Almost all mainstream laptops today come with versions of the same badly designed keyboard. The first laptop maker who takes UI/UX seriously and builds a better keyboard will gain a significant competitive advantage over its competitors.
After recently helping a relative buy a new laptop, I am left puzzled by the OEMs apparent indifference to one of the most essential parts of a computer: the keyboard. It may be a low-tech electro-mechanical module, however, for most people it is the main way they interact with their machines. Users spend thousands of hours typing on their keyboards.
Improving the design of laptop keyboards is actually quite straightforward. Common sense and a basic understanding of ergonomics is pretty much all that’s required. To make it easy and intuitive to use the keyboard, a good visual overview and supporting tactile feedback that reduces typing errors is important. The characters on the keys ought to be large and easy to read and the distance between the centres of adjacent keys (the pitch) should not be too short. The keys should have a concave shape so one can easily find the edges without looking. Further visual cues could be added by using different colours to group the keys. A backlit or illuminated keyboard would add to the usability. Frequently used keys should preferably be larger and arranged so they are easy to find without looking. If the keys stick up a bit and the important ones have some empty space around them this provides additional tactile cues. These empty spaces enable the user to find the keys by touch rather than having to look at the keyboard. (Additional details about the historic development of keyboards, usage of specific keys, design problems, etc. can be found here, here, here and here.)
Keyboards with most of these obvious design features already existed back in the 1980s. IBM’s classic mechanical PC keyboards, Model M, are large and heavy but have better ergonomics than today’s laptop keyboards. The keys in IBM’s Model M keyboards have a buckling spring mechanism that provide excellent tactile and audible feedback. The rugged construction makes them very durable, and many are still used today by enthusiasts. They fetch prices up to £80 on eBay and there is a small vendor that still makes them. It seems like development in this area has been going in the wrong direction for the last 30 years.
Many of the more specialised keys on the IBM Model M are irrelevant for most users today and the buckled spring mechanism would make the keyboard too deep and too heavy if used on modern laptops. However, the basic design principles are sound and could be used as inspiration for a better laptop keyboard.
Flawed design of most modern laptop keyboards
In the flawed design of a typical modern laptop keyboard, the keys are flat and grouped in a rectangular box. They are rarely placed in groups with empty space between them, which would make them easier to find. The letters on the keys are small, thin and often difficult to read. The most important keys (Enter, Delete, Backspace, Esc, Shift, Ctrl, Alt, Fn1-12, Page Up/Down and Arrow-left-right-up-down) are surrounded by other keys and the user has to look down from the display and aim in order to hit the right key. Around 20 percent of the available space on a standard 15 inch laptop is wasted by the inclusion of a large (and rather useless) number pad to the right. To make room for the number pad, all the keys have to be crammed very close to each other and made smaller. Due to this, the important keys to the right of the main keyboard (Enter, etc.) are much harder to find without looking down as they are surrounded by other keys. The number pad on the right pushes the center of the main keyboard to the left, including the mouse pad. This creates an unergonomic work position where the user has to twist somewhat to the left. On 17 inch laptops, the additional space is not used to increase the size of the keyboard. Instead, there is just dead space on each side of the box-shaped keyboard.
Lenovo’s decline since the Thinkpad T520
The last time I bought a new 15 inch laptop I had to search high and low to find a computer with a keyboard I liked. Most 14 inch laptops came without the superfluous number pad but I needed a larger 15 inch display. I settled for an older model of Lenovo’s flagship T-500 series ThinkPad business computer (T520) that was still available. The T520 has one of the best laptop keyboard designs I have found.
The T520’s keys are deeper than today’s nearly universal chiclet keys. The letters on the keys are large and easy to read. The Esc key is large and placed in the upper left corner and the row of Fn keys is separated from the main QWERTY keyboard by a gap of a few millimetres. The Fn keys are also made smaller to differentiate them from the adjacent regular keyboard. The Delete key is significantly larger than the surrounding keys, placed close to the upper right corner of the keyboard, and separated from the other keys by empty space on the left which makes it quite easy to find. The Enter, Shift, Backspace and Tab keys are large and placed at the outer edges of the keyboard. The Page Up/Down keys are placed logically above each other in a corner of the keyboard. I would have preferred that the four arrow keys be isolated from the others, but at least they are somewhat separate as they are down in the right corner of the keyboard.
Hardware controls for the laptop such as speaker volume/mute and microphone mute have dedicated hardware keys. No fiddling around trying to find the right two finger command on the main keyboard to turn the sound off. The touchpad has rugged mouse buttons both below and above the touchpad. Lenovo has added a convenient third mouse button between the left/right buttons which controls a screen magnifier. In addition, there is a red pointing stick in the middle of the keyboard. I rarely use it, but it is placed at the separation for left hand/right hand typing and offers a good tactile cue for the fingers. The only thing I don’t like on the ThinkPad T520 is the dead space to the left and right of the keyboard. It could have been used to expand the keyboard.
In addition, the T520 has a matte display. A glossy screen might look more vibrant in the store but anti-glare displays are less straining for the eyes and easier to use in an environment with many light sources, such as an office. Another well-thought-out ergonomic detail is the rounded edge of the palm rest. Many other laptop OEMs (including Apple) have quite a sharp edge at the front that cuts into the hand or underarm when typing for long periods.
Unfortunately, each new upgrade of the Lenovo T-500 series has become more and more similar to laptops from the commoditised mass market (something that stirred up significant controversy among Lenovo users, here, here, here, here, and here). In this year’s model of the ThinkPad (T550), Lenovo have discarded most of their good design elements. The T550 now has a rather mediocre keyboard just like the majority of other laptop vendors, with the unnecessary number pad added. The rounded palm rest is gone, etc. Lenovo is the number one quality laptop OEM for demanding business users who are willing to pay for reliability and quality. All these odd design decisions baffle me. Are laptop makers utterly clueless about how their products are used, or are they deliberately allowing style to trump function? I don’t get it.
Building a better keyboard – and laptop
Improving the keyboard ought to be fairly simple for the leading laptop brands. But instead of a flurry of activity among competing OEMs, the area seems stagnant. This could be an opportunity for an ambitious laptop maker. The first player that puts resources into keyboard design improvements will gain a competitive advantage.
I am not suggesting a radical departure from the established keyboard layout. Attempts at designing disruptive “ergonomic” keyboards have failed in the mainstream market due to the steep learning curve. The first step in improving existing keyboard designs is to simply look at the good ones that have already been on the market (mentioned above).
I am fairly certain that most users would prefer a larger, more spacious keyboard without a number pad (see here). I have almost never used it myself. The keys for 0-9 are already lined up above the letter keys and are simple to use. Shoehorning the unnecessary number pad on to a small laptop keyboard results in a cramped keyboard that is far less intuitive and much more difficult to use.
The specialised keys on standard computer keyboards are remnants from different eras of computing, going all the way back to TTY terminals and layouts designed for IBM mainframe programmers in the 1970s. It is time to move on. It’s likely that there are several dedicated keys on the standard computer keyboard which are hardly ever used by mainstream users. These could be removed and instead be accessed indirectly via a modifier key, or perhaps removed entirely.
For example, the large Caps Lock key is a waste of space on a crowded keyboard. I never use it, but often hit it by mistake CAUSING ALL LETTERS TO BE CAPITALISED. This is an annoyance. There has actually been an ongoing campaign against the Caps Lock key in the tech community for over a decade. If the Caps Lock key was removed,
Shoehorning the unnecessary number pad on to a small laptop keyboard results in a cramped keyboard that is far less intuitive and much more difficult to use.
Google took some steps in this direction when they introduced Chromebooks in 2011. They removed the Caps Lock key, all the F1 to F12 keys, Home, End, Delete, Page Up/Down and the entire number pad. However, the Chromebook is not a fully featured computer so the removal of these keys can not be directly translated to the mainstream laptop market.
Apple have removed some of the more peripheral keys, including Page Up/Down, as well as the number pad. They have also removed the Delete key (deleting on the right side of the cursor) and only offer the Backspace key (deleting on the left side of the cursor). But they have kept the Caps Lock key.
Removing Caps Lock would be great but I find the Page Up/Down keys to be very useful. I am also sceptical about removing the Delete key. I use both the Delete and Backspace keys for deleting, and Delete has additional functions in Windows such as deleting documents and folders.
If the number pad and unnecessary keys are removed, the freed up space could be used for three blank programmable keys. These blank keys could easily be assigned through an integrated key re-mapping app. To make it simple, the non-assigned blank keys could be colour coded instead of adding more symbols. Some users might want quick access to certain symbols or non-English characters. Or they might want to record a macro for quick access to a function in the OS. (There is already freeware for re-mapping the entire keyboard such as AutoHotkey, but a simpler UI is needed for the mainstream market.)
The row of function keys is typically assigned double functions (Fn1 to Fn12 as well as 12 additional laptop specific functions). Each laptop OEM does this in its own way and there is no established standard. Usability research could identify the most popular functions, which would be valuable input for improved product design.
Shallow chiclet keyboards are useful for making laptops as thin as possible. But personally, I prefer a keyboard that feels more solid and offers deeper keystrokes with higher tactile resistance. If space allows for it, I think laptop makers should reconsider their indiscriminate use of chiclet keys.
As part of this reinventing-the-laptop-keyboard project, I would include dedicated buttons for control of the laptop hardware (sound, microphone, webcam, etc.). In addition to improved usability, a real hardware switch would make it impossible to hack the webcam or microphone and use them for spying on the user. This feature is extremely important for business users, but will be appreciated by the mass market as well.
I would also ensure that the letters and symbols on the keys are large and easy to read. Having the keys grouped with colour coding to provide additional visual cues might also be helpful. Not all PC users are 21-year-olds with perfect eye sight.
I am not suggesting that there exists One ideal keyboard for the entire market. With around 175 million laptops sold annually, the market can easily be segmented. Number pad or not. Chiclet keys or not. Specialised legacy PC keys or not. Dedicated mouse buttons or integrated in touchpad. Cool stylish design or functional usefulness. For each of these segments, the market is large enough to be attractive for at least some laptop OEMs.
What I don’t understand is the vendors’ herd mentality. They all offer similar looking products, designed for an imagined mainstream customer. I sometimes get the impression that they suffer from “Apple Envy” and uncritically emulate whatever comes out of Cupertino. But if the PC market wants to emulate Apple, they can begin by offering some 15 inch laptops without number pads.
The great thing about an improved keyboard design is that it’s easy to demonstrate the use cases. The laptop brand that wants to stand out from the pack of competitors can do so without resorting to technical gibberish. It would suffice to explain how annoying it is to use the competitors’ standard keyboard, how the sharp edge of the laptop cuts into one’s hands, and how the competitors’ webcams/microphones can be enabled by spying hackers. This is so simple to explain it could even be done in TV commercials.