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Google have issued a patent aiming to replace the spacebar with a track pad sliding in its place. This would make room for smaller keyboards and smaller devices, but what does it do to user experience. Could users type with the same speed and accuracy when the spacebar is replaced with a track pad (touch control)?

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Reference: Google may be Planning to Kill the Spacebar

  • I tend to smash my spacebar, so I guess my experience would be sore thumbs. – JW_ Apr 30 '15 at 0:19
  • i already have issues with the separate track pad below the space bar on most laptops causing spurious cursor movements and interfering with typing - not sure how this is any kind of improvement – HorusKol Apr 30 '15 at 1:30
  • I absolutely hate touchpads on laptops, a replacement of the space bar with a touchpad will only worsen that hate. – Vince Caregnato Apr 30 '15 at 8:09
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    I look at this and something deep down inside me shudders at the thought of it. – the other one Apr 30 '15 at 13:29
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Observations

  • The difference in performance between touch keyboards and mechanical keyboards is clear and well studied. This paper shows that mechanical keyboards not only perform measurably better in speed and accuracy...

    enter image description here

  • ...but are also perceived better by users:

    enter image description here

  • Even pressure sensitive keyboards (with slightly more mechanical feel than touchscreens) rate poorly compared to mechanical keyboards as this paper shows (click to enlarge):

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So...

The Google design introduces three problems to a mechanical keyboard:

  • First, it provides an inconsistent interface for a very frequently used device (keyboard). Users will get mechanical feedback from keys, then no feedback from the spacebar (the most commonly used key). This is learnable behavior since keyboards are used frequently, but that doesn't mean users will like it.

  • Second, users just don't like the touch interface, as the studies above (amongst many others) show. Having just the spacebar be touch-enabled ameliorates the accuracy/error issues of other touchscreens, but it's unlikely to solve the preference issue.

  • Third, users frequently rest their thumbs lightly on a spacebar while typing. So the interface will need to be quite well designed to avoid accidental triggering which can be incredibly annoying to users.

    YUCK!

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As I understand it (correct me if I'm wrong) pressing the upper region of the trackpad will be interpreted as a pressing of a spacebar button on standard keyboards. If a user touches the upper region but doesn't press it then this will be interpreted as a movement on trackpad.

I can see a couple of potential issues that would be worth testing and I am sure that a company such as Google will test it thoroughly:

  1. the experience of pressing the buttons on the standard keyboards is now the same for every button- every one of them needs the same pressure to be activated and gives the same response to the user. How long would it take to get used to the fact that from now on the spacebar is going to feel and respond in a different way?
  2. Spacebar is one of the most important buttons on the keyboard- I am sure that statistically it's being pressed very often (my spacebar button's surface is now completely polished by my left thumb :-)). How to ensure that the user will press the button and not interfere with the lower part of the trackpad?
  3. What if someone moves the finger when pressing the upper part of trackpad? Would it be interpreted as a movement on the trackpad and the spacebar button being pressed?
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    These could definitely be concerns, but this sort of issue is already pretty well-rehearsed, especially with Apple-style buttonless multitouch trackpads. Certain PC makers are notorious for not having cracked it, but current Apple (and, I have read, Google) trackpads are basically faultless. – bobtato Apr 30 '15 at 1:46
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Obviously the definitive answer would come from building such a keyboard and doing suitable tests. I don't believe that comparisons between conventional keyboards and either touchscreen or Surface-type touch keyboards are necessarily instructive here, for two reasons:

  1. If all the keys other than the spacebar can be distinguished by touch, then the main disadvantage of touchscreens (the cognitive effort to acquire the keys) is not an issue; you know your thumb is in the right place. Actually, even with pure touchscreens, the spacebar is likely the least problematic key since its size and position at the edge of the screen makes it easier to acquire.
  2. The way people tend to operate the spacebar, using their thumbs as hammers, is different to how they operate the other keys (position finger, then press until you feel the click). This would be different in applications involving multiple presses of the spacebar, but that doesn't come up much unless, like me, you have the bad habit of two spaces to begin a sentence. It would also be different for someone who used their thumb above the bottom row, but I don't think anyone with ten working fingers types like that.

Qualitatively, though, I imagine it to feel unsatisfying, or at least take some getting used to-- if you think of typing as playing a percussive instrument, it's a very different drum kit. You only have to listen to someone typing to hear how they use a satisfying whack on the spacebar to celebrate a word well typed...

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