by Al Sacco

“Study”: Apple iPhone Touch Screen Doesn’t Improve Typing Efficiency…At First

Aug 17, 20074 mins
Data Center

In July, Chicago-based User Centric, a usability consultancy, gathered 20 mobile phone users who send at least 15 text messages a week and came to the conclusion that the Apple iPhone’s touch screen does not improve typing efficiency. Respondents with QWERTY keyboards supposedly couldn’t type nearly as fast with an iPhone than they could on their own phones, but folks with traditional numeric keypads typed at roughly the same speed on their phones as they did on an iPhone, according to User Centric.

This seems very strange to me because I can type significantly faster on a phone with a full QWERTY keyboard than I can on one with a numeric pad. The problem with such numeric keypads is that you’ve got to hit the buttons multiple times to get to certain letters. On that note, I recently reviewed software for PDAs and Pocket PCs that enlarges the buttons on tradition Windows Mobile onscreen keyboards, but the fact that only a handful of letter were available onscreen without multiple taps greatly hindered the software’s value.

Image of the Apple iPhone onscreen keyboard

Furthermore, to call this experiment a study is really pushing it. It included only 20 participants, half of which regularly used handsets with full QWERTY keyboards and half who used traditional numeric keypads and the “multitap” text entry method. None of the respondents had ever used an iPhone before and they were given 60 seconds with the device before participating in one-hour testing sessions, which consisted of typing 12 specific messages. User Centric found that respondents with QWERTY phones typed the messages on iPhones in about double the time it took them using their own phones. Numeric keypad users typed the messages in roughly the same amount of time on their phones and the iPhone, according to the company.

As someone who frequently uses different handhelds and mobile devices, I can say with certainty that switching from ANY handheld to another will temporarily affect your comfort level and text input speed. Even switching from one full QWERTY keyboard BlackBerry to another requires a bit of a transition because the keys and key spacing are different. I asked Gavin Lew, managing director of User Centric, about this and he agreed.

“For the general mobile phone user, any new device will have a transition period,” Lew said. “However, what this study found was that there was NO difference in text messaging efficiency between a mobile phone (non-QWERTY) compared to the iPhone’s touch keyboard. This is compelling because it suggests that users will have the same texting efficiency on the iPhone as they do today.”

Lew also offered up a couple of lessons CIOs or other corporate users can learn from the experiment.

“Corporations should recognize two concerns. The first is the efficiency of email via the touch keyboard. But, possibly more relevant is that the iPhone is an entertainment device. It plays music and video like no other mobile phone. CIOs should assess productivity concerns with any entertainment device that may have limited business applicability,” Lew said.

To the point of this blog entry, I’m hoping to reach a number of iPhone users out there (20 or more, preferably) who are willing to tell me 1) how long it took to get used to the touch screen interface, 2) whether or not you’re now typing as fast or faster than you did on their last phone, and 3) your take on a few of User Centric’s additional findings, which I’ve listed below.

From User Centric:

  • “Most participants felt that their fingertips were too large for the iPhone’s touch keyboard.” (The North Denver News came up with one possible solution to this issue.)

  • “Participants expressed a great deal of frustration with the sensitivity of the iPhone’s keypad.”

  • “[P]articipants struggled when they were trying to type using the Q & W keys or the O & P keys.”

  • “The space bar, return, and backspace keys presented issues for many participants because these keys were spaced so closely to each other.”

  • “One female participant tried to interact with the iPhone keyboard using her fingernail and was unsuccessful.”

For you iPhone users, do User Centric’s findings mirror your own experience with the iPhone? What kind of device were you using before the iPhone, and what kind of keypad did it have? I’ve got to admit, the company’s “study” seems a bit off to me, but I want your input. I’m all ears.