in a minute instead of 100. 12 hours in the morning and afternoon instead of 10. Inches instead of meters.

This is why being first to market is especially important. Often times the solution that gains the most traction wins over superior solutions released afterward. The iPhone is the most often noted exception to this heuristic, where superior design ("experience") won out, but typically people keep conventions.

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    HCI experts have been saying it since at least 1966... See Star Trek. And they will likely be saying it for another 49 years. Voices and language are incredibly different between people, mood, dialect etc. – Jon Story Feb 3 '15 at 23:32
  • I rather like Dvorak, but its objective betterness is debatable at best. As for 100 seconds, 10 hours, etc...again, the betterness is highly questionable. (At the very least, you'd need a unit of time to replace the second.) We don't get to just propose new standards and get them adopted without there being a demonstrably significant net plus to doing so. – cHao Feb 4 '15 at 6:22
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    I fail to see how speaking to a computer will be preferable to typing. As I write this I am sat in an office with 6 other people in very close vicinity to me, and I am in audible reach of even more. Having everyone speaking at once doesn't sound like progress to me. Imagine a room pf people saying stuff like "My Password Is MONKEY05", "Send Email to Mom - The test results came back clean; I don't have the disease anymore"... – JonW Feb 4 '15 at 14:23
  • Even if you're alone, how could most people ever manage to speak that much? Only someone afflicted with logorrhea en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Logorrhea_(psychology) , I think, and if you've even known such an unfortunate person, you'll understand why it's considered a mental disorder. – jamesqf Feb 4 '15 at 21:25
  • @JonW: I'd wager that by the time you're speaking to a computer on a regular basis, people will have realized that passwords are an exceedingly crappy authentication mechanism (for users and systems), and biometric and/or token-based authentication will have become a standard thing. A much-evolved verbal interface, for example, might authenticate by voice print rather than relying on a shared secret. – cHao Feb 5 '15 at 4:18

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