6

As you might be aware, there is no context menu button (similar to right click action) in modern keyboards. In latest laptops such as HP, Lenovo, etc. and Lenovo slim keyboard are missing the Context menu button (which existed next to the right Alt button in old keyboards) is missing. See below image.

But this key existed in ISO/IEC 9995-3 US standard keyboard layout also. Wiki page.

I actually asked this question in Quora here, but it has no answers yet.

Example image with no button

Edit

See One more example where no context menu key as well as totally messed layout of arrow keys. It will become difficult if we use different keyboards at different places, i.e. home desktop, personal laptop, office desktop, office pc. cyber pc, etc. Even with arrow keys also.

enter image description here

Is there any specific reasons such as no use, user experience etc. for the same? Why all the keyboard manufacturers not following same design layout? Why there is no standard alignment over different manufactures?

I don't want to know shortcut key for it as I am already aware of it.

  • 2
    Great question.. I've been wondering the same thing myself. – Tarek Jun 23 '15 at 13:26
  • My guess is that research (I have no source, though) has shown that that specific key is rarely being used, therefore obsolete in most keyboards and thus will be left out/replaced in newer models. – Edwin Lambregts Jun 23 '15 at 14:28
  • The button is still available on newer Microsoft keyboards: ep.yimg.com/ay/yhst-16016120845095/… – Bowen Jun 23 '15 at 15:16
  • 1
    @Bruno Romaszkiewicz: Add the fact that the key simply doesn't work as a context menu key in Linux/XWindows (by default, anyway). It's the 'Multi_key', which I have mapped as a compose key for special characters. – jamesqf Jun 29 '15 at 18:18
  • 2
    I'd prefer a dedicated "undo" button instead. – uxfelix Jun 30 '15 at 7:15
5

First, there is some standard. We have the QUERTY arrangement, CTRL, SHIFT, ALT and ENTER are arranged more or less the same. Your question is actually "why are not all keyboards have identical layout?". So it is the same as asking "why are not all toasters/refrigerators/ovens/cars have identical layout"?

It may be all about money. Some possible answers to this question:

  1. No one is loosing money out of having no standard. Usually, standards grows when some powerful "player" has something to loose having no standard. For example, see service providers and network protocols.
  2. Manufacturers think that their small tweaks to the layout is what going to sell more pieces.
  3. The factory made a mistake and they are now selling it for low price.

And one more possible answer: We are different. Some of us will prefer this arrangement and some the other. We cannot agree on the preferred layout of the three Home, Options and Back buttons at cell phones so how can we expect to agree on the layout of about 100 buttons?

  • This is a good answer, and pretty much shows that it's not really a UX question. – DA01 Jul 3 '15 at 6:37
10

Back in the mists of time, before the mouse was so ubiquitous, most people navigated their file system using just a keyboard (I am old enough to have actually worked like this!). Opening files was simple: you left'ed, right'ed, up'd, down'd and tabbed your way to the file and hit enter. The problem came, however, when you wanted to do something with the file other than just open it - This is where the contextual key came in - the contextual key gave us the chance to open a menu and choose something to do with the file (copy, move, change permissions...). As the mouse was developed, this function was added as a second function using a modified click (shift, ctrl or alt) or under the right-hand button on the mouse. gradually the right-click became the accepted paradigm.

Since very few people use their system without a mouse or mouse replacement (trackball, touchpad, or some other accessibility solution) these days, the key has become redundant - the function still remains (usually under a function-key) for those who need it in emergencies or working with a remote system. But, as it just gets in the way and causes confusion for most people, the key itself has been removed in more modern systems.

(I should add here that, in most systems, you can still achieve the contextual click using the left mouse button while holding down the alt/opt or ctrl key).

  • 2
    Some of us still use the keyboard in preference to the mouse. blog.humblecoder.com/mouseless-programming. In some tasks, the mouse is a productivity killer, though I've never needed the context key myself. – Jon Jun 30 '15 at 7:45
  • 1
    ...and should you want it, the context key is still available as a modified enter stroke. I agree, when coding, any moment spent shuffling your right hand to the mouse, finding the cursor, pushing it to where you want it and clicking can often be achieved with two or three keystrokes - around 0.3sec instead of up to 4sec with the mouse – Andrew Martin Jun 30 '15 at 9:16
  • I'm going to add a note here: having looked further into this I don't think the button has 'disappeared from modern keyboards'. It looks to me more like some manufacturers include it and some don't. – Andrew Martin Jul 1 '15 at 15:07
  • This talks about that button specifically, but doesn't really address the broad question "why is there no single standard keyboard?" – DA01 Jul 2 '15 at 16:34
  • Is the chronology and reasoning correct here? The menu key we know today first appeared on Microsoft keyboards designed for Windows 95. At that point I'm sure people were already perfectly comfortable with using the mouse. Plus, in purely keyboard-based interfaces the common way to perform contextual actions were the function keys and modifier key combinations, not a "context key". – Matti Virkkunen Jul 2 '15 at 18:47
7

I can't speak for everyone, but I'm a heavy keyboard user and I think I can count on one hand the number of times I've used that key. (mostly because my mouse was acting up/battery died).

I think it is a key that just didn't have a really good (to many) purpose.

PS pressing Shift + F10 still works as a keyboard shortcut.


For what it's worth I fully understand the frustration with changes ;-) Another major change in keyboards over the past few years has been the re-shaping/positioning of the Enter key (more vertical vs. horizontal)

Undesired Shape

Annoying Enter Key Shape

Original Shape

enter image description here

I'm not sure who/what/why started this new "trend" but I will personally never buy a computer/keyboard (regardless of price) with one of these "new" Enter keys as I constantly miss-type everything on these keyboards because I have 20+ years of touch typing muscle memory to press the Enter key with my right "pinky" finger... which now presses the \ key

  • Why no use? If there is no mouse or faulty mousepad (in laptops) we could use the key right? I'm asking user experience related reasons. Please see my edit. IMO this should be a comment to question. – Ravimallya Jun 23 '15 at 12:17
  • I am in agreement with @scunliffe. The fact is I hit that button on accident a hundred times for the times when I have actually wanted to use it (much like the F1 key). I find that keyboards that do without it are (marginally) more user friendly than those that do. – GeoffAtkins Jun 23 '15 at 13:25
  • 1
    The original shape of the Enter/Return key was like a mirror image L, the same as the arrow on the key. I do, however, agree that in the OP's image (the top image in your answer) the key doesn't have enough horizontal space allocated to it. Also, I do use the context key, it is useful when you don't want to move your hand to the mouse or if the mouse events were blocked. – Danny Varod Jun 23 '15 at 16:22
  • 1
    Your point about the Enter key is interesting – I have the exact opposite issue. The double-row Enter key has always been the norm on non-US layouts (along with an extra key between Z and the left Shift key), and besides that it's consistent with the second Enter key on the numeric keypad – which is also over two rows. Nothing wrong with it really – unless you are used to something different :-) – user149408 Jul 1 '15 at 9:58
  • 1
    As a touch typist its absolutely crutial that keys stay in their standard positions and dimensions. Many makes of laptop are rubbish in this respect. – PhillipW Jul 1 '15 at 12:30
3
+50

The context menu key – along with the Windows keys – is the most recent addition to the PC keyboard. The Microsoft Natural Keyboard, released ca. 1994–1995, was the first one to include them "for future uses".

That "future use" was the UI introduced with Windows 95 – the first to make heavy use of context menus. The latter were around in previous versions of Windows but not used very widely, which changed with Windows 95 introducing a new "object-oriented" user experience. (It was also the first version to have the start menu as we know it today – Windows 3.0 to 3.11 and NT to 3.51 had a separate application called Program Manager instead, and before that, in the days of Windows 1 and 2, one would launch apps through the file manager, then known as the MS-DOS window.)

While the Windows key was adopted quickly and is seeing widespread use, possibly owing to the number of shortcuts relying on it, the context menu key has always been a niche thing. The Windows UI is built mostly around the mouse, and the context menu key is a direct replacement for something that, except for a few special cases, can be achieved with the mouse at the same speed. Therefore, when keyboard manufacturers try to shave off some real estate to make their product more compact, this is the first candidate.

As for the different layouts: the layouts show in the question are compact layouts, where a major design goal was to reduce the overall keyboard dimensions over the standard layout. As far as I can tell, the majority of full-size keyboards still follows the same uniform layout. That layout goes back to the original PC/AT spec by IBM. Much of the success of the PC platform is due to the fact that IBM opened up its specs and allowed other manufacturers to sell PC clones. The keyboard got cloned along with it, and manufacturers were probably even reluctant to mess with it (it might have caused customers to stick with IBM rather than switch to their clones).

Laptops as we know them today entered the field later, and it was only then that a major drawback of the standard PC keyboard became apparent – dimensions. So laptop manufacturers tried to shrink their layouts by rearranging keys, introducing the Fn key for overlaying infrequently used keys on top of more frequently used ones, and in some cases even dropping keys. By the time this happened, however, there were already a bunch of PC manufacturers in the market, so these layouts had no "common ancestor" other than the standard keyboard. As a result, there have always been multiple compact layouts from the very beginning.

At some point keyboard manufacturers began to realize that even some users of desktop computers had a demand for small keyboards – the compact keyboard was born, essentially a laptop keyboard that would plug into a desktop computer. And the proliferation of layouts continued. I can think of three main reasons why keyboard manufacturers are unlikely to ever agree on a single compact layout: First, the whole overhead of reaching a consensus among all major vendors. Second, there will likely be a lot of disagreement over which keys are more or less frequently used, or what the best place for which key is (and different options may be best for different groups of users). Third, since the business is no longer about taking the cake from one dominant vendor (there are plenty of players in the field by now), manufacturers may well use their own layouts as a kind of lock-in – people will stick with their brand because they have gotten accustomed to the layout.

  • A good and reasonable explanation for context menu key. However, the question itself asks about different keyboard layouts also. So waiting for a global answer which covers all the questions. – Ravimallya Jul 1 '15 at 11:16
  • I overlooked that one – but I have an explanation for that as well, which I have added to my response. – user149408 Jul 2 '15 at 15:25
  • Re IBM standard, there were a couple of changes. The original PC keyboard had fewer keys, with the function keys on the left rather than the top. That was changed (I've always rather regretted the loss) with the AT keyboard that was close to the current standard. A few years later Microsoft added the 3 extra "windows" and "context" keys to the layout, but they still have a standard meaning/function only within Windows. – jamesqf Jul 2 '15 at 18:52
  • I feel this answer would fit for bounty for a clear explanation. – Ravimallya Jul 3 '15 at 5:42
  • @jamesqf: that's why I wrote "PC/AT spec". Of course the AT keyboard was a redesign of the XT keyboard, which is the "original PC keyboard" you are referring to. It had only 10 function keys, arranged in two columns on the left, and no separate cursor keys. Cursor control was available only when NumLock was off, which would make the numeric keypad keys act as cursor keys. Which explains why we have the NumLock key on today's keyboards – carried over from the XT days. – user149408 Jul 4 '15 at 0:08
1

In the years I have been Using computers (and typewriters for that matter), I have seen three schools of thought in keyboard design. I am going to call them the minimalists, the bells and whistles crowd, and the moderates.

The minimalist battle cry varies from 'look at those clean lines' or 'nothing to get in your way' to 'save money' or 'save space'. The bells and whistles crowd is all about features, which has changed over the years from 'adjustable repeat rate' to 'multimedia keys' and 'mappable function keys' which seems to drift into and out of fashion every couple of years. The moderates think both of these groups are extreme. They are fond of including the most useful features from the bells and whistles crowd (but only the most useful) While maintaining a clean look. These are the folks responsible for the function keys being on top (twelve function keys beat ten, but they look funny on the side where ten look fine, and we really don't need them both on the top and on the side).

Every time there is a new development in mobile computing the minimalists gain in influence. Every time there is an increase in functionality the bells and whistles crowd gains influence. Other factors also affect influence.

The big technology news these days is the smart watch. Oops, we lost a key.

1

It depends on the use case. Many laptops have done away with the key because of space limitations and the need to fit the arrow keys in the bottom right corner. Many full-size desktop keyboards have removed it in place of other keys. Frankly, most people don't use that context key. Here's why: most of us are right handed, so if we use it, we'll use the left one with our left hand.

This may sound like a bad reason, but consider: if you typically leave your left hand at the keyboard and right hand at the mouse, then you are more likely to use the left context key. Then, when both hands are on the keyboard for typing, you may think there's an equal opportunity to use both context keys, but that's incorrect; the user has trained themselves, unintentionally, to use the left context key because that's what they do when the hand is on the mouse.

Is this really a problem? For left-handed computer users, absolutely. For most everyone else, no, not really. This is why many gaming keyboards include the right context key; they have no size constraint but also have a need to work for right- and left-handed people simultaneously. However, with laptops as the overwhelming majority of PC sales, and with the 87% of the population as right-handed, the major case is to have the context key on the left and the mouse on the right.

  • I agree with you. However, when we use keyboard only to navigate, (for ex: in file explorer) or for as an accessible feature (for the one who can't hold mouse - very rare case) and when typing in both hands, we need to use right click and the pointer is somewhere else, we have to go for either mouse or touchpad and bring the pointer to the location and the right click - one action increased. – Ravimallya Jun 29 '15 at 4:19
  • Sure. The problem is that with a laptop, the mouse is built in. Navigating with the keyboard alone is a relatively bad experience by comparison, and PC makers would rather you not do that. If the mouse is damaged, repair it. I have this issue consistently because I find using a mouse in many apps wastes time, but even in that case you're still referring to a shortcut button...for a shortcut button! Which is why it's rarely used anymore. Some people still like it, but again a very rare case. – Jamezrp Jun 29 '15 at 4:22
1

Before mice, there was no programming method to show a context menu. When mice appeared, there was no right-click. When extra buttons appeared, then the context menu made sense whenever applications were programmed for it. A context menu key on the keyboard usually did nothing, and when it did, the mouse was a better interface to show the menu.

Web programming prevents the context menu from working the way you would want for the application. It's the browser's context menu instead. This made the context menu a less desirable interface for options. Even with windows applications, the user would not discover the context menu.

In addition to the programming problems, "standard" keyboards are controlled by some patent which means IBM or somebody gets a cut of the profits. Change the keys to skip paying the patent costs, if you can. Likewise, the mouse right-click is under some other patent, which made extra buttons more expensive and without the right-click, there was no good way to show a context menu.

  • 1
    You appear to be saying that the contextual menu key appeared on the keyboard as a result of having more buttons on the mouse. You also appear to be saying that the requirements of the interface were driven by the development of the external hardware rather than the requirements of the interface driving the development of external hardware. Neither of these things make much sense - could you elaborate? – Andrew Martin Jun 30 '15 at 16:04
1

Why is there no standard layout for computer keyboards?

Because there is no keyboard governing body mandating everyone build keyboards the same way.

That and history...every computer design had its own keyboard designed for the particular needs of the hardware and software being used. Over time, keyboards have become much more similar than different, but, again, there's no 'official standard' that anyone has to follow.

The reason, as such, isn't a User Experience reason--though if we had to bend it in to one, one could say "because the designers of every keyboard had a reason to make it different--perhaps a reason that was based on UX thinking"

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

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