Innovating when what you already have is “good enough”

Editor’s note: Given recent uh, pranks, about the death of QWERTY keyboards (hat tip), we thought this would be perfect timing to run an invited commentary on why such keyboards really DO persist…

Why bother innovating when what we are already used to, we tend to use better?

So yet another person was recently lamenting that we don’t have Dvorak keyboards, which boast simpler keystroke choices through motion analysis than the standard QWERTY keyboard.

Using the Dvorak keyboard, Barbara Blackburn – the world’s fastest typist according to the Guinness Book of Records – was able to maintain 150 words per minute (wpm) for 50 minutes.

But on a QWERTY keyboard, Albert Angor achieved 147 wpm for an hour in 1923. And Margaret Hamma did 149 wpm for an hour in 1941.

So all the “improvements” of the Dvorak keyboard haven’t paid off so much for peak typing speed. And there are a substantial number of sophisticated professionals out there who can hold their jobs with hunt-and-peck typing method… presumably because they are too busy being productive to take the time to switch over to touch typing.

What if people knew better?

In my career as a user interface inventor and research scientist,  I have spent a good deal of time thinking about this.  I learned early on that if a pointing device is 5% better than another one, people can tell, and they want the better one.

Unfortunately, we also found that even though it only takes 45 seconds of training to get better using a TrackPoint vs. a TrackPad, skeptics might never bother to take the time to make 15 selections as fast as they can with a new device before dismissing it.

A puzzling observation

I was once presenting a set of new user interfaces to Lou Gerstner when he was CEO of IBM. He listened patiently, tried them, and even said these are really great new technologies… but then he paused and asked, “But aren’t I better at a user interface I know, than one I have yet to learn?” I couldn’t ignore this point (and he was the boss): absolutely, you are better at things you know how to do than things you don’t!

The challenge, then, is figuring out how and when we feel motivated to learn, instead of using the “simplest way you know” to do things. I’d argue that most of us are a bit lazy when it comes to trying out new things and are even quicker to dismiss them without knowing if we didn’t understand them or if they just weren’t good.

Yet… people like trying new challenges in puzzles of various sorts, and will spend hours doing so every week. Perhaps we can position trying out new tools as entertainment? Then maybe we could create a culture where we get better at things we don’t know. Entertainment is an important aspect of learning, and the benefit of learning new skills might just allow you to hugely improve your productivity, creating a mindset where we want to learn things we don’t know (and actually enjoy doing it).

Consider the context

Still, there is another problem with Dvorak keyboards: standardization rules. Once people got their hands on the lovely Dvorak keyboard layout, they found it hard to type on anyone else’s keyboard.

So now you had a learning curve getting used to your motion-analysis enhanced  keyboard layout, which clashes cognitively with the mass public’s keyboards – causing people with it to type slowly and make mistakes.

This simply teaches us that you can’t make new things that screw people up while they are trying it out.

But somehow: even though I was very used to my old phone, when I got an iphone I was willing to play – a lot. The difference between it and my earlier phones was not function (my old smartphone had  better signal quality, better speakers, better editing, an FM radio, a better battery, a better signal… and… a user interface with several confusing ways of doing each thing it could do).

So even entrenched users sometimes are willing to give new things a chance. Replacing things with better things should and does happen, but don’t cry over Dvorak. It just it isn’t enough better to push us to change billions of working keyboards.

Dr. Ted Selker  mentors companies as an innovation expert and is an inventor of  user interface technology (such as the Thinkpad’s Trackpoint). He is currently a professor at CMU Silicon Valley, and was a professor at MIT Media Lab for a decade. Previously he was an IBM fellow, a researcher at PARC, and a researcher at the early Atari research center.

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