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THOUGHT: Input, Input, Who’s Got the Input?
Posted by Alfredo Padilla - on Thursday, 12.10.06 - 20:08:56 CET under 09 - Thoughts - Viewed 12154x
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One of the most challenging things about mobile technology is figuring out how the user communicates with a device. That is, how am I going to tell my phone, ipod, whatever, what I want it to do? When talking about smartphones, which do so much, this challenge can be even more difficult. There is a careful balance that must be struck between maximizing utility and ease of use.

Today’s smartphones show off a whole range of different input methods, from traditional D-pads and soft keys, to QWERTY keyboards and scroll wheels, yet it seems to me that manufacturers still have not hit on an input method (or combination of methods) that meets all of my needs. In this article I’d like to discuss current input methods, my thoughts about them, and then describe some options that I have not yet seen/used, but that I think may be very powerful.

The Basics

Most smartphones have a few basic input options. The most popular is probably the D-Pad, or it’s cousin the joystick. This button allows you to move in 4 directions (sometimes eight), allowing you to easily navigate your screen. The limitation of the D-Pad/Joystick is that movement only occurs one increment at a time; this means that if you want to get from the top of a web page to the bottom you’ll be pressing and holding “down” for quite awhile. That limitation aside, I think the D-Pad/Joystick has been an excellent input tool, and the usability of this item on a smartphone is often a key factor on whether I will use it.

Often going hand in hand with the D-Pad/Joystick are “soft keys”. These are buttons that refer to on-screen functions. A staple of the Symbian OS for quite awhile now, Windows Mobile has adopted this functionality in its latest iteration. On touch screen devices you can simply touch the screen where the buttons are displayed, but on the majority of smartphones that don’t have a touch screen you are required to have physical buttons on the device to access those functions.

I’m a big fan of soft keys, when placed appropriately close to the d-pad, the combination provides you with an incredible amount of control over your interface, giving you the ability to select the item you want, the ability to access actions and other functions. I also prefer soft keys that are associated with real buttons, rather than using a touch screen. This provides much better tactile feedback, and allows you to control your device by touch.

Many operating systems also impose requirements (or recommendations) for some additional buttons that improve interaction with the OS. On S60 phones this has traditional been the “C”, “pencil” and “menu” buttons. Windows Mobile Smartphone Edition has the “home” and “back” buttons, while on the Pocket PC version you have the “start” and “ok” keys.

Of course on a phone device you also see keys for “call” and “hang up”. Similarly most modern smartphones also include some kind of number pad for inputting phone numbers, and text using methods such as T9. Some smartphones do not have any physical keypads, but these are becoming rare.

Most of the time all of the aforementioned buttons are place around the D-Pad/Joystick along with the soft keys, putting all of the key functionality for interacting with your smartphone within one or two centimeters of where your thumb spends most of its time.

Finally, device manufacturers include at least some additional buttons that allow you to interact with your device. These buttons provide access to commonly used functions, for example a power button is kind of important, volume keys, a camera button, and often one or more generic shortcut keys for programs that you use often.

The combination of the above input methods is what you will find on almost any device on the market today, and it provides for a fairly effective experience in my opinion. Of course no system is perfect, and the “standard” setup does have some limitations that device manufacturers have worked to get around, some with success, some not so much.

Best of the Rest

Outside of the basics there are a lot of options for users that want a more complete or effective experience interacting with their smartphones. One that has been around the longest, in fact it predates the smartphone as a device, is the touch screen. The vast majority of smartphones sold today do not have touch screens, but for many who think of a “smartphone” as a regular cellular phone with a PDA device built in, the touch screen that was ubiquitous in PDA’s is synonymous with the term.

A touch screen allows individuals to interact with the display of their device by touching items on the screen to activate them. This provides the user with a flexibility that simply cannot be duplicated using hardware buttons. Being able to touch the screen means that if you want to get to the end of your web page, you don’t have to wait while you press down on your D-Pad, you can simply move your scroll bar to the bottom.

It also provides far more flexibility in terms of copying and pasting text, selecting and moving items, among other things. I don’t find a touch screen to be a necessity, but it is certainly nice to have when you need it, for example when you want to copy a paragraph from a website into a document that you are writing. I can certainly understand why some people insist on it.

Beyond the touch screen one of the more successful innovations in smartphones is the scroll wheel. This is a simple, but powerful idea was popularized by blackberry devices, where it provides a powerful tool to scroll amongst, select, and then scroll within emails. When using an interface that only moves in “up” or “down” directions the scroll wheel is probably one of the most comfortable and powerful input methods out there. When combined with a back button, and the functionality to press “in” on the wheel to select an item it is incredibly powerful.

Unfortunately, where the scroll wheel falls down is when you are interacting with interfaces that don’t just vary in one dimension. For example, when browsing a web page where you need horizontal as well as vertical scrolling the “scroll” wheel becomes fairly useless. Combine this with the fact that the scroll wheel is usually placed so that you need to move your entire hand to switch between it and the D-Pad and browsing complicated interfaces can quickly become a pain. However, for what it does the scroll wheel is very useful, and many device manufacturers have started to include it as a standard feature on their devices.

Another useful innovation is the QWERTY keyboard. Also popularized by Blackberry devices, the idea is to provide users with a much more powerful way of inputting text and characters. This is most obviously useful for those who depend on their device for messaging, but those who have used a QWERTY device find that it quickly becomes indispensable for all types of data entry, whether your editing a 500 word report or simply entering your username and password into a website login field.

The challenge of the QWERTY keyboard is finding the space to fit it in, and this has resulted in some additional innovation. Some devices, such as the Sony M600i, place two letters on each key and allow you to select the correct one by “rocking” the key either left or right. Other devices place two letters on each key and then depend on predictive text to select the right letter when you hit the key. Some QWERTY keyboards are tiny, such as on the P990i, others are placed on slider designs to create a large and comfortable experience, such as on the HTC Wizard devices.

Regardless of how a QWERTY is implemented on your device, I think that it can provide a powerful and useful tool. It’s not for everyone, but for those who use it, it quickly becomes a necessity.


Before I begin bashing on anything, I do want to say that I admire companies that bring innovations to the market place. It’s not an easy thing to do. That being said there have been some new innovations in the market place that I’m not thrilled about. Please note that I have not actually used any of these devices, these opinions are based on a lot of reading and research, but not first hand experience.

Sony Ericcson has taken the lead in building Symbian based smartphones with a touch screen that use the UIQ interface. The latest iterations of these phones are the M600i, W950 and their flagship the P990i. One thing that each of these phones share (imagine the flip on the P990i is removed) is that you are supposed to be able to interact with the phone without a D-Pad or soft keys. Rather you are supposed to use a simple scroll wheel and back button, along with the touch screen.

In doing this Sony-Ericcson has been able to create some very sleek looking devices, but I must say that I am rather taken a back by this development. One of the things that device manufacturers have tried to do in recent years is create the “one-handed use” experience. I believe that this is what Sony-Ericcson is attempting to do with this innovation, but based on numerous reviews of these devices I don’t think they’ve made it.

The simple fact of the matter is that there is no way you can navigate an interface as complicated as UIQ with a simple up/down scroll wheel and a back button. Sony’s interface requires you to use the touch screen a lot, and frankly I would prefer to use the touch screen as little as possible. I’ll wait and see what they come up with next, but thus far I am not impressed with this innovation.

HTC (High Tech Computers) is the world’s largest manufacturer of Windows Mobile devices. This gives them some freedom to innovate that other companies don’t have, and they have taken the opportunity. Their latest batch of products includes some interesting innovations in input.

The first is the “Joggr” pad found on their Excalibur/S620 device. The idea is to replace the scroll wheel with a touch sensitive strip that provides much more functionality. The Joggr is supposed to allow you to quickly scroll up/down, it also provides access to several different shortcuts, that you access with a double tap on the strip. Tapping on different parts of the strip accesses different functions. I really like the idea here, but it seems like HTC itself has recognized that it may be a little before its time, as they will be disabling the Joggr on many of the devices they ship. Check out Arne’s review of the Joggr for the full story.

HTC has also innovated with the HTC Artemis. This device has a built-in GPS and in an attempt to improve navigation of the GPS interface HTC has replaced the normal D-Pad with a mouse control button surrounded by a circle that you can turn and that acts as a scroll wheel. There have not been many reviews of this device yet, but what is out there doesn’t seem very hopeful. I am reserving judgment on this, but am not very hopeful about it. Frankly, I’m not a big fan of using a mouse to interact with the pocket pc interface, it just seems fiddly to me, but maybe I’ll be proven wrong.

We will see how these innovations from Sony-Ericcson and HTC work out, they may not be perfect yet, but they may lead to some good stuff. Speaking of which, I’d like to talk about an idea that I haven’t seen yet, but that I think could be very powerful.

Why Not?

I think the scroll wheel is one of the more powerful tools that have been added to the smartphone, and I wish that companies were more willing to innovate with it. I know that Sony-Ericcson use a 5-way scroll wheel in one of its previous products, and I think this is an excellent idea. A 5-way scroll wheel allows you to interact with the interface much more powerfully than a simple up/down wheel does. It provides all of the benefits of a scroll wheel with much of the functionality of a D-Pad. You can scroll up/down, tilt left or right, and press in for an enter function.

So this is a good idea, but why do we consign the scroll wheel to the side of the device? If we now have a 5-way scroll wheel that can replace the D-Pad, why not put it in a more comfortable place, closer to all of the other buttons for interface management. Imagine how much more comfortable scrolling through lists would be if instead of having to hold down a D-Pad, you could simply scroll a wheel up or down. And imagine how much more convenient a scroll wheel would be if it was right in the center of the device instead of relegated to the side.

Good idea? Crazy idea? Let me know in the comments.

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