[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.

😉

Tron: Legacy: The Phantom Menace: Fully Loaded.

Dear Reader,

I find myself sitting here on a Sunday afternoon, eyes fixed on a terrible tragedy.  That tragedy is a movie called Tron: Legacy.

I could enumerate all of the horrible choices that were made in the story, the screenplay, the directing, the visual design, etc.  I could do that.  But I won’t – my neckbeard isn’t nearly thick enough for that kind of endeavour.

Instead, I will say this:   (SPOILER ALERT)

Jeff Bridges turns into a new age yogi or guru or hairy monk.  He wears a robe-like suit-like garment.

It has a bowl

A bowl.

Yes, a bowl. If I were the kind of guy who defends crappy movies, I would point out that all of the “people” living inside the computer have a similar bowl-shaped socket on the back of their garments.  It is meant to hold an dinner plate identity disc that stores your memories, yadda yadda, and doubles as a weapon.  It’s basically a soul frisbee.  Everyone has a soul frisbee.

Except poor old Jeff Bridges.  I’ll spare you the hoary

“OMG I was betrayed by my own clone and I guess I’ll go be a space Buddhist and wear a robe thing and OMG I hope my son shows up and reminds me of who I was and some guy stole my soul frisbee and now I can’t play Frolf but I hope I can get my soul back and maybe a game of hackeysack”

plot since it’s not germane to the point I’m trying to make.

My question is this: Why does his monk suit have a bowl?  It had a bowl.  On the back, for the soul frisbee.  I get the part about him being inside the computer and that everyone else has a frisbee socket, but he must have made the monk suit himself or at least ordered it from a tailor who takes neon water as payment.  But at what point is he sitting on his computerized bench with a needle and thread thinking “Wait, this thing needs a bowl.” ???

You’re supposed to be the messiah to all of these two-dimensional characters (in 3D!), so surely you can give yourself a pass on the soul bowl garment requirement.  Perhaps he didn’t want to stand out.

Jeff Bridges in his white monk suit.

I don’t want to look out of place here in this world of electric soul frisbees.  I’d better put a bowl on my monk suit.

While trying to wrap my massive head around this question, I had an epiphany.

Tron: Legacy is the Phantom Menace of Tron movies.  Lots of money and effort spent on the CGI side, but the screenplay was given such little attention that it was launched into the sky when CGI jumped on the teeter totter.

This movie is a candy bin of horrors in the bulk food store of bad ideas, but it’s “Cash or Debit ONLY” and I’m $2 short of hobo bait, so I will leave you to ponder what I am calling “The Monk Suit Bowl Conundrum“, a mystery of such depth that it would require a diving bell full of Agatha Christies to discover its foundation.  Puff puff.

[Review] Space Shuttle: Final Countdown

Watching a show on eqhd about the Space Shuttle..  Shows the life of the Space Shuttle program from the design years of the late 60s and 70s to the retirement in 2011.

It’s made for a general viewing audience, so don’t expect any real insight or analysis.  It offers a simplistic overview of the shuttle program, but at least it’s pretty.  I liked that they included lots of interviews with actual astronauts and NASA staff.  I would rather have had them narrate the whole thing.

It’s worth a look, but I have a laundry list of quibbles:

  1. The clips of the Challenger break-up had explosion sound effects dubbed in.  I found that to be disrespectful, cheap, and totally unnecessary.  It’s as though the break up of the launch vehicle and death of seven astronauts wouldn’t be enough to hold someone’s attention.  This isn’t a World’s Greatest Disasters show, folks.
  2. The narration was tedious.  The voice was an edgy bass that had the cadence and inflection of a movie trailer narrator.  “In a world…”, that sort of thing.
  3. The suggestion that the possible loss of Columbia and astronauts Young and Crippen during STS-1 would be the greatest space tragedy in history…  so the loss of the three cosmonauts on the first Salyut mission was/would’ve been less tragic?