Menus Subscribe Search

Follow us



Building a Better Smartphone Keyboard

• April 23, 2013 • 6:00 AM


Can KALQ succeed where QWERTY fails?

Let’s admit it: two-thumb typing sucks. Even dumb-phone users—T9, anyone?—know the frustration of picking up a friend’s Droid and trying to dash off a quick text. AutoCorrect #fails are practically a 21st-century art form. For as much as mobile apps have sped up our lives, there’s still nothing slower than touch-screen typing.

Enter KALQ, a new keyboard layout optimized for thumbs. Designed by a team of German computer scientists to replace the universally popular QWERTY keyboard on phones and tablets, KALQ dramatically increased the word-per-minute rate at which test subjects were able to type.

What’s surprising is not KALQ’s superior performance, but that we’ve put up with two-thumb QWERTY typing for as long as we have.

The trick to building a better keyboard, according to the researchers, is to maximize the number of alternate-thumb keystrokes—try typing “minimum” on your QWERTY iPhone and you’ll understand why—and minimize overall “thumb travel” distance. To optimize the layout for real-world use, the researchers relied on a collection of some 600,000 emails sent between Enron executives before the energy giant’s collapse. (The so-called “Enron Corpus,” made public during a subsequent federal investigation, is a treasure trove for computer scientists because it captures “email English” at its most casual and conversational.) After evaluating more than 5.6 million possible key configurations, the team landed on a single best design.

With KALQ, all vowels except “Y” are handled by the right thumb, while the left thumb is responsible for more letters overall; the result is that, in commonly used words, 62 percent of keystrokes alternate between sinistral (left) and dextral (right) digits. Instead of a spacebar, which requires the thumb to travel all the way to the bottom of the screen, two “blank” keys—one for each thumb—are found on the centrally located home-row. Frequently used letters are clustered where they can be easily reached; obscure letters are relegated to the margins.

In tests, non-native English speakers were asked to transcribe sentences as quickly as possible, first using a standard QWERTY keyboard, and then using KALQ. As was expected, KALQ performed poorly at the outset. After two weeks of practice, however, subjects who “trained” for an hour each day saw their performances improve dramatically. On QWERTY, mobile typists averaged 27.7 words per minute; on KALQ, they averaged 37.1 words per minute—a 34 percent increase. KALQ produced more accurate results, too, with an error rate of five percent, compared to QWERTY’s nine percent.

What’s surprising is not KALQ’s superior performance, but that we’ve put up with two-thumb QWERTY typing for as long as we have. QWERTY, of course, is a holdover from the Remington typewriters of the 1870s; today, it’s found on computers around the globe. As office folklore has it, the keyboard’s layout was designed to prevent the Remingtons from jamming by placing common letter pairs far away from each other, forcing the typist to slow down.

Alternatives do exist, such as Dvorak, a layout designed along the same principles as KALQ—maximize alternation, minimize finger movement—and patented in the 1930s. Dvorak has a small, hardcore fan-base, including the late Barbara Blackburn, long the Guinness Book of World Record’s “fastest typist.” (Blackburn discovered Dvorak after nearly failing a QWERTY touch-typing class in high school; at the height of her secretarial game, she could sustain speeds of 150 to 170 words per minute.) But apart from a cult of contrarians and computer science geeks (e.g. my brother), Dvorak has caught on about as well as Friendster.

KALQ, which will be made available, free, for Android devices in early May, is a step in the right direction for mobile culture. It won’t make texting on a phone as fast as, say, typing on a laptop, but it may ease the strain on users’ thumbs, and reduce the number of lewd AutoCorrect messages you accidentally send to mom. It’s a first-world-problem, sure, but that doesn’t mean it’s not worth solving.

Kevin Charles Redmon
Kevin Charles Redmon is a journalist and critic. He lives in Washington, D.C.

More From Kevin Charles Redmon

A weekly roundup of the best of Pacific Standard and, delivered straight to your inbox.

Recent Posts

October 20 • 4:00 AM

Coming Soon: The Anatomy of Ignorance

October 17 • 4:00 PM

What All Military Families Need to Know About High-Cost Lenders

Lessons from over a year on the beat.

October 17 • 2:00 PM

The Majority of Languages Do Not Have Gendered Pronouns

A world without “he.” Or “she.”

October 17 • 11:01 AM

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

October 17 • 10:00 AM

Can Science Fiction Spur Science Innovation?

Without proper funding, the answer might not even matter.

October 17 • 8:00 AM

Seattle, the Incredible Shrinking City

Seattle is leading the way in the micro-housing movement as an affordable alternative to high-cost city living.

October 17 • 6:00 AM

‘Voodoo Death’ and How the Mind Harms the Body

Can an intense belief that you’re about to die actually kill you? Researchers are learning more about “voodoo death” and how it isn’t limited to superstitious, foreign cultures.

October 17 • 4:00 AM

That Arts Degree Is Paying Off

A survey of people who have earned degrees in the arts find they are doing relatively well, although their education didn’t provide much guidance on managing a career.

October 16 • 4:00 PM

How (Some) Economists Are Like Doomsday Cult Members

Cognitive dissonance and clinging to paradigms even in the face of accumulated anomalous facts.

October 16 • 2:00 PM

The Latest—and Most Mysterious—Player in the Nasty Battle Over Net Neutrality

As the FCC considers how to regulate Internet providers, the telecom industry’s stealth campaign for hearts and minds encompasses everything from art installations to LOLcats.

October 16 • 12:00 PM

How Many Ads Is Too Many Ads?

The conundrum of online video advertising.

October 16 • 11:00 AM

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

October 16 • 10:00 AM

The False Promises of Higher Education

Danielle Henderson spent six years and $60,000 on college and beyond. The effects of that education? Not as advertised.

October 16 • 8:00 AM

Faster Justice, Closer to Home: The Power of Community Courts

Community courts across the country are fighting judicial backlog and lowering re-arrest rates.

October 16 • 6:00 AM

Killing Your Husband to Save Yourself

Without proper legal instruments, women with abusive partners are often forced to make a difficult choice: kill or be killed.

October 16 • 4:00 AM

Personality Traits Linked to Specific Diseases

New research finds neurotic people are more likely to suffer a serious health problem.

October 16 • 2:00 AM

Comparing Apples to the Big Apple: Yes, Washington, D.C., Is More Expensive Than New York City

Why shouldn’t distant locales tied to jobs in the urban core count in a housing expenditure study?

October 15 • 4:00 PM

Why Asian American Parents Are the Least Likely to Spank Their Kids

Highly educated, middle-class parents are less likely to use corporal punishment to discipline their children than less-educated, working-class, and poor parents.

October 15 • 2:00 PM

The Federal Government’s New Doctor Payments Website Is Worthy of a Recall

Charles Ornstein takes a test drive using the federal government’s new website for drug and device payments and finds it virtually unusable.

October 15 • 12:00 PM

How Cosmetic Companies Get Away With Pseudoscience

Anti-aging creams make absurd claims that they repair DNA damage or use stem-cell treatments. When cosmetics companies and dermatologists partner to maximize profits, who is responsible for protecting the consumer?

October 15 • 10:00 AM

What Big Data Can Tell Us About the Things We Eat

Pizza might be the only thing that can bring men and women together.

October 15 • 9:04 AM

‘Looking’ at Art in the Smartphone Age

Technology is a great way to activate gallery space, but it shouldn’t take it over.

October 15 • 8:00 AM

A Brief History of High Heels

How what was once standard footwear for 16th-century Persian horsemen became “fashion’s most provocative accessory.”

October 15 • 7:22 AM

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don’t always take alerts seriously.

October 15 • 6:00 AM

The Battle Over High School Animal Dissection

Is the biology class tradition a useful rite of passage or a schoolroom relic?

Follow us

How to Water a Farm in Sandy Ground

Physicists investigate how to grow food more efficiently in fine-grained soil.

Unlocking Consciousness

A study of vegetative patients closes in on the nature of consciousness.

Advice for Emergency Alert Systems: Don’t Cry Wolf

A survey finds college students don't always take alerts seriously.

Brain’s Reward Center Does More Than Manage Rewards

Nucleus accumbens tracks many different connections in the world, a new rat study suggests.

A City’s Fingerprints Lie in Its Streets and Alleyways

Researchers propose another way to analyze the character and evolution of cities.

The Big One

One company, Amazon, controls 67 percent of the e-book market in the United States—down from 90 percent five years ago. September/October 2014 new-big-one-5

Copyright © 2014 by Pacific Standard and The Miller-McCune Center for Research, Media, and Public Policy. All Rights Reserved.