Touch typing

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This is a mini-rant, a short essay refuting a common misconception among users of an Internet forum. If you think this essay is FUD, feel free to explain why on the essay's talk page.

In a nutshell: "Touch" screens fail when eyes are diverted elsewhere because there's no sense of touch telling you whether your fingers are in the right place.

Traditionally, there have been two general ways to give commands to a computer: looking at a list of commands and selecting one, or giving commands through controls located by feel. Two familiar examples of these are the well-known methods to enter text using a keyboard: hunt-and-peck and touch typing. But despite the name, the touch screens used on smartphones and tablet computers provide no tactile feedback, making them far better at hunt-and-peck interaction than at interaction that resembles touch typing.

In typing, hunt-and-peck is performed while looking at the keyboard. The typist looks for a letter, moves his finger to it, and presses the key. Typos, or errors in typing, might not be noticed immediately[1] because the user is looking at the keyboard, and the insertion point is in the peripheral vision if that. Touch typing, on the other hand, is performed while looking at something else. A typist using touch typing memorizes the locations of letters relative to a home position, such as index fingers on F and J in the QWERTY layout, and blindly moves the fingers to hit these locations, correcting minor position errors based on the shapes of the edges of the keys. Keyboards have extra bumps on the F and J keys precisely to allow touch typing. Touch typing takes longer to learn but enables entry of text twice as fast[2][3] with greater accuracy because the typist can immediately see errors as the words appear on the screen.

One can draw an analogy between other input devices and these typing styles. Use of a mouse or a touch screen is similar to hunt and peck: the player sees an object on the screen, moves the cursor to the object, and activates it. This model is ideal for interacting with items in a collection, such as tapping icons to start applications, tapping titles of e-mail messages to open them, tapping links in a web browser to open linked pages, tapping an editable text area to set the insertion point, drawing a box around an area of a picture to apply an effect, and so forth. It's also good for entering positions, such as adding lines or brush strokes to a picture. But it's far from ideal for entering large amounts of text or for giving commands without looking away. Use of arrow keys or a gamepad is far more similar to touch typing, as the player feels for where the buttons are using his thumbs while watching the action on the screen.

The large touch screens on phones and tablets aren't very useful for touch typing because they are completely flat, with no edges on the on-screen controls to provide tactile feedback to the thumbs. For example, it's difficult to dial a number on an iPhone without looking. Traditionally, people who send a lot of text messages have tended to choose devices with a smaller screen and a miniature physical keyboard, such as BlackBerry products, or a keyboard that slides out, such as the original Motorola Droid. But these devices have fallen out of style as of 2014, and typing on completely flat on-screen keys that are much narrower than a finger isn't so easy.[4] Devices that rely on an on-screen keyboard have had to incorporate sophisticated spell-checking software to overcome the limitations of rapid hunt and peck. Some have tried external USB or Bluetooth keyboards, such as a clip-on thumb keyboard or a 4-part foldable keyboard by Geyes (formerly Thinkoutside)[5] But turning on Bluetooth runs down a phone's battery faster, as does connecting a bus-powered USB device to those phones that have a USB OTG port.

Cars' heaters and radios are traditionally knobs operated by feel. But in the 2010s, some car makers have started to put climate and music controls on a flat touch screen. This poses a safety hazard, as the driver has to take his eyes off the road to navigate an often complex menu tree.[6]

In gaming

Since the decline of the text adventure in the late 1980s, few games require actual typing per se apart from the in-game chat in online multiplayer games. But the distinction between hunt-and-peck and touch typing still applies to games, as some video game genres are inherently more amenable to one method or the other. Anything that works well with a mouse or trackball will probably work well with a touch screen. For example, first-person shooters work better with a mouse because the player is aiming at targets at arbitrary places on screen. Strategy games with dozens of units need hunt-and-peck because the player is quickly selecting units at arbitrary places on screen and giving commands to them. This is why console ports of FPS and RTS tend to be less satisfying: directional controls are poor for hunt-and-peck. Shoot-em-ups work OK on a touch screen as well, as moving the character already resembles moving a mouse pointer, and Android shmups like AirAttack HD essentially emulate a laptop computer's trackpad.

Platformers and fighting games, on the other hand, are traditionally played with touch typing. A gamepad or joystick controls the direction of a character's motion relative to its current position, and trigger buttons are bound to jumping or use of various tools. The controllers for Konami's dancing games have several pressure-sensitive areas corresponding to directions on the screen, and in all but the cheapest soft pads, these areas are raised or recessed to let the player feel the sensors' positions with the feet.

Nintendo has used a couple design principles in many of its controllers to make touch typing easier. One method is to ensure no more than two buttons of the same shape are in a single group. The GameCube controller, for example, makes the B button smaller and the X and Y buttons kidney-shaped. The Control Pad itself has a cross-shaped edge and a slight concavity on the face. One exception is the Super Famicom controller, which has identical A, B, X, and Y buttons. Nintendo corrected this in the North American Super NES controller, which gives the X and Y buttons a bowl-shaped indentation to distinguish them from the convex A and B buttons. Another method is to make the buttons small enough and close enough together that the player can position the thumb by feeling three buttons at once. This is used in every Control Pad, the C buttons on the Nintendo 64 controller, and the A, B, X, and Y buttons on the Nintendo DS and 3DS.

The Turbo Touch 360 controllers by Triax, which the gaming press has panned,[7] replaced the directional pad with a touch-sensitive panel. The player had no tactile feedback about when a direction was pressed, but the player could feel the octagonal edge of the recessed touch panel and a set of ridges within the touch panel indicating the four cardinal directions, and the physical buttons under the right thumb remained unchanged. But even the Turbo Touch was better than what smartphone gamers have to put up with. One might even make a commercial for it parodying the old Sega Genesis commercials:

  • ♪ Turbo Touch does ♪ Ridges to align your thumb. ♪ You can't do this on a touch screen ♪
  • ♪ Turbo Touch does ♪ A raised edge around the D-pad. ♪ You can't do this on a touch screen ♪
  • ♪ Turbo Touch does ♪ Physical A and B buttons. ♪ You can't do this on a touch screen ♪
  • ♪ Turbo Touch ♪ Does! ♪ Turbo Touch ♪ Does! ♪ Turbo Touch does ♪ What touch screens don't.

A lot of video games originally designed for gamepads suffer when translated to a device whose only input is a touch screen, such as a smartphone or a tablet. These generally use an on-screen gamepad with a directional pad at the bottom left, trigger buttons at the bottom right, and the action in the middle of the screen. Because these controls lack even the minimal position feedback of the ridges and bezel of the Turbo Touch 360's directional pad, players report missing the target often when they try to press on-screen trigger buttons without looking. Better virtual gamepad designs use slide gestures from wherever the player first touches. But even this isn't enough to make game developers comfortable with the limits of touch screen control because it makes players look away from the action. Sweaty fingers and "whiffing" (pressing outside any control) make touch screen control inappropriate for several game genres.[8] Even pediatricians have their own reasons to dislike touch screens.[9] An anonymous comment on Slashdot claims that NBA Jam for Android surmounts the challenge of touch-only control. We have not had a chance to evaluate this claim.

In the early 2010s, textured touch surfaces for smartphones were prototyped[10][11] and shown at CES 2013.[12] But they never really entered mass production.[13] It took until 2013 for Apple to announce an official "Made for iPhone" game controller alongside iOS 7.[14]

This wouldn't be a problem if there weren't such a gap in developer eligibility between devices designed for hunt-and-peck use and devices designed for touch typing use. Smartphones and tablets allow the general public to develop applications for a nominal fee, but they tend to have a touch screen as their only input device. External keyboards and gamepads that use a Bluetooth wireless connection are available, such as iCade and iControlPad products. Games for Android devices can use input methods provided by applications such as Sixaxis Controller, which allows connecting a DualShock 3 controller to select Android devices through Bluetooth. So are a few fairly obscure Android tablets with built-in gamepads.[15][16][17]

But it's hard to sell a video game that relies on these because the customer is unlikely to already own one, nor are they likely to buy one just to play one game.[18] Even if someone already owns a Wii or PlayStation 3 controller, the instructions to configure the input device might be difficult for a novice to follow, and updates to the Android operating system often cause the driver apps to stop working. Well-known devices that come with gamepads typically have the far more selective developer criteria traditionally associated with video game consoles. The major console makers tend to require what Nintendo calls "relevant video game industry experience", which in practice means having moved to another state and worked for another company for several years. This ends up shutting less experienced developers, such as those fresh out of university or those moving to games from a programming position in another industry, out of entire genres, as seen in the history of Bob's Game.


  1. Slashdot comment by wbr1
  2. ZAGGkeys FLEX Tablet Keyboard & Stand Accessed 2012-11-24.
  3. See citations in Wikipedia:Touch typing#Alphanumeric entry
  4. AuntieMeme et al. "30 Most Baffling Design Flaws of Popular Products". Cracked, 2014-01-22. Accessed 2014-01-22.
  5. thanks DrYak
  6. E. Reid Ross. "6 Futuristic Technologies That Are Huge Disappointments". Cracked, 2016-01-24. Accessed 2016-01-24.
  7. Craig Harris. "Top 10 Tuesday: Worst Game Controllers". IGN, 2006-02-21. Accessed 2012-09-16.
  8. Anonymous Coward
  9. Carolyn Burke. "4 Video Game Gimmicks Nobody Likes Anymore". Cracked, 2014-09-02. Accessed 2014-09-02.
  10. Eric Smalley. "Tactus touch screen sprouts keys and buttons". CNET, 2011-06-18. Accessed 2013-02-16.
  11. Sumi Das. "Keyboard bubbles up from touch screen on demand" (video). CNET, 2013-02-13. Accessed 2013-02-16.
  12. "CES 2013: Tactus Technology Tactile Touchscreen" (video). Wired, 2013-01-23. Accessed 2013-02-26.
  13. XJ Selman. "6 Sci-Fi Technologies You'll Soon Have on Your Phone". Cracked, 2012-09-09. Accessed 2012-09-28.
  14. Andy Boxall. "Good news for mobile gamers: Apple is set to license a range of official, iOS 7 game controllers". Digital Trends, 2013-06-13. Accessed 2013-06-21.
  15. Archos GamePad: 7 inch Android tablet with built-in gaming buttons. Liliputing. Accessed 2012-10-21.
  16. JXD S5100 Android gaming handheld now available for $106. Liliputing. Accessed 2012-10-21.
  17. Rich Brown. "Wikipad delayed for last-minute tweaks". CNET, 2012-11-02. Accessed 2012-11-06.
  18. Slashdot comment by shutdown -p now

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