The Little Keyboard That Could—n’t

iPhone KeyboardLet’s not even talk about the horrible wincing I did when I learned that Apple lowered the price of its iPhone today by US$200 — a mere eight and one-half weeks after I dutifully and idiotically waited in line to buy one. Apparently, there are some avenues of recourse available to us early adopters, but here’s my take: I have neither the time nor the energy in my life to go charging back up this particular hill. I knew what this thing cost when I bought it, and I knew it was going to go down in price one day, and so here we are.

In a tangentially related matter, the lower iPhone prices and the introduction of the iPod touch presumably means that more and more customers will soon be exposed to the wonders of Apple’s multi-touch, software keyboard. On that, I have something to say.

The World’s Most Controversial Keyboard

For a lot of people, Apple’s software approach to providing what is almost universally a hardware feature continues to either deter or confound. I know several would-be iPhone purchasers who felt as if they could not do without a physical, tactilely responsive keyboard. And RIM was there for them with a catalog full of Blackberry devices.

For my part, I grew accustomed to the iPhone’s keyboard very quickly, in a matter of days, I think. A lot of my initial frustration with the shortcomings of its purely visual feedback went away within the first week of use. In fact, in the first two weeks of use, my ability to coax my intended text from the keyboard improved markedly. I felt much, much better about it after a short amount of time.

Typing on the iPhone Keyboard

A Learning Plateau

Here’s the thing though: I haven’t improved any further. Looking back at the past six weeks or so, I’ve been making the same errors, entering the same typos as I was in those early days. The level of concentration that I find myself applying to typing sessions seems to be no less than before. Which is to say, typing hasn’t started to feel easier, and I haven’t been able to type with a more relaxed mental posture than before.

Beyond the fact that I’m a user of this keyboard, I’m a clearly under-qualified commentator on keyboard ergonomics. Still, that won’t stop me from airing my theory: there is an inherent learning plateau in Apple’s software keyboard, and that plateau falls short of full accuracy. That is, the vast majority of people will never be able to type comfortably on the keyboard with anything close to one hundred percent fidelity. You can get good enough to type what you need, but no better. Am I completely wrong?

  1. What’s even more frustrating for me is the software slowdown on the keyboard. Often times I’ll be typing and the keyboard software will slow to a crawl, requiring me to wait and see what letters it decided to cache before spinning its wheels. I hope this (and landscape typing) will be fixed in the software update later this month.

  2. I’m right there with you Khoi. Nevermind the lack of MMS or being able to add multiple photos to an email, the first complaint I share with anyone about my—otherwise wondrous—iPhone is that I can’t type half as fast as I could with my BlackBerries. Everyone that knows me knows I have a propensity for texting and that quite possible the only means to ever get in contact with me is via SMS. I rarely ever make personal calls, but the pain of always having to backspace on the same words constantly has caused me to use a few more minutes in the phone “app” than I would’ve imagine.

    Here’s hoping that at some point Apple (or anyone else for that matter) releases a Mavis Beacon-style application so that I can once again text with both speed and accuracy, and move on with my life.

    (P.S. I have really been enjoying the more regular posting here. I hope it’s due to better time management rather than the relaxed time of year it is, but keep up the ever-so-good work.)

  3. Omar: A Mavis Beacon-style tutorial would actually be a kind of damning admission that the keyboard is a flawed design and that design needs to be ameliorated with ‘training.’

    That said, I think it’s a great idea, because I would be very keen to learn how to type much more efficiently on my iPhone.

    Thanks for your kind comments on the recent frequency here, too. I’m in this spot right now where I’m really enjoying this blog more than usual. The frequency though is more of a function of getting less sleep than anything. We’ll see how long it lasts.

  4. Here’s the weird thing… some days I feel like I’m just totally hunting and pecking on the keyboard. But some days I am totally channeling the iPhone Zen, almost like I just jumped into the Matrix or something.

    It’s wild… I’m just on, and the words are coming out right and I wonder “Why can’t I type this way all the time?”

    Then inevitably it stops. And I’m back to typing in lolcats.

  5. I haven’t tried the iPhone keyboard yet, but I can relate with having to alternate looking at the screen and looking at the keyboard. Since I have a Blackberry Pearl, I have to make sure SureType gets things right. I’m not as efficient as I was with the Sidekick 2 I had.

    Personally, the Sidekick keyboard is the best one on any phone, hands down.

  6. I’ve been struggling with the platau as well, trying to will myself into the perfect zone-state of type flow. It’s not working.

    It would be much easier to type with the horizontal keyboard in all the various applications. I certainly feel it’s easier when in safari’s horizontal mode.

    I actually can’t figure out why they didn’t do that in the first place.

  7. You can get good enough to type what you need, but no better. Am I completely wrong?

    You’re not wrong — but I’m not sure it matters. Like you said, you can get “good enough to type what you need.” Isn’t “good enough” good enough?

    And, as someone who’s never taken typing lessons (and doesn’t type “correctly,” but does type fairly fast), I’m no where near 100% fidelity on my desktop computer’s keyboard, either. In fact, I can’t say that I’m more than a few percentage points worse on the iPhone than I am on the desktop. I’ve never taken any kind of lessons on either device. I realize people who have taken typing classes are sometimes close to 100% fidelity on a regular keyboard. So, if a regualr keyboard requires training to be close to that level, why should it be a “damning admission” that the iPhone keyboard may require training to get close to 100%, also?

    In the end, I’m perfectly happy with my typing speed and fidelity on the iPhone. And I was really concerned about it before I had the device. It’s not perfect — and you’re totally right that there’s a plateau — but, as you said yourself, it’s “good enough.”

  8. Typing is slow and often inaccurate on my Motorola RAZR V3 but I still use it every day for texting. Next to a Blackberry or Treo, the iPhone feels a little awkward, but compared to the RAZR, wow.

  9. Jeff: I think I disagree with you. I didn’t mean that typing was “good enough” as an overall assessment. I meant that one could get just good enough to get the text one needs typed.

    I don’t think typing on the iPhone is good enough at all. I feel continually frustrated by typing, especially in time-sensitive situations. It’s not just accuracy, it’s speed, that’s crucial here.

    If it works great for you, then cheers. Maybe it works great for most people too. Again, cheers. That’s the feedback I was looking for.

    But for me, I really do feel like it can just be better.

  10. Thats cool, Khoi. Geoff makes a good point, too — I came to the iPhone from a media phone with mode QWERTY. I never had a Blackberry or Treo. So, maybe I’m not the best one to make assessments. Obviously, typing on the iPhone is way faster than doing T9 on my old Samsung, and that’s relaly my only comparrison point.

  11. the keyboard software will slow to a crawl, requiring me to wait and see what letters it decided to cache before spinning its wheels

    It really is a Mac! Sorry, couldn’t resist 😉 (lifetime mac user). It will be interesting to see how they eventually modify it to try and improve things…

  12. I wish Apple would allow for the widescreen typing format from Safari to work in all the other apps! It seems like such a simple thing and it’s already built-in. For me it’s not the lack of tangible keys that slows me down (well that may be part of it) as much as it is that human thumbs are a bit to big to hit those small keys precisely without a great deal of concentration.

  13. I’ve gotten to the point with the keyboard where I don’t have to think about typing much. I find portrait mode more comfortable than landscape mode — at least in the sense I can type faster in portrait mode, though landscape is “easier” in a way, even if a bit slower. I do feel I’ve been getting better as I’ve used it over the past 2 months — there were plateaus at times, but now I don’t really notice them.

    I thumb-type with the iPhone, though it took a while — finger-pecking was easier for the first week or two. Now, I make about the same number of errors as with the BlackBerry, though the predictive text saves my butt a lot. I can one-hand type with my thumb, though it’s dicey.


  14. I got to the point where I really stopped thinking about what I was doing and did one of those trust falls into the arms of the auto complete. I still have issues with it most notably when I attempt to type “if” and end up with “of”.

    But before I took my real leap of faith I did reach that plateau where it was still a bit of hunt and peck. I wonder if this mental block and my subsequent removal of thought in the process is systemic of a poor keyboard solution or years of learned UI interaction behavior that we will just have to get over.

    Is the design good and we just can’t get past ourselves or does that in and of itself make it a failure.

    Or maybe it just blows. I dunno, all I know is for me it gets the job done, does it replace my desktop for 90% of my typed communications? No, but it’s hard for me to conceive a device that would accomplish this and fit in my pocket.

  15. I agree with those of you who say you feel more comfortable typing in landscape mode than portrait — in portrait I find it difficult to securely hold the iPhone and type with two thumbs. Either I scrunch my fingers unnaturally behind the thing, or live with the disconcerting feeling that it’s going to drop out of my hand and turn into $499 worth of Apple party confetti on the sidewalk.

    But Khoi, regarding your feeling that there’s a plateau to your ability, are you sure you’re not just distrusting the iPhone’s ability to predict what you’re going to type? Ditto for you Kevin. It’s true that human fingers are waaaay too big to hit those tiny keys with any accuracy. But, that’s why the keyboard’s smart. I find when I try to consciously aim for keys, the wrong ones get hit. When I just mash my fingers in the best approximation at full speed, the phone just magically types everything correctly. The only problem I have is with street names — all streets in Honolulu are required by statute to have Hawaiian-language names. It’s a problem.

  16. You’re totally right. But I think there is no keyboard on ANY handheld device (virtual or phsical) that gives you more than this “it’s-good-enough-for-what-I-need-to-type” experience.

  17. I live in a backwards iPhone-less third-world country (Vermont), so I’ve yet to try the keyboard. Is there any kind of internationalization for the keyboard, or is it strictly English-querty at this point?

    I imagine that it would be somewhat less error-prone with a dynamically changing input device for writing Chinese. Or maybe the autocomplete would do better with Lojban than English.

  18. I don’t own an iPhone (yet), but in my brief encounter with it in the Apple store, I was very, VERY suprised at how well the keyboard works. All I did was post a tweet via Little Safari, so there were no symbols or other non-letter characters, but yeah — it was really nice.

    I am also concerned with the accessibility of all-touch interfaces, but I’m not really sure what the solution is.

  19. I’ve gotten pretty comfortable with the iPhone’s keyboard. I don’t know if I’m as fast as I was with T9 on my old phone, but I’d say I’ve gotten fast enough to respond to people at a rate that I’m comfortable with.

    The one thing that I just can’t get use to is the lack of tactile response. I used to easily be able to text while driving, without looking at the keys, and fast too. However, it’s impossible to be even remotely accurate with the iPhone without looking at the screen. If someone texts me while I’ll driving, I usually respond with a phone call.

  20. can’t type any where near the speed or accuracy of my blackberry

    – having said that, the iPhone wasn’t designed for business users who shoot emails 50x a day

    therefore, I’m going back to my blackberry, the multimedia functions aren’t close to an iPhone, but emailing and making calls takes precedence over the iPod

  21. I agree with Dan M., the lack of response is the piece that still keeps me from hitting an optimal-typing stride, due do the inability to type blindly. There’s certainly a plateau in both speed and accuracy, but I believe it’s inherent in the design of the device and no amount of software upgrading will resolve it – good, bad or indifferent that’s the case.

  22. I think it’s a purposeful design tradeoff. The virtual keyboard may be one of the iPhone’s weakest links, but it also allows them to fit a big screen within a small device. Perhaps the iPhone’s goal isn’t to be the ultimate e-mail or SMS phone, but to the ultimate mobile internet phone (that happens to do e-mail, SMS, and music on the side).

  23. I’m not sure what could be improved upon (though there’s some good suggestions in this thread). Ok, allowing sideways text entry in other apps might be nice.

    How efficient can this form factor get? It’s… kinda small for this. What could be improved?

    @ Cody (Hawaiian street names): LOL. That is a problem! All that switching to the apostrophe…

  24. As much as I love the idea of an on-screen QWERTY keyboard, I simply prefer the feel and ease of use that comes with having physical keys to press. this is also becoming a problem as phones become smaller and button space increasingly precious.

    Still, wouldn’t turn down a Touch were it ever offered.

  25. I’ve played with the iPhone only briefly, but I can safely say that typing is not easy, even though it’s very intuitive, and I think it’s because of the touch-sensitivity. The mechanics of “touching” just doesn’t work with the amount of input required for typing. The classic iPod wheel works perfectly because you touch when it’s appropriate (scroll) but then you actually “click” to make a selection. I think the reason we can all type pretty fast on a regular keyboard is because we can keep our fingers on the letters and push when required, which is something you cannot do with touch-sensitive devices.

  26. I’ve used the iPhone keyboard only briefly, and found it to be easier than I’d feared.

    I’ve had a regular LG phone for years and do a fair amount of texting and have issues with T9 word mode that are very similar to your iPhone keyboard concerns. Some days I feel like I can’t get a simple phrase spelled out and other days I rattle off 120 character diatribes in 30 seconds. It’s like trying to shave when you’re tired – it’ll be fine 90% of the time but those cuts still hurt.

  27. I got to try out the iPod touch keyboard for the first time today — and it struck me in two minutes that the backspace key (the key you’re going to need when you’re bad at hitting on target) is RIGHT NEXT to the “go” key (they key you’re going to hit when you’re trying to hit backspace and are bad at hitting on target).

    Wow that’s bad.

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