Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Dragging up old debates: keyboard vs. mouse

Reddit turned up some interesting UI articles from Bruce Tognazzini, UI guru at Apple, from the late 80s/early 90s on the keyboard vs. mouse.

Tog's test was as follows:

The test I did I did several years ago, frankly, I entered into for the express purpose of letting cursor keys win, just to prove they could in some cases be faster than the mouse. Using Microsoft Word on a Macintosh, I typed in a paragraph of text, then replaced every instance of an "e" with a vertical bar (|). The test subject's task was to replace every | with an "e." Just to make it even harder, the test subjects, when using the mouse, were forbidden to just drop the cursor to the right of the | and then use the delete key to get rid of it. Instead, they had to actually drag the mouse pointer across the one-pixel width of the character to select it, then press the "e" key to replace it.

Hell, I could've told you that, given your average user, the mouse would easily win. Here's how I suspect the users handle the tasks:

Typical mouse user: Uses mouse in the right hand to select the "|" symbol. Types an "e" with the left hand to replace it. Moves to next.

Typical keyboard user: uses the arrow keys with the right hand to scroll to the "|" symbol. Types delete/backspace and "e" to replace it. Moves to next.

The mouse was approximately twice as fast. I suspect most of the difference had to do with the very simple fact that the narrow text cursor is much tougher to track than the mouse pointer (and consequently usually has a slower "top speed").

Personally, I would have just used the search/replace function myself, as it's at least an order of magnitude faster, but that apparently wasn't the option. Barring that, I'd probably use the mouse for this one, because it's easier to track down those characters visually than either use the arrow keys or the more sophisticated keyboard shortcuts to move the cursor around. (Selection of an individual character is one of those things that a mouse is far superior to a keyboard in, because of the aforementioned ease in locating the cursor/pointer.)

Tog's claim is larger than that example, though - he posits that the mouse is generally faster because it takes around two seconds. Other writers have pointed out that muscle memory significantly reduces the time involved. In my case, I *don't* bother taking two seconds to figure out a keyboard shortcut - if I don't know it immediately, I go to a menu. But I know a *lot* of shortcuts, and if I find myself repeating a task that could be improved with a shortcut, I'll look for/create one. It's a method that works pretty well for me.

The biggest annoyance with my PDA, and why I'm looking to replace it, is how slow input via a touchscreen (which should ideally be as fast as/faster than a mouse) can be. Entering text is a chore no matter how many ingenious methods (handwriting recognition, Dasher, TenGo, Fitaly, etc.) are designed. On top of that, screen estate is at a premium (thank you, stupid Windows Mobile bars), and making buttons big enough to be easily pressed with a stylus means less room for the rest of the application. Give me a keyboard!

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