Do you remember when computers did not have a mouse? I do. It was quite a dramatic change. When we began teaching programmers to use a workstation based development tool, the hardest new skill to teach them was how to use the mouse. Some recommended practice with games, like Solitaire and Mine Sweeper, and for a lot of people this was a huge, and difficult adjustment. But for the most part, once they were accustomed to it, they never wanted to go back to life without the mouse.
A lot of changes and innovations came along, like a track ball for use with a laptop, where you don’t have a flat desktop, and that funny little eraser-like button in the middle of the keyboard that was always either too slow or too fast. Now the one that is most common on laptops is the touchpad. This is that rectangle in front of your keyboard that you keep bumping with your thumbs as you try to type.
With the advent of Smartphones and Tablets we have seen an increase in Touchscreen technology, and many devices come with no keyboard or pointing device at all.
But which is better?
Obviously, for most people it would not be practical to carry around a mouse and keyboard in your pocket to use every time you want to compose an email with your Smartphone, and the vendors have completely eliminated the built-in keyboard on their higher end telephones. Likewise, tablets come with no keyboard or pointing device, but you can usually find a separate keyboard that connects directly to the tablet, or uses wireless technology such as Bluetooth. Some of these also function as cases or covers for your device.
I watch children with a tablet or phone, and they swipe and tap with a dexterity that is amazing. Even children too young to read are able to play games and run apps that baffle their parents. So there is obviously something to be said for a touch interface.
High volume data entry, on the other hand, is less productive when you use a mouse. People who are paid for their ability to enter dozens of transactions per minute, or take orders in a call enter, hate it when they have to switch from keyboard to mouse. It costs them valuable time, and when they know the application well, can do everything they need with the keyboard. When they don’t need to select from a menu or a long list of options they are far more productive.
If you have an application that relies on the “right click” mouse button, you will probably hate using it with a touchscreen. There are usually ways around it, but they aren’t as fast or friendly as that one button. But then, I really enjoy being able to scan through a very large document by just swiping up or down, and watching hundreds of lines fly by.
Another useful addition is a pen/stylus. A fine point stylus can allow you to do detailed work with your touchscreen, and some even come with buttons that simulate left- and right-click mouse buttons. For many the stylus is a much more natural way to work, more like drawing or writing.
Personally, I use all of these, and the one I prefer depends on the situation. I frequently find myself using the mouse, then while typing I will drop down to the touchpad to reposition the cursor. I might reach up to touch the screen to expand or collapse the display, or highlight something on the screen. If I am doing detailed work, like drawings in PowerPoint, or photo editing, I almost always use a mouse or stylus, to get the level of control needed for fine adjustments. I will use the touchscreen on my tablet to fire off a quick email, but for any significant amount of typing, I will go to a real keyboard every time.
The bottom line is there is no single right answer for every user and every situation. We have options now that even a few year ago did not exist. When I am working with clients to help them define a new user interface I try to discuss the options with them, and if possible, observe the end-users while they work, to determine the best recommendations for them. If there will be a combination of call center and less high-volume users we will try to come up with options that work well for both.
I haven’t mentioned voice so far, and that is certainly an option for some situations. For consumer apps, accessed mainly from a telephone, it can be a good choice, but it frequently requires some additional software or setup for use in most business situations, so for this article I preferred to concentrate on the visual, point and touch options for controlling applications.
So, what do you think? Are you strictly a keyboard and mouse person? Or do you prefer to Swype, tap, and slide around the app? Leave a comment below, or drop me a note to let me know.