Baby hackerBack when I was working as an intern at Microsoft (over a decade ago!) I wrote a couple of articles for my site Process Magic (now not much more than an example of what web design used to look like). I came across this one the other day and found it still relevant, so I thought I’d post it here. I should also note that after all these years I still prefer to use an ergonomic keyboard!

Enforcing Improvement

When compelled to use a product improvement, users will kick and scream their way into better habits. Take, for example, the keyboard.

One interesting side effect of being a designer of computer software is that, on occasion, I inadvertently appropriate the concept of “good user interface design” and apply it to things other than graphical user interfaces. I’d like to introduce such an example. It is easy to fall into the trap of assuming that something is correct because it’s always been done that way – in software development, we’re trained that new and adventurous ideas are to be weighed against upholding familiarity with previous products, and often this results in an uneasy balance. Too many times, redundancy is introduced into the system. For example, take this tenet: “Our new way is better, but we used to do it this way – so let’s do it both ways”. The theory behind this, I suppose, is that users will feel comfortable enough with a product to ease into the “new and better” way gradually, leaving their old tricks behind. However, users are averse to change, and probably won’t cast off their familiar methods unless forced into new behavior. And if the newly designed method really does work best, forcing users to use this new method will predictably be more beneficial to everyone in the long run, notwithstanding the griping you’re going to hear as you drag your flock of users kicking and screaming into better habits.

Although my previous example of “enforcing improvement” is specific to the world of software design, I also believe that a good many things besides software might be approached in the same manner. There’s a lot of stuff out there, and much of this stuff has been upgraded time and again over the decades so that today it looks like a more modern, shinier, more aerodynamic version of what it already was. But the design fundamentals haven’t been altered, even though many intangible properties of these aforementioned objects – their purposes, their user bases and their functionality – have gone through irrevocable changes. It should stand to reason that we should see some improvements to the core product, but these actual logical improvements have been few and far between. Take keyboards, for example.

It is a common myth that when C. L. Sholes engineered the now familiar Sholes (QWERTY) keyboard back in the late 1860s, his primary motive was to slow down fast typists just enough so as to avoid jamming the type-bars. This was not the case. When Sholes designed his initial typewriter keyboard, he did realize that letters frequently typed in succession would often jam together. So, by using a study of letter-pair frequency prepared by an educator named Amos Densmore, Sholes took the most common pairs (such as “TH”) and ensured that their type-bars were sufficiently spread apart. In doing so, Sholes in effect sped up, not slowed down, the maximum speed at which a typist could perform.

Today, a computer sits on nearly every desk, and these same Sholes keyboards are used as the primary input devices for a wide variety of professions. The same keyboard that was designed to reduce the jamming of type-bars sits on my desk, and your desk, and everybody else’s desk, regardless of what sorts of tasks we set out to accomplish with it. Writers, software designers, database administrators – professionals from all walks of life use this same keyboard. But I for one know that it’s nigh impossible to design something that will suit the needs of every single person, and keyboards have been tailored to do just that. About the most drastic change the keyboard has seen lately, notwithstanding the much earlier addition of a numeric keypad and some function keys, is the creation of the ergonomic keyboard.

I’ll admit, I was one of the kickers and screamers when I first saw Microsoft’s ergonomic keyboard. I couldn’t use it – my hands were too familiar with the keyboards the industry has been using for decades, and since I was of the pack that hit the B key with my right forefinger, I found myself repeatedly smacking plastic. After my initial failure with the device, I went back to using my familiar wrist-wrenching keyboard with which I was most comfortable.

Only during a stint out west did I switch to an ergonomic keyboard, and only then because I had to – that’s what was attached to my computer. I complained a lot to myself at first, and for the first day or two I made more errors than I can recount. However, after the second day – that was all it took – I was hooked. My wrists felt better, and I could type for longer periods of time without fatiguing. It took perhaps a dozen or so attempts at trying to hit the B key with my right hand before I made the switch to my left. Since then I’ve been typing on an ergonomic keyboard – I couldn’t do without it.

Getting forced into using the keyboard was what helped me. And, having learned to use it, I think I’m ready to take more abuse if it will improve my productivity. I’d really like to see a keyboard tailored to suit my profession. The most significant improvement I would make would be to take the arrow pad, something I use often to move dialogs around on the screen, and put it somewhere my fingers could reach it rather than way off to the right where it currently resides. On the ergonomic keyboard, this might be right in the middle of the two converging letter trays, where Microsoft has placed the caps lock, scroll lock and num lock indicator lights – all three completely useless to me. I would much prefer a number pad there, with all four arrow keys in easy reach of my index fingers. My hands would never have to leave home row! And I’d put four new keys arranged in a square underneath the space bar where my thumbs could reach them, and make them programmable. There are certain words that I type an awful lot on the job, and it would be excellent to be able to program these words into shortcuts that are accessible without moving my hands away from home row. In fact, I’d like the whole keyboard to be easily mappable. And there are other both subtle and not-so-subtle changes I’d make to my keyboard, too; more than I’m going to go into here.

You might hate using my keyboard – hate it, that is, until you became a software designer. At that point you might decide to put up with two or three days of grumbling and stomping all over my initially cryptic keyboard in exchange for learning how to use something that’s going to improve your long-term productivity. That’s all it’s going to take! And I’m going to help make you learn it by sticking it in front of you and locking your old, comfortable universal keyboard in my filing cabinet. If I had such a keyboard, or a selection of keyboards that suited computer users working in a variety of different professions, I’d welcome you to take such a challenge – I propose that you would eventually learn to appreciate a tool that was designed with the very purpose of making your specific job easier. And I welcome anyone who engineers anything to put up with whatever user gripes you’re going to receive in the short run if it means making a better product that your users will celebrate over time.