A Behind-the-Scenes Look at Keyboard Design

Categories: Ergonomics, News, Typing Science |

When we buy a new computer or other electronic device, we usually don’t spend any time on thinking about how the designers came up with the way users would interact with and input information into that device. We’re too busy learning how to use it – how to access the keyboard, where the command keys are, whether we can customize anything to make it easier to use. But it’s very interesting to look at some of the thought processes that designers go through when they’re in development mode, especially when they’re working with getting user feedback. In fact, one of the ways to know whether you’ll find a device easy to use is to find out how much user testing was done during the development stage, and whether the designers actually listened to the users. That’s why we were pleased to see this breakdown of the path the people in the Microsoft Developer Network took in coming up with a touch-screen keyboard interface for Windows 8 includes lots of work with real users.

It’s important for any development team to really study how people use technology before beginning any redesign process. “Because it’s cool!” might be a fun way to work, but when those devices hit the marketplace, if “cool” isn’t also “easy and convenient” then sales won’t be very good. When the Windows 8 team started to look at how the interface could be easiest and most convenient, they reviewed how people use devices now, and decided that keeping a keyboard would be the best idea, since most people find it easy to use. Voice- and handwriting-recognition software just isn’t good enough yet for quick data entry (and most of us are so used to typing now, our handwriting is just awful!). On the other hand, video tutorials are quickly becoming one of the best ways to teach certain topics, and they don’t require a lot of keyboard training. For example, the guys behind the popular English language site Learn English 232 primarily use videos to teach the basics and the details of native-speaker-level English language skills.

The developers of the Microsoft product went through all the potential problems involved in using a touch-screen keyboard, including the issues of hand position, thumbs-only vs. multiple-finger typing techniques, and the size of the screen relative to the size of the virtual keys. And they decided to add entirely new features to their keyboard, like an “emoji” key that allows you to type emoticons. They’ve also added a press-and-hold feature for those letters that often get diacritical marks in other languages, so people who are typing in Spanish or French or German can type more quickly and easily.

All in all, we were impressed by the thorough approach the design team took to this keyboard development, and hope they will continue to integrate user feedback into future keyboard design.

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