To Key or Not to Key?

A tactile, physically responsive keyboard demonstrates an intrinsic advantage compared to virtual ‘;in-screen’ keyboards in industrial work environments. When I was a kid, I used to marvel at watching my Mom run a “10-key adding machine”, a device that has gone the way of the typewriter and the corded telephone.
But it was amazing to watch her flip through the papers at her work, fingers flying, paper tape spewing out of the back of the machine… and not once did she look at the keyboard. She was doing it all by touch in the same way most people learn to type: memorizing the keyboard and literally using muscle memory to know which key is where.

Likewise, when we’re typing on the computer, we get the tactile feedback of the keyboard in addition to seeing what we’re typing on the screen. We “feel” that we pressed the right key, and we confirm it by seeing it on the screen.
When Mom was working that adding machine, there was no display to look at it… she just trusted her fingers and the feel of the keyboard.

Speed is critical, but accuracy is paramount

Today, the proliferation of smartphones and tablets has forced upon us a new technology for typing or entering data into a device… the touchscreen. It acts as our display and our keyboard and it saves space. In many applications, the touchscreen has made life easier. But there might be exceptions.

Consider the handheld computer used in “high velocity” environments, where the workers using them are actively scanning barcodes and entering quantities to move inventory through warehouses and manufacturing centers. Speed is critical, but accuracy is paramount and touchscreens aren’t exactly “speed friendly”. There’s a reason why they created the “Auto-Correction” features for smartphones and tablets, which is the reason we have all the funny text message bloopers that pop-up on social media.

Virtual keyboards take up room on the display, limiting the amount of space available for viewing data

There’s simply no replacement for the tactile feel of a mechanical keyboard, feeling not only the switch closure, but the physical separation of the keys. Some touchscreen displays use a vibrator to create a “faux” tactile feel for the virtual keyboard, but it’s just that, it’s a fake feel and there is still no way to feel separation between the keys to help locate them. To compound the problem, virtual keyboards take up room on the display, limiting the amount of space available for viewing the data.

With a traditional keypad on a handheld computer, a user can look at the keypad and press a key… then have a very high degree of certainty that the data they intended to enter was done so correctly because they “felt” the key closure. With a virtual keyboard on a touchscreen, the user will likely type slower out of paranoia that they are typing in garbage, and when they do, waste time having to correct it.

Without a doubt the touchscreen revolutionized computing devices of all types, but it does have its limitations and short comings. It really just boils down to selecting the right tool for the job and virtual keyboards and high-speed data entry just don’t mix.

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