I ran a Fediverse poll asking how people go about entering text on mobile devices. The results shocked me: Half the population just taps away. Do you? Read on for details and speculation.

This ongoing fragment embeds links to previous fragments, because I’ve been worrying and writing about this problem for a long time. Which in itself is interesting, more evidence that the problem is hard.

Mastodon poll on mobile text entry options

The poll post and (long) chain
of responses are here on Mastodon.

People care · First, 3.5K poll responses is more than I usually see on the Fediverse; evidence that plenty of people have feelings about this. To reinforce that impression, scroll down through the responses (there are dozens). Many say, essentially, “Entering text on a mobile device is too hard, so I don’t.”

I’m one of those; I regularly start entering a message into a phone, stop, get up, and walk across the room to a real keyboard.

Tap tap wow · I widened my eyes when I saw that half the respondents testify to tapping along letter by letter. I could never. But then I have big fat farmer’s fingers with soft ends, and am not terribly dextrous.

But, probably, I shouldn’t have been surprised; 21 years ago in this blog I remarked that “it's pretty impressive to watch a Japanese person pounding text into their PDA at high speed using just their thumbs.” And today I watch teenage digits dance on devices like maddened maenads; they seem not to find it tedious.

Swiping etc · A quarter of poll respondents reported swiping words into their phones.

I mentioned above that people have been working on this for a long time. Check out this progress report from ongoing in 2011. It’s worth noting that Android’s input method being replaceable was important in driving this innovation.

My own proposal, the Digitator, has failed to break through.

That piece concludes “Anyhow, I’m pretty sure that something will come along.” But on the evidence it hasn’t, really.

The AI angle: Auto-predict and voice · The least popular poll options were tap-plus-autopredict and voice. I guess I’m weird, because those are what I mostly use. I suspect many others should too but don’t, probably because they tried those things a while ago and haven’t revisited them recently.

In my experience (which, granted, is almost all on Google Pixel devices) the autopredict and voice options have gotten stronger with almost every release. Not just a little bit stronger, either. Perhaps it’s just because I’m the white male Anglophone “canonical human” that designers build for, but I get dramatically better results than I used to.

Now obviously, most reasonable people will only talk to their phone when they’re in a private place, which limits the use of that option. But if you can find privacy, the voice option is getting remarkably good.

Which is to say, I can enter message or email text in at a pace that is sometimes adequate. Do I enjoy doing this? No, I hate it, as I noted above, and will make a real effort to switch to a keyboard.

In particular if what I want to enter is important, might matter.

Because anything that matters deserves editing, and it’s rare indeed that I hit “Send” on a first draft. And while brute-force text entry is edging into adequacy, editing remains a pool of pain.

Subtext · Two and a half decades into this millennium, the most popular communication products are optimized for consumption and barely adequate for creation. If I were paranoid and cynical, I might suspect that this is no accident. Oh wait, I am. But in fact I think it’s just a hard problem.


Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Jim Russell (Apr 25 2024, at 11:43)

You know what I miss? Palm Graffiti. Back in the day, I was really good at it.


From: Nathan (Apr 25 2024, at 11:44)

I have rheumatoid arthritis, so my input methods are skewed toward less joint movement. If I need to enter more than a sentence and am not in public, I will use speech to text. It's better than awful, but not at a level that I would consider great.


From: Karl Voit (Apr 26 2024, at 12:06)

For historical reasons, I'd like to link a blog article of mine from 2010 where I compared text input speed between different mobile and non-mobile devices and methods such as T9 if you remember: https://karl-voit.at/2010/03/29/Comparing-typing-speeds-of-mobile-input-methods/

I do find its results interesting. Its age now adds an additional layer. ;-)



From: Andrew Reilly (Apr 26 2024, at 14:07)

They are pretty good at non-text creation. Most of the photos in the world are taken on them these days, and I'd guess a goodly fraction of the video. Most of the social platforms have become not just text but image and video channels (I believe). Some (Youtube, Snapchat, TickTock) are all about video, and some of those are all the youngs seem to use.

I still prefer text too, but I'm old and grew up when photos involved rolls of film and a week of processing, so I don't have that reflex for communication.


From: hawkse (May 02 2024, at 12:22)

I used to do the tap, tap, accept prediction. For years. On iphones. I turned the prediction off maybe 3-4 years ago as it got progressively worse the longer I used it. Insanely crappy.

I don't enjoy the tap+tap and definitely go for a keyboard if that's an option.

Same for editing. I find it appauling that the editing experience on IOS has gotten worse over the years. It's to the point where you can hardly get the bloody thing to select a piece of text without spending about a minute of fiddling. What are all those people at Apple doing all day?


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