Thursday, September 07, 2006

Can mobile computer users live without QWERTY?

I was following an interesting discussion on the OnTheRun with Tablet PCs show #28 podcast about whether Tablet PC users can live without a keyboard. This issues is increasingly cropping up as people consider the tablet and UMPC models over the traditional laptop (folding screen and keyboard). Apparently there are a lot of apprehensive laptop PC users about there who think that they will suffer keyboard withdrawal symptoms if they switch to a non-QWERTY keyboard, mobile PC platform. This demonstrates the usual problem that new technology faces...the fear of change.

I vaguely remember all the knashing of teeth that occured when the WIMP (windows, icons, menus and pointers) desktop replaced the terminal interfaces (UNIX, DOS). Apple did it first (oh, those eccentric Mac users) and then Microsoft followed (didn't they steal the idea...or perhaps Apple stole it from Xerox). Of course, today people think you are crazy if you are not using a windowed environment (and all the lawsuits finally went away). But, at the time, computer users could imagine a world without a terminal interface. And guess what, it is still there for those people who cannot be without it.

Picture of Typewriter
(from Wikipedia)

I am convinced that mobile computing will not become a true reality until we get away from the aged, QWERTY, typewriter based method of text input. Forcing people to hunch over their laptops in airline seats, perched on a wall or bench, or the floor at many events I attend, is just plain crazy! Or perhaps it demonstrates to what lengths we will go and what we will tolerate not to do things differently.

The obvious solution from human-computer interaction experts is that we will talk, poke and scrawl on our computers. They have been researching and predicting this for quite some time. I remember using MacInTalk on the Mac 10 years ago. However, even with the numerous new versions of speech recognition engines, we are still limited to quiet environments, one person at a time, and "no non-native American English speakers please!" As for handwriting recognition, you still have to write like my daughter is learning to in her 1st grade class (nice well formed letters), which is not very practical or fast. Increasing speed and writing cursive results in an instant drop in recognition accuracy. Picture of a Twiddler keyer

Picture of a Twiddler keyer
(from Wikipedia)

My Newton MessagePad was capable of this level of recognition 10 years ago! The other ironic fact is that handwriting is vast becoming a dying art in the age of computer laptops and word-processing anyway.

So what are the other options? Well, the wearable computing geeks have been trying out all sorts of mobile chording keyboards and keyers. These have certainly been great prototypes of how to do data entry using one hand and on-the-go, however they have never received wide attention or adoption. This has been in part due to the fact that the hardware is tricky to setup and learn, but also because most users feel comfortable with the familiar QWERTY keyboard and using a computer while sitting at a desk.

Picture of an EkaPad in use

An exciting new option for the road warrior is the EkaPad (, a 12-key, handheld pocket USB keyboard. This keyboard requires no flat desk surface and fits the hand in its naturally relaxed position. What is lost in two-handed typing speed is more than made up for in its ergonomics and ability for ubiquitous use by requiring only one hand, e.g., while walking a warehouse floor, operating machinery and automobiles. And this keyboard is simply plug 'n play (no drivers required) since it appears to the computer as a standard IBM or Mac USB keyboard.

see earlier blog, Cool Road Warrior Mobile PC Platform, 8/31/06.

The move to laptops challenged people to unchaining themselves from their desks, but not from the QWERTY keyboard. The move to tablets and PDA-sized computers is now challenging users to unchain themselves from QWERTY keyboards. It has to happen. It will happen...eventually.

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Cool Mobile PC platform for the Road Warrior

The Samsung Q1 and EkaTetra EkaPad

View of Q1 and EkaPad from the front, users perspective
The UMPC (ultra mobile personal computer) is a new platform most easily described as a half-tablet PC configuration, about the size of my old paper Filofax and Newton PDA (more below). I am evaluating the Samsung Q1 which is the only model I can currently find that is shipping from resellers ( It runs Windows XP Tablet Edition that adds voice and handwriting recognition capability. Mouse input is replaced by a touch screen and stylus. It has been compared to the Newton MessagePad 2000 which it certainly reminds me of, however this is no solid state device. It packs a 40GB hard drive, 512MB RAM and a high-res, bright color screen. This of course is its achilles heel since the battery life is no longer than your typical laptop (2-3 hours intensive use). A far cry from the MP2000's 8-10h capability. For more in depth reviews, check out,
I am excited about the new UMPC platform mainly for the drop in bulk (& weight) I have been waiting for. This is mostly due to the removal of the built-in keyboard, in favor of hand & voice recognition. Of course neither of these technologies is still ready for prime time. Even though the Dragon NaturallySpeaking and XP Voice claim 95-99% efficiency this is still limited to a "quiet office" environment. Add some background noise or a second person to the mix, and goodbye useful voice recognition. Handwriting recognition still suffers from the fact that in reality most people are atrocius at handwriting, and it is ironically getting worse as handwriting becomes less and less used or practiced in the digital age.

I have been beta testing the Q1 with the new Ekatetra ( one-handed, USB keypad, called the EkaPad. This 12-key, handheld, chording keypad is an exciting development in the art and science of text and data entry that finally captures the needs of on-the-go text
entry in a device that is only slightly larger than a business card. It emulates both standard Mac or Windows full-size keyboards, and is therefore completely plug n' play on USB systems. The EkaPad can be used in either hand (no handedness in the design), and in any physical position, e.g., standing up, sitting down, lying on your back, etc. Obviously operating a chording keyboard is different to a QWERTY keyboard, but the EkaPad is easy to set up and learn using the variety of tools supplied and online support available. And you can practice as you go by placing a handy reference card called the "cheat sheet" on your computer's screen.
The Q1 and the EkaPad complement one another perfectly. You can key-in text to the UMPC with one hand comfortably by your side rather than both pronated on a desktop. Or you can use the EkaPad in one hand and the stylus or a USB mouse in the other. The EkaPad is held in the hand by the use of a thumbstrap called the EkaHand, which despite its size and simplicity actually took over two years to develop. But once installed correctly and comfortably, it works like a charm.

View of Q1 and EkaPad from the side, device depth perspective
Alternatively, the EkaPad can be attached anywhere using the EkaHand strap or a strip of DuoLock™. So I was actually able to mount the keypad to the back of the Q1, and then enter text while holding the Q1 in both hands. The only thing missing was a thumb joystick for my right hand (something to give the UMPC developers to think about!). The sky is the limit with this keyboard. I am already imagining be able to perform text-entry while walking/jogging though I doubt I will be able to Web browse with this screen since due to it's fine resolution/pitch. But a larger external screen mounted could make it as easy to read as news/magazine print.

So be honest, when was the last time you where able to open your laptop in a coach airplane seat, use a laptop while seated in the car, or curl up on the sofa with a good laptop? This is a really cool mobile computer & keyboard combination that allows you to comfortably enter text into your computer in more unconventional, relaxed and informal settings.

I have to agree that the battery life is a major downside of the Q1 since most ambulatory computer users need at least 8 hours to pull a shift or a day's work. But on the whole the UMPC is a step in the right direction, and the Ekapad is a great little mobile keypad.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Good UX Designers know it when they see it

Thoughts on Jared Spool's WV Keynote "The Dawning of the Age of Experience" (podcast)

I was again delighted to hear Jared Spool speak at the WebVisions 2006 keynote on July 21. Like all good speakers, he spins a good yarn around an interesting this case, "usable design" and his premise that you either intuitively get good design or you don't.

Jared started with a number of examples of killer products; the iPod and NetFlix. In each case, competitors who had a better product or brand failed to make a dent in their market dominance. The iPod experience and culture, that go beyond just the device, has engrained it as a cultural icon. The NetFlix experience and social network has kept it on top with a miniscule advertising budget (1/20 of Blockbuster's).

Take home message 1: Good user experiences create the killer apps.

On the flip side were some examples of major corporations pouring huge sums of money down the Web drain. A large big box retailer spent $100M on a Web site redesign and saw a 20% drop in revenues. A 1700 employee law firm almost caused a mutiny when they switched their intranet to a CMS (Content Management System). A highly visited information site saw a 40% drop in Web activity and associated advertising revenue after a Web site redesign. All examples of how fouling up the user experience can be huge embarassment, not to mention a costly experience for the business!

Take home message 2: Bad user experiences create Web SNAFUs.

What was most interesting about Jared's talk was the fact that he seemed to be poking fun at himself during the talk. He recounted how he spent 2.5y doing extensive, and I daresay expensive, research for the Wall Street Journal (WSJ) Web site. And then he went to the AIGA's conference in Santa Fe where one guy had overhauled the WSJ Web site as a 'pet project', and had nailed it with no research...intuitively. Apparently, he had just sat down and thought about it!!

There are a number of professions that are or have been very intuitive in nature. Jared's examples were chicken sexing (chick sexers), estimating baby weight (midwives), WWII enemy plane spotters (watching the English Channel) and sushi chefs. All these professionals cannot be taught or described, they have to be learned by watching "an expert" and "trial and error". In the same way, user experience (UX) designers cannot explain it. You just have to watch them to learn.

Take home message 3: Good UXD (user experience design) is an art, not a science.

NetFlix never talks about their technology, their Web site, but it is key to their UXD. A cool use of Ajax to provided more detailed movie information. A cool use of social networking, so built in you do not even notice you are using it. It's simply invisible. All they talk about is the movies (the content!)

Take home message 4: Good UXD is not noticed. When you see it, it is a problem!

Next Jared tackled the SEP (Somebody Else's Problem) effect in design. He encountered a problem trying to make a car rental reservation at Seattle airport. Hertz apparently serves 3 SeaTac locations: Western Australia, Wanganui and Seattle! Travelocity's flights to Spokane, WA gives two options, Spokane (GEG) (main airport) or Spokane (SFS) (private airfield). Unfortunately, some irrelevant data leaked into the user experience. The DBA probably has never heard of UXD, but his actions and responsibilities have a profound effect on it.

Making your own online flight reservations has become a pretty standard practice. Yet you would not think this looking at the fllight booking agreements offered up by USAir and United. Exhausting list of terms and conditions, written in CAPS and making absolutely no sense to anyone other than a travel agent. Fortunately SWAir figured it out offering T&Cs in a simple bullet layout and plain English. Not surprising really that SWAir has one of the highest customer service ratings of all US Airlines.

UXD involves information design, information architecture, usability practices. visual design, interaction design, editing, copy writing, fast iteration management, etc. With a small team of folks, you will need people with broad sets of experiences. It's not just about being a Web Wiz anymore.

Jared then went on to demonstrate the importance of an interdisciplinary approach with some examples of visual communication. An example of good visual communication design was an image of brain anurisym at Mayo Clinic ( The medical illustrator created a phenomenal image communicating a ton of stuff to a lay person better than any health care professional could hope to describe. They were not just good at drawing pictures, but good at visual information design.

Image from Presentation Zen (it has since been removed from the FEMA website!)
Conversely, an example of bad visual communication was brought to the attention of Jared on The Daily Show and concerned a diagram depicting how FEMA works.

"What should FEMA have done? Perhaps the answer can be found on their website. Well you'll find, we're not lying, this chart, clearly depicting the agencies responsibility in the event of a disaster. Notice, and this is their actual chart, it begins with their response to a disaster, leads to recovery, mitigation, risk reduction, prevention and preparedness and ends up... back in disaster. That is their chart. In truth, FEMA did exactly what they said they were going to do." — Jon Stewart

Take home message 5: Successful UXD involves everyone (it is multidisciplinary) and depends on everyone (it is interdisciplinary).

Last updated: 8/28/06