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Saturday, March 14, 2015

A lesson from QWERTY

The traditional keyboard layout on virtually all computer keyboards today is a direct holdover of the layout on typewriters going back well into the 1800's.  The first practical typewriters were on the market in the 1860's.  By the 1870's almost everyone was using the standard QWERTY keyboard layout that we still use today.

Was there anything particularly wonderful about this layout?  Not really.  In fact, many have complained over the years that its layout is inefficient.  Heavily used letters are not keyed to fingers that can respond most quickly.  People have shown in many instances that a person trained on keyboards with keys optimized for speed can improve typing speeds considerably.  Why then, do we continue with the QWERTY standard?

The reason, of course, is that virtually all typists have trained for years on this standard.  Everyone knows it very well.  Changing the layout would cause great confusion and chaos for all professional typists.  The years of retraining and relearning typing far outweigh the small performance improvement that might eventually be of benefit.

Technology industry leaders seem to have forgotten this concept, or at least decided to ignore it.  Apple has often been a repeat offender, completely changing user interfaces and failing to support legacy applications.  Microsoft seems to have adopted this view with gusto in more recent years as well.  It's complete rewrites of the way the MS Office menus work, and it's disastrous release of Windows 8 with a completely new interface has angered users and scared off many long time customers, who either refuse to upgrade, or figure its time to look at competitors since they have to learn a whole new interface anyway.

In the age of cloud applications, this problem has only gotten worse.  When MS came out with an Office interface that no one wanted, users could stick with the old version for many years until they were eventually forced to get a new computer no longer compatible with the old software.  But with Cloud computing the manufacturer can change the interface on you without notice, forcing you to relearn tasks which you could do just fine yesterday.

Sure, sometimes these changes are arguably for the better (although often not).  Sometimes a new look may get customers to take a second look at your product.  It may also help give the illusion that the company is changing things and therefore remaining new and cutting edge.

But more and more, users are seeing technology as a tool to accomplish tasks, not a great new innovation that need to amaze and astound us every six months.  We want to get things done and we don't want to have to re-teach ourselves something we already knew how to do.  Many of of these changes simply cause a reduction in productivity until users are able to become accustomed to the new arrangement.

Technology leaders would be wise to take a queue from QWERTY.  Once something has become a standard, and most people have adopted it, don't change the setup unless there are very good reasons for doing so.

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