Bad UI vol. 1: Swype Keyboard


Being a busy and “important” *ahem* startup founder, I use my smartphone a lot.  I’m a reformed crackberry addict, and I think it’s safe to say that I practically live on my phone.  After my faithful Blackberry 8900 died, I replaced it with a beautiful Samsung Galaxy S2 for At&t.  The phone and I are still in our honeymoon stage even after 6 months into our relationship.  However, I have one major gripe: the Swype keyboard.  Whether you’re a large company with an established product, or a startup making something new, User Interface design and usability issues are incredibly important- and frequently ignored.  The Swype keyboard is an excellent example of what NOT to do when designing a UI.

Swype was developed to make texting faster and easier on a touchscreen.  If you’re not familiar with it, the idea is that the user “simply” traces a spelling pattern over the keyboard, from which Swype determines which word you are trying to type and fills it in for you.  It was intended to be a solution to the issues caused by a touchscreen keyboard, but unfortunately Swype causes more problems than it solves, and generally delivers a terrible UI experience.  I commend them for attempting to improve touchscreen typing- everyone can agree that much is lost compared to using a physical keyboard- but sadly they failed to execute the concept properly and the end result is more frustrating to use than the original keyboard.

I can’t speak for other devices, or even other versions of Swype, but it is terrible on my phone.  For starters, the word-guessing algorithm depends heavily on the initial letter.  If I trace the correct pattern but miss my desired first letter, Swype often guesses the wrong word; if the system sees me spell “tacket,” I would expect “racket” to be more likely than “tackle.”  Additionally, short words like “an” and “am” have a terribly close pattern, so I need to make sure to end clearly on an “n” and not an “m.”  Proper nouns?  Don’t bother unless you have put the word in your phone’s dictionary.  Colloquialisms?  Same deal.  However, as annoying as these issues are, the biggest problem with Swype is the physical layout of the keyboard itself.

Look at the photo above: the keyboard on the left is the Swype keyboard, and the one on the right is the standard Android gingerbread keyboard.  Look at the space bar on the Swype keyboard.  See the problem?  The space bar on a physical keyboard is 5 times wider than a standard letter key.  You would hope that when mapping a keyboard to a phone screen, the relative size of the keys would mirror an actual keyboard.  The standard gingerbread keyboard doesn’t miss the mark too badly; the space bar is 3 times the width of a standard letter.  The Swype keyboard, in contrast, features a space bar that is only 1.75 the width of a normal key.  Worse yet, they’ve reduced the gap between the space bar and the period key.  This means that most of the time, when texting quickly, I end up pressing the period key instead of the space bar.

Amazing to think that something so simple has ruined my entire user experience!  Even if the other flaws remained, they could simply add more of a margin around the space bar, and it would greatly improve usability.  Alas, after trying Swype exclusively for 5 months, I switched to the standard keyboard and have never looked back.

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