In my estimation, most keyboard layouts suck

by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2006/02/06 03:01 -05:00, original URI:

Leave it to me to have professional blog post titles!

It all started yesterday when I posted Keyboards: Monolingual or Multilingual?

Now in that post, I focused on a few of the challenges that the champions of a multilingual keyboard face when they aim for acceptance of their keyboard.

(and let me stop for a moment to point out that when I say multilingual keyboard I mean a single layout that supports multiple languages, as opposed to using multiple layouts with language switching)

But I did skip over talking about what makes up a good keyboard layout for a single language, and the consequences for multilingual keyboards that fall out of that omission.

I thought that today (and probably later this week as well!) I would dig into these issues a bit more deeply. :-)

To better understand the issues, we will go down into the asylum. The asylum for the linguistically insane, to talk to Hannibal Chomsky (the linguist who served failing grad students to his post-doctoral fellows) and get his thoughts on the issue:

Michael: You were telling me the truth about keyboards before, sir. Please continue now.

Hannibal: I've read your blog. Have you? Everything you need to create a good keyboard is right there in those blog pages.

Michel: Then tell me how!

Hannibal: First principles, Michael. Simplicity. Read Marcus Aurelius. Of each particular thing, ask what it is in itself? What is its nature? What does it do, this keyboard you seek?

Michael: It lets you type the documents you want to...

Hannibal: (Hannibal interupts) No, that is incidental. What is the first thing it does? What need does it serve by letting you type the documents you want to?

Michael: I don't know, acceptance? Keeping me from throwing the monitor at the wall?

Hannibal: No. It expresses language. That is its nature. And how do we begin to express language, Michael? Do we seek out the letters to type? (pause) Make an effort to answer now, Michael.

Michael: No, we just...

Hannibal: No, precisely. We begin by using the letters we use every day. Don't you see the fingers of other people moving over their keyboards to express language? I hardly see how you couldn't. And don't you feel your fingers typing quickly over the keys to express what is on you mind?

You will tell me if those keys stop screaming, won't you Michael?

Ah, we begin to see the issue (though at the cost of letting a madman into our heads? Luckily for us he is fictional!)

A good keyboard must be set up so that the letters that you will most frequently use are placed so that they are easy to hit, with less common letters/numbers/symbols further away.

And since every language is likely to have different usage frequencies of different letters, even the simplest of monolingual keyboard layouts will (if designed well) be different from the simple layouts of other languages.

And if you do want to add additional letters to cover other languages, those letters must be placed in a way that is harmonious with the simple design of support for your primary language -- the key assignments would ideally be placed in such a way that they are accessible enolugh to type them when you want to while far enough out of the way that they do not make typos more destructive and more of a pain to fix.

So why do I say in the title of the post that in my estimation, most keyboard layouts suck? Well, mainly because most are not designed with these principles in mind, instead often being based on other principles, and other agendas.

Those principles and agendas may serve needs, and those needs may even be valid ones. But they do not always serve ideal use of a keyboard layout to be able to express through one's typing the words, the language that one's brain is producing.

To give an example, the mere fact that there is no one rule for how often every person in Canada may use English, French, and other languages is a problem that makes the Canadian Multilingaul Keyboard Layout less usable for many of the people for whom it was created.

Some can find it ideal, most will not; this turns out to be true even before you add the poor interoperability with applications like Microsoft Word due to its use of the RIGHT and LEFT 'Control' shift states.

It also turns out to be true before people realize that applications like Microsoft Word cannot tag language appropriately, causing the spellcheck experience to be so not the ideal one....

Now I would not expect either this post or the one from yesterday to sway the people who truly believe that a multilingual keyboard layout is the best thing for a particular community of users.

But I hope it will maybe at least start to convince people who are not actively trying to add such a layout why it may be in the best interests of people to not have only multilingual keyboard layouts as their default options for their locales!


This post brought to you by "" (U+0ce0, a.k.a. KANNADA LETTER VOCALIC RR)

# Pavanaja U B on 6 Feb 2006 5:52 AM:

>This post brought to you by "ೠ" (U+0ce0, a.k.a. KANNADA LETTER VOCALIC RR)

Actually, there is no "ೠ" in usage in Kannada. Unicode has just included that character, may be copied from Devanagari. Many Kannada dictionaries also list that character. But there is not a single word in Kannada which use this character.


# Nick Lamb on 6 Feb 2006 6:15 AM:

"applications like Microsoft Word cannot tag language appropriately"

What do you mean here exactly?

# Michael S. Kaplan on 6 Feb 2006 10:15 AM:

Hi Nick --

One of the hints major hints that Word uses for its tagging of language is the language of the keyboard used to type the text -- and every kedyboard layout can at most be put under one language.

Thus, even if one is happy with one keyboard layout and it serves the languages one wishes to use completely, one is often still better served by adding the layout more than once, each time under a different language....

# Michael S. Kaplan on 6 Feb 2006 10:24 AM:

Hello Pavanaja U B --

If you think about what the post is saying and then look and see that U+0ce0 is indeed on the Kannada keyboard layout that ships in Windows (and I believe the INSCRIPT keyboard layout on which it is based), then the reason that this character is the sponsor (and the irony thereof) will hopefully become apparent. :-)

# Michiel on 7 Feb 2006 9:16 AM:

Oh, that's why Word's spellchecking breaks in roughly 50% of the cases for me. Most people who are fluent in multiple languages are fluent in related languages. This is especially so if using a single keyboard for those languages.
Because of this, many people don't even have the notion of keyboard languages, or switching them. They have one keyboard they use to enter text. If that happens to be in an Dutch document, they clearly aren't intending to write English, and vice versa. The only tricky part is the initial setup, but in that case one simply selects all text and changes the language.

Mixed-language documents are rare and often annoying. They definitely shouldn't be created as a consequence of something as invisible as a language keyboard setting. And thus spellchecking should simply accept "cat" if the user enters 'c', 'a', 't' in an English document. Don't try to assign a deeper meaning to U+0063.

# Michael S. Kaplan on 7 Feb 2006 10:32 AM:

Hi Michiel,

Well, they do not exactly assign deeper meaning to the letters -- but if your keyboard is French and you switch it to German for one paragraph, then it is not entirely unreasonable to assume you switched languages, is it?

Far from perfect, of course, an you can always override, but at least its trying.... :-)

# Harsha on 3 May 2006 9:51 PM:

Hello Michael,

An interesting post. and I truly agree. Local language input through Keyboards designed for usage in English like languages is a real pain.

It is worth while having  a look at this site from HP. They seem to have a simple solution to the problem. It even has a flash animation of the working.


# Michael S. Kaplan on 3 May 2006 11:11 PM:

Hmmm..... in my former days as a transcriptionist, I could do over 120wpm -- not sure how much 10wpm impresses me. :-)

Beyond that, I am always much more trusting of what others say about a new technology (or at least what people who can also be appropriate in expaining flaws in what they do also!). It just feels less like incubation marketing....

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referenced by

2006/03/15 Multilingual keyboards and Microsoft Word

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