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Designing for the Future: Replacing the Mouse and Keyboard with Interactive Technology

April 30, 2019 by Emily Gray-Fow

The traditional mouse and keyboard have hardly changed for many years. However, many parts of the world are facing a skills crisis, and young people are leaving school with far more experience using tablets and smartphones.

At the same time, the quality of smart devices—tablets, smartphones, and now new IoT innovations—continue to improve rapidly as prices fall.

Clearly, data input will continue to rely heavily on the keyboard for some time, but for other functions should we be moving towards touch screens? Could a move to touch screen interfaces help plug the global skills gap? Could it help industries that haven’t yet undergone digital transformation make that leap? And should designers take responsibility for such a big change in how workers access the digital world?


The Deskless Office

It has been some time since the phrase 'paperless office' was coined; the phrase seemed old in 2006. Thought up in the 1970s by Harvey L. Poppel of Booz Allen Hamilton, we still haven’t achieved the paperless office all these years later. And if not paper-free, why not 'desk-free'?

In the recent film, Sorry to Bother You, there is a scene that perfectly embodies a desk-free future, even using it as shorthand for promotion over a more traditional call centre environment. 'Power callers' are promoted off of a traditional cubicle-based call floor, and sent upstairs where everything is done using Bluetooth headsets and tablets in a free-range, desk-free environment.

While this is only fiction, there’s really no reason why the call centres of today shouldn’t use this setup. Most people of working age can swipe on a touchscreen just as fast by the time they’re teenagers, and for those who can’t, there are clip-on keyboards available for most tablets.

Even if you plan on sticking with more traditional laptops, deskless workspaces are becoming increasingly popular. GlaxoSmithKline has been experimenting with open-plan, deskless workspaces, as have Google and Microsoft. GSK found that only 35 per cent of work activity was taking place at assigned desks or cubicles, even though 85 per cent of office space was assigned to this type of workspace.


Image courtesy of Pixabay.


Bridging the Skills Gap

The digital skills gap is affecting virtually every industry globally. Not only is there difficulty finding highly qualified digital workers, but there is also a dearth of people with the right computer skills to function at every level in the workplace.

The number of UK school leavers with workplace-ready computer skills is lower than the job market demands. At the same time, digital transformation is making its way into every industry, making basic digital skills essential for an increasing number of jobs.

Meanwhile, smartphone ownership continues to rise, with 80 per cent of UK adults owning a smartphone, frequently using them for shopping, online banking, and other relatively complex tasks.

Put these people in a workplace that requires keyboard use, and many will struggle. Put them in front of an app, and they’ll be using it fluently within minutes.

The idea of building the tech to match existing skills isn’t new. The military uses Xbox controllers to fly drones. After all, there’s a ready-made supply of young people who know how to use game controllers. Why shouldn’t business be doing the same, by developing software for touch screen tablets or phones for use in the traditional workspace?

The current Guinness Book of Records speed texting champion got more than 90 WPM out of a swipe-style touchscreen keyboard—the type most popular amongst “serious” touchscreen portable device typist—and the average typing speed for this type of keyboard is 35 WPM.

The required typing speed for temporary administration jobs is around 50 wpm, depending on the level of typist you want, ranging up to around 80wpm for higher-end work. An example is the 70wpm required by OutSec for top-end typing work—there are few jobs out there with higher word-per-minute requirements.

From a functional point of view, it is clear that smart devices have the capability to meet the requirements of most common office tasks. A study in 2014 by Microsoft showed that the speeds people are achieving on Swype-style touchscreen keyboards are very similar to those people achieve on traditional keyboards.

For those tasks that demand mouse and keyboard, at least for the time being, hybrid and convertible tablet/PC crossover devices have seen a big upswing in recent years. The Microsoft Surface range has lots of cheaper copycat versions that convert effectively between laptop and tablet modes, and having access to a personalised input method is useful for any worker.


Image courtesy of Pixabay.


Beyond Smartphones and Tablets

There has been a clearly recognised move towards other ways of interacting with a computer in recent years. Everything from voice recognition to keyboards that read eye movements—there are lots of options out there.

While smartphones and tablets have continued to rise in popularity globally, with over 50 per cent of internet use worldwide taking place on smartphones and tablets and around 80 per cent of people owning smartphones, this is by no means the end of the story.

Voice recognition technology has rapidly improved over the last few years and will continue to do so. One in six of US citizens own a voice-activated speaker, and Gartner predicted that by the end of last year, 30 per cent of smart device interactions would be via voice command. That said, there’s still a long way to go before reliable control can be wrested from hand inputs.

There is also no reason why the increase in hybrid, convertible, tablet, or notebook combinations can’t make more inroads at the workplace. The prediction from 2016 that 2-in-1 sales would continue to rise seems to be holding out, despite a struggling hardware market.

Combined with bring your own device initiatives in certain workplaces, this leaves a lot of scope for hybrid devices to become the norm. Whether this means that devices assigned on a per-user basis are also the norm, or that workers regularly have a cloud-hosted personalisation schema held in the cloud that tracks them from workplace to workplace.

With the IoT, we also need to consider inputs that come via IoT devices. With simple things like automatically triggered lights at one end, and temperature controlled, personalised workspaces controlled by gait recognition cameras in the smart workplace.

Either would offer more opportunities for voice recognition and customised input methods to become as popular at work as they are on our personal devices.


Benefits of Switching to Smart Devices

So, what are the benefits of ditching mice and keyboards in favour of tablets and other smart devices?

Touchscreen tablets or smartphones aren’t just the most popular way to log into the internet globally; they are also easier on repetitive strain injuries and back problems than the traditional mouse and keyboard set up.

The small form factor of most smart devices means that they usually fit inside a pocket or handbag. This gives workplaces the opportunity to move away from shared thin clients on desks and towards a future where employees have a combination input method and portable computing device that ties them into the network.

Their small form factor and tendency towards low-power components also make these devices cheaper to operate and better for the environment than a tower PC. Offices that work with sensitive data can put all of their computers in locked desk drawers rather than leaving them out on their desktops.

As input methods evolve, smart devices will be more able to keep up with changes in how we do things. As the data we add to the workplace and public digital systems increase each day, more inputs will come from the ever-increasing number of smart, and increasingly autonomous items.


Image courtesy of Pexels.


Our Choices as Engineers

Considering the overriding sense of urgency present in most workplaces today, engineers should have the natural goal to create user-friendly products that consumers can master in a relatively short length of time. There is also the responsibility to make sure these devices are safe, comfortable, and secure.

Since, as a profession, engineers are literally responsible for the shape and colour of things to come, it is important that decisions like this aren’t made lightly.

From the smallest tasks such as locking a device for lunch through to complex data monitoring, it could be argued that tablets, phones, and their successors are at least as capable of meeting our needs as a keyboard or mouse is.

So, should we throw in the towel and give up on clicky QWERTY keyboards with neoprene wrist pads just yet? It’s probably not yet time to go that far, but it’s definitely worth the while to consider including mobile apps.

We should also try to make sure that the interfaces and products we do design have open source APIs that will let our systems work with the input devices of the future.

Additionally, we already need to think about what happens with that application when we take the keyboard off. After all, the people most likely to want to do that in a business setting are currently the ones holding the purse strings.

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