[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.

Android Phone Goes Inky. E Inky, Prototypically Speaking.

Wow, what a great headline…

I read an article at Laptop Mag regarding a prototype Android phone that uses an E Ink display.  My inner critic decided to outwardly criticize, producing a rather lengthy blog comment.  I reprinted the comment here on my own blog because… well, why not?

Laptop Mag’s hands-on demo:

My response:

Notwithstanding the super-light weight and super-long battery life that E Ink affords this device, the display is a showstopper. The talk about using an older processor is a red herring; a faster processor won’t fix fundamental characteristics of the display. The currently available generations of E Ink give you a trade-off between refresh speed and power consumption; crappy refresh rates mean long battery life, fast refreshes are draining.

The E Ink screen is great for displays that don’t require rapid refresh, but this prototype demonstrates how inappropriate it is as a smartphone’s primary display.

Motofone F3

When you buy an Android phone with multi-touch, the implication is that you’ll be interacting using finger swipes and taps, and that your interactions produce feedback quickly enough to make the experience seem natural and effortless. What we think of as normal single- and multi-touch functions would lose much of their utility; pinch-to-zoom, for one, would be a noticeable series of zoom-in steps (instead of a fluid growing and shrinking effect), something you could achieve with a zoom-in button and a single finger.

I’m not trying to bad-mouth E Ink, here – this is just not a viable application until/unless E Ink rolls out a display that gives you imperceptible refresh without massively increasing power consumption, hopefully at a reasonable price.

It would be cool to have the option of swapping your phone’s display, either physically changing it for another one or flipping one over the other like a book cover. There are times when I wish my display was e-paper, but then I look at my Motorola F3 and all is forgotten.

😉

LG Support Super Happy Fun Time

Who doesn’t love an easter egg hunt?

Staring at the refurb LG television on my desk, I felt the need to check its customizability, or “hackability” for those wearing rollerblades.  Before any of that could happen, I wanted to find precise specifications and descriptors for the TV to help my search.  The logical place to start was the manufacturer’s support site…  Corporate product support sites are universally craptastic, but LG has a way of making theirs even more frustrating.

Model 22LG30 LCD TV

Example: the exact model number stamped on the back of my TV isn’t listed in the product search.  I have a 22LG30-UA.  When I visit LG’s Canada support page* and enter “22lg30-ua” I get no results at all from the quick menu or drop-down menu.  Hmm.  That’s not a good sign.  Clicking the Search button brings me to a results page that purports to show close matches to known products.  But there are none.  Zero matches for product, tutorials, or frequently asked questions.

*Strangely, I initially landed at the UK support site.  I can’t say that this was LG’s doing since I performed a Google search instead of entering the basic lg.com URL, but I didn’t realize I was at the wrong site for my region for a few minutes.  A “you appear to be in Canada, would you like to visit their site instead?” message would have been appreciated.

Playing the game, I try a less specific search term, “22lg30” (case isn’t important) and I get this from the quick menu:

22lg30search

Notice the total lack of “22LG30-UA” results.  This time, at least, I have some leads.

This is a clear UX failure; you’ve asked me for a model number, I gave it to you verbatim, you tell me there is no such product.  One of us is lying or misinformed.  I can appreciate that they have oodles and oodles of model numbers and that running a support site isn’t generating revenue, but somewhere in the corporate databases there must be a master list of model numbers that could be dumped to the support site.  Then, at least, a user would have the luxury of finding that his television really does exist.

So, I have two possible matches for my model, “22LG30DC” and “22LG30DC-UA“.  What do these mean?  What is the difference between a model that has “UA” and one that doesn’t?  Is there a default, generic result that I should try first?  There are many ways to help me, the frustrated user, complete his task, but I’m left to click through each link.

I clicked the results in order, looking through the first result, then back to look at the second.  The pages were exactly the same in any meaningful way and looked like this:

22lg30support

There was no information about region specifics (is this a UK model, a Canadian, a German?), no explanation of the “UA” suffix, no information about release year or years, no mention of product family or relation to other products.  There wasn’t even a picture of the TV!  All you get is a generic, slightly ghosted flat panel TV image, which is quite unhelpful when the user wants to know if it’s his television and, naturally, there is no caption or asterisk telling you that it isn’t a picture of your device.

The Help Library section, which one expects to have tips about the device, includes gems like:

  • Sharing Files & Folders – Windows Vista OS
  • Smart TV – Resetting of Netflix Premium Application
  • DLNA not supported on Macintosh Operating System

None of these is related to the product on the page.  Oh well.  Let’s check the manual and get all of the information we want:

22lg30manual

THANK YOU!  Not even a manual to peruse for the 22LG30DC-UA model.  The 22LG30DC model does list a manual, a PDF document (sigh) which appears to match my product.  PDFs are annoying in all sorts of ways, but at least I do, eventually, get the info.

My favourite part of this whole exercise?  Finding LG’s USA support site.  It has an exact listing for “22LG30-UA” with the correct product image (top of this post, source lg.com), a spec sheet with information not found in the manual, and different Help Library information that is also unrelated to the product.  Parfait.

Why is the support database balkanized into separate regions like this?  It makes a certain logical sense for each region to list only the models actively sold (and therefore supported) in that region, and it will probably have no negative effect on most users, but there are many realistic and recorded scenarios where users find themselves unable to get what they need.  From the outside, I can’t know the real reasons for the regionalized nature of LG’s support system.  I would not be surprised, however, to learn that no real usability analysis or user testing was performed, and that support was organized according to the structure of the companies involved rather than a genuine effort to provide a service to the customers.

The whole foundation of good user experience design is knowing your users, and anyone who has really tried to know their userbase has discovered a heterogeneous group of people with different expectations and different ways of solving their problems.  Accepting that reality, a good designer must account for these different expectations and methods, finding ways to accommodate and assist.  You can’t make every task the press of a single button, nor can you make every user act according to your plans, but you can offer suggestions (“You might also check our other regional support sites”), useful information (“The sections of the model number refer to this year, this family, this region, this revision, etc.”), and more agency (“Enter this, press that button” vs “If you know X or part of X, you can search for Y here.  You may also try these other methods, or follow our tutorial, etc. etc.”).  A little consideration can build a lot of customer satisfaction.

LG Support has other ways to frustrate the consumer (not releasing updated firmware via the support page is a frequent complaint), but that’s enough for today.

My next post introduces us to the hidden world of the TV’s Service Menu.