Keyboards influenced by touchscreens

By now, you have probably used a touchscreen keyboard. We've come a long way from the clumsy "kiosk" computers that brought touchscreen keyboards to mainstream, a decade or two ago. But a classic keyboard with physical keys is still preferable for the tactile feedback we get from pressing the keys. Until touchscreens can provide that, we'll be using traditional keyboards for a while.

But how do touchscreen keyboards differ from physical keyboards, and what ideas could we copy from them to improve the user experience of traditional keyboards? Well, for one, most touchscreen keyboards these days don't do key repeat -- instead, they'll pop up a menu of alternatives, often the same base letter with with various accents, diacritics and umlaut. And you slide your finger to pick one of these options.


Now, that sounds good. I for one don't know how to type the various variations of the letters on a US keyboard, and as a Finn I actually need "ä" and "ö" sometimes. I can type them in Emacs, but not in my IM application or web browser.

Here's the idea: we don't really use autorepeat on the A-Z characters. Instead, make a long press of a letter key bring up an on-screen menu with variations of the basic letter.

On a touchscreen, choosing from the menu is immediate and fairly intuitive. While using the mouse for that would be straight forward -- and probably what a first time user will try -- nobody wants to type like that. We're stuck with one finger holding down the original key. We need to make a selection from up to about 9 alternatives. Here's two easy ideas (assuming the initial highlighted alternative is the base letter):

  • make space move to the next highlighted alternative, or wrap around to the left
  • make the four primary home row keys of the other hand highlight alternatives 1-4; make pressing the same home row key again act like space, above

For example, say I want to type "ä". My options are (assuming US keyboard layout):

  1. hold "a", wait till menu pops up, while still holding "a" press space 4 times until "ä" is highlighted, release "a"

  2. hold "a", wait till menu pops up, while still holding "a" press ";", release "a"

I think I'd use that more than auto-repeat. What about you?

2020-01-21T20:49:33-07:00, originally published 2011-04-30T12:00:00-07:00