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Study: iPhone keypad less efficient than physical QWERTY keypads

A recent usability study found that average cell phone users are far more efficient using physical QWERTY keypads to type messages than they are when using the virtual keypad included with Apple Inc.'s new iPhone.

Global consulting firm User Centric, which had previously identified texting as potentially problematic for iPhone customers, said it commissioned the new survey to determine just how easy it is for conventional mobile phone users to transition to text input via the Apple handset's touchscreen keypad.

For the the study, the firm brought in a total of 20 participants who said they sent text messages at least 15 times per week — ten of the participants owned a phone with a QWERTY keypad, and ten of the participants owned a phone with a numeric keypad.

During each session, participants were required to use their own phones to copy 12 standard messages that had been created for the study. The participants, none of which had ever used an iPhone, were then provided with one of the Apple handsets and asked to repeat the task.

"In general, participants took longer to enter text messages on the iPhone than on their own phone," User Centric wrote in a summary of the study. "Despite the keyboard similarities, QWERTY phone users took nearly twice as long to enter comparable messages on the iPhone compared to their own phone."

Specifically, participants were asked to copy 12 standard messages, each of which was between 104-106 characters in length (including spaces). Six of the messages each contained 8-10 instances of proper capitalization and punctuation, while the remaining six messages contained no capitalization or punctuation but had some abbreviations.

Participants were given little time to familiarize themselves with the iPhone's touch keyboard ahead of the study and therefore their texting abilities were still at the novice level. Throughout the study, however, User Centric said there were some "limited improvements in keyboard comfort as users progressed through the tasks on the iPhone."

"Overall, the findings in the study can be taken as a good representation of what iPhone text messaging is like for a customer who has just bought an iPhone and is using it for the first time," said Gavin Lew, Managing Director at User Centric. "It's important to consider the changes a person has to make when they switch to the iPhone.

Some specific observations from the July study are listed below:

Detailed Observations of User Text Entry on the iPhone Ergonomic Issues
  • Most participants felt that their fingertips were too large for the iPhone's touch keyboard.
  • Most QWERTY phone users initially used the iPhone by holding it with both hands and typing with their two thumbs. However, by the end of the session, most had decided that it was easier for them to use one index finger to type.
  • Over half of the participants stated that they would have preferred the feel of an actual key to the iPhone's touch keypad.
  • Most participants noticed that there was no tactile feedback on the iPhone keypad.
  • Some mentioned that the feel of the key on conventional phones helps them locate the desired key without having to focus on the actual keypad.
General Interface Issues
  • Participants expressed a great deal of frustration with the sensitivity of the iPhone touch keypad.
  • Participants made an average of 11 errors per message on the iPhone compared to an average of 3 errors per text message on their own phone. Although the error rate was alleviated somewhat by the iPhone's self-correction feature, participants were still frustrated.
  • In particular, participants struggled when they were trying to type using the Q & W keys or the O & P keys on the iPhone.
  • 5 out of 20 participants asked if the iPhone came with a stylus. They indicated that they could be more accurate with the stylus rather than their fingers due to the sensitivity of the screen.
  • One female participant tried to interact with the iPhone keypad using her fingernail and was unsuccessful.
  • The space bar, return, and backspace keys presented issues for many participants because these keys were spaced so closely to each other.
  • No one discovered the drag and lift feature of the keyboard, which reduces errors.
  • Many participants said they could not see themselves attempting text entry on the iPhone in distracting conditions.
  • Specifically, participants did not think they could text message on the iPhone safely while driving.
Predictive & Corrective Text Issues
  • Only a few participants discovered and correctly learned to use the predictive and/or corrective text features on the iPhone. QWERTY phone users in particular had a tendency to backspace when they were correcting mistakes.
  • Participants did not understand how the predictive / corrective text bubbles worked.
  • 6 out of 20 participants tried to touch the bubble to get the word in the text bubble to appear.
  • Three participants tried hitting the backspace key because they associated the ‘x' on it with the ‘x' in the bubble.
  • It was especially frustrating for participants when they attempted to place the cursor in the middle of a word.
  • None of the participants discovered the magnifying glass feature while text messaging.
  • During a follow-up task that involved correcting a note in the iPhone's Notes application, 6 out of 20 did discover the magnifying glass feature. However, not all participants realized that the feature helps place the cursor in addition to enlarging the text.