[Analysis] Minuum and the Quest for a Better On-Screen Keyboard

Update: It looks like they reached their $10000 funding goal within a day. I guess it’s time for my dancing cookie-dispensing robot idea to greet the world…

Everyone’s aflutter about Minuum, the on-screen keyboard concept looking for funding on Indiegogo.  The reactions fit into the usual classifications: this sucks, this is stupid, this is amazing, this is genius, this will change the world, this has no hope, try mine instead, you’re stupid, you’re stupid but I’m smart.  Very informative.

Continuing my quest to over-analyze everything as though it were a fine wine (or decent winegum), I provide you with my initial analysis of their initial promo material, initially initialed intricately in triplicate.

The Analysis

A writer of type.

They hate typewriters.  Or, or, they badmouth typewriters but like to show them in their fundraising video.

I know, it’s just a marketing video, it’s a commercial, it doesn’t represent their intellects nor their capabilities.  But it is annoying to hear the same half- or quarter-truth repeated by designers promoting their latest interface improvement.  The fractional truth in question: the influence of typewriters on modern interface design.

It’s almost obligatory for someone to mention typewriters when presenting a new interface design – especially anything keyboard-ish.  The argument goes something like this:

  • typewriters are over a century old
  • they had a big problem with keys getting stuck together
  • so they made the layout less-efficient and slowed everything down
  • modern devices aren’t anything like those old wing-dingers with their cogs and cranks
  • therefore it’s stupid or at least strange to make modern interface devices work in some way similar to those old contraptions
  • It may even be treason.

To which the proper response is “Yes, but…”

Yes: It’s true that the QWERTY layout isn’t optimal in terms of key location relative to letter frequency (the more common a letter is used in the English language, the closer it should be to a fingertip; the least commonly used letters should be farthest from the fingertip in that case, kinda sorta), and it’s true that modern keyboards and on-screen/virtual keyboards don’t have the mechanical issues that called for the use of QWERTY.

But: there are oodles of good reasons to use some typewriter-related concepts, there are many ways that on-screen keyboards are fundamentally inferior to typewriters, and it’s misleading to invoke the typewriter in comparison to your product without elaborating.

The QWERTY layout is really the only thing that an onscreen keyboard takes from the typewriter. The relative size and separation of the keys on the screen is to make targeted touches easier for the user – they can easily judge whether they’re between two keys, directly on one key, or somewhere else.  Physical keyboards and typewriters give us all sorts of tactile feedback that we don’t get on a screen, so it’s hard to touch type.  We just can’t feel precisely where our fingertip is on the virtual keyboard; there are no raised edges, no valleys between keys, no concave surface to invite a fingertip in for a rest.  This loss of feedback has a much larger impact on interface efficiency than is generally recognized, and I’ll be addressing it in a future article.

So the user gets no tactile feedback cues to guide the finger placement.  That’s a negative for any on-screen keyboard, but at least they all have it in common.  What, then, separates the good screenboards from the okay, the okay from the bad?

As always: it depends.  There are all sorts of objective and subjective ways to measure and compare screenboards, but which measures really matter?  Minuum‘s premise is that the default style of screenboard is usually something large with typewriter-like layout and separation between the keys, something that often covers half of the screen in a way that is distracting or otherwise negatively affects users, so it would be of benefit to have something that is functionally equivalent to a big screenboard but much smaller and less obstructive.  I agree that the large boards are obstructive and disrupt the flow of the experience, but I have some issues with their solution…

Even though the half-screen virtual keyboards eat up so much space, the user is able to trust that the keys will always be in the same locations on the screen, no matter what they do (except for switching to alt characters, number boards, etc.), and pressing a key always results in that position’s character being added to the input buffer.  The Minuum type of predictive entry starts as a sort of compressed QWERTY board which lets you choose a “first candidate” character.  A mini-board pops up above the first board and includes guesses about what character you were actually trying to hit; this can be characters to the immediate left and right, or the next letter of a word that it thinks you’re trying to spell.  It’s not obvious from the video whether a second selection is necessary if the first guess was correct; it could just wait for a delay and then push the guess onto the input buffer.

The point here is that flat QWERTY is the only constant part of the board; the virtual keys are lined up shoulder to shoulder in one long, thin row and it would be difficult to choose the desired key on the first click. The mini pop-up board’s contents are not static – they can change depending on tiny differences in finger position on the first pass and depending on predictions about the word or string you’re trying to type. This means that the only constant part of the board is hard to use on its own, and that you’ll have to do a two-stage selection using a board that isn’t static. 

I’m not saying that this won’t work or anything like that. I’m just saying that the way this operates goes against some UX principles at first glance. If the prediction algorithm works well, you’ll be saved a lot of extra key presses, and that’s good; after typing the first 5 letters of “antidisestablishmentarianism”, it lets you click on the finished word and saves you all that isestablishmentarianism.  If you’re typing a lot of non-dependent (non-predictable) text or strings, like alphanumeric passwords or LULZSPEAK TXTING LING0, you’ll have to more actively scan the mini-board for the correct character (since you won’t know what characters it will include) or use the “magnifier” feature (which is really a 2-stage board without the prediction feature).

In general, the more the user has to actively think about something, search through sets, make judgments, etc., the less optimal the interaction will be. If the board layout remains constant and the fingertips are moving to a fixed location each time for a specific key, the process becomes less and less a conscious task. Physical keyboards are great for this because the keys are always in the same absolute position and there are many little tactile and auditory clues and cues that feed back to the motor control, helping to make precise key presses without needing to visually track the finger’s position or do any conscious processing.

Now, I must stress that I don’t have any more information about Minuum than anyone else who has only seen the promo video, so I’m speculating about some of the details and about what manner of beast will be the final product  Feel free to point out any glaring mistakes in my reasoning or understanding.

I wish them good luck in fundraising and good luck in the market.

  • Glad to see that at least someone out there has given this some proper thought. I couldn’t agree more with your conclusions – I looked pretty closely at disambiguation when I was developing ASETNIOP and found that having the output (i.e. the word that’s under construction as you type) constantly change as the disambiguation algorithm teases out your intended meaning was very jarring visually. Not to mention the T9 patent issues…

    • Glad to see someone agree with me. 🙂 Ya, the user is focusing on the tail of the buffer — as you would when touch-typing on a regular keyboard — expecting it to grow by one character per key press, so the brain gets wrong-footed whenever the tail grows or shrinks by multiple letters with only one key press. And then there’s the disruption caused by reading an incorrect predicted word, etc. etc.

      BTW, how does ASETNIOP tread on T9 patents? Predicting words and selecting by single keypress? I have to say, I don’t think “T9” when I look at your interface. You implement chording and direct entry by default, AFAIK; vanilla T9 is a set of one-key taps with prediction baked in. If you disable prediction on T9, you aren’t using T9 anymore. Am I wrong?

      • That is correct; ASETNIOP doesn’t have anything to do with T9 anymore, for a couple different reasons. I’ve always known that learning curve was going to be an issue with ASETNIOP, so when I was first developing the design (in Matlab a couple years ago; I cringe when I think about how awkwardly things were coded), I developed a system based on disambiguation that broke things into groups by finger (QAZ, WSX, EDC, RFVTGB, etc.) and forced you to use a chord to choose from the different options. The theory being that you were forced to learn chords via this method; once you had to distinguish between “rat” and “fat” you’d learn the chord for R or F and use it the next time instead of having to go through the choice menu. It worked, but not particularly well, and given the issues associated with disambiguation (IP, usability) I put it aside. I still have the original code, though, so I am going to make a hack of the Minuum keyboard later this morning and see how it looks and feels in practice.

        • It will always be an up-hill battle to get users to change their habits 🙂 That’s not a knock against users in any way, it’s just difficult to convince someone that the amount of time and frustration involved in learning a new input method will be beneficial enough to warrant it. And your idea about teaching chording with a sort of carrot-and-stick approach does make sense, but only if you can convince people to stick around long enough for the chording to become natural. If they were forced to use it, that’s one thing; otherwise everyone will be tapping away while wondering how hard it is to re-enable the default QWERTY board.