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April 11, 2008


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I'm going to go on record and say that keyboards in particular are not going away soon. Want to make a friendly bet? We can follow it up in 20 years and see who was right.

I'm not a usability professional, I'm just a developer who knows a few usability principles, and values usability in the work I do. But I want to make the point that usability professionals-- people who know how to study user experience and adjust it, as opposed to pikers like me-- will actually become more relevant as new interfaces emerge, not less relevant. Sure, the rules of thumb that you know no longer apply-- but who else is going to study user behavior and define new rules of thumb for new interfaces?

Well David, I would definitely take that bet. The plastic mechanical keyboard attached to laptops and desktop personal computers are relics. Touch screens, gestures, and voice recognition are already becoming more common, but I think there's immense potential to have eye tracking interfaces let you enter text as quickly as you can read it now.

Check out the Bill Buxton report. I think that in addition to familiar interfaces going away, the remaining few will become extremely standardized. People are less and less willing to learn new interfaces, and the more advanced ones I'm imagining will be more dependent on special hardware. For example, registration forms and logins will be replaced by biometrics: retina or fingerprint scan. This is probably a less hackable future, in the non-pejorative sense of the word.

There's a lot to like about Buxton's report, and I'd hardly dispute the idea that new interfaces are going to emerge, computer-like devices will continue to become more ubiquitous, use of biometrics will increase... actually, I just skimmed all of "Being Human" and liked it a great deal.

However, futurists have been predicting the death of the keyboard since before you and I were born. I think the office desk is an environment that's ideally suited for keyboard-based input; none of the alternatives out there or on the horizon offer the same affordances and efficiency that the keyboard does. In 2028, I'm sure we will be surrounded by dozens of computer-like devices without keyboards, but I'll also be damn surprised if we don't have keyboards on our desks at work.

And yes, implicit in this prediction is the idea that the workplace as we know it continues to exist in 2028. You can have that one for free!

I tend to agree with David; I think we're on the brink of some exciting advances, but it's going to take time. The keyboard is outdated and there have been arguably a number of viable alternatives, but just like the print newspaper, it's managed to hang around longer than anyone could reasonably expect. The problem is that any technology to replace it can't just be a bit better, but has to be so much, obviously better as to justify the learning curve and switching costs, both individually and in the corporate world. I do agree that mobile devices, where keyboard are impractical, will lead the way, but I think the death of the keyboard is still a while off.

Great article and links thanks Joshua!
Thanks too for the OZ reference!

I have to write up the results of the eye tracking poll on my blog. But it looks like people are even about the potentiality that eyes will replace mice! I think it will be a combination of inputs, governed by the technology available at the time.

I reckon we could clear some fog on the crystal ball if we actually were privvy to some of the stuff that he been already developed in Apple's and other labs around the world!!

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