For years, the QWERTY keyboard has served as an example of a design decision taken for technological reasons that outlived its usefulness. Supposedly, the keyboard layout was chosen so as to slow down typing and prevent mechanical typewriters from jamming, but now we use electronic keyboards we’re artificially limiting our typing speed. Can we finally retire this old metaphor? I can think of several good reasons:
- There’s no good evidence that QWERTY is substantially slower than DVORAK, indeed the QWERTY layout succeeded in a competitive marketplace against other keyboard layouts
- It was never true that QWERTY was designed to slow people down anyway; it was designed to reduce the occurrences of subsequent kepresses being nearby in space, not nearby in time, the former being more important to preventing jamming than the latter
- We have a far better metaphor now in the shape of Twitter
Allow me to explain. Millions of messages a day are now being shared via Twitter. Some people use it to communicate with their family, debate political ideas or get the daily news. Central to the Twitter model is that messages are strictly limited in size, to which many people ascribe its approachability and rapid growth.
But there was never any thought put in to what should be the optimum size for a Twitter message. No studies were done of what the trade-off is between messages long enough for rich communication and short enough to discourage excess verbosity. There were no competing systems. The founders of Twitter simply settled on 140 characters because it was envisaged that Twitter would heavily use the SMS system, and SMS messages are limited to 160 characters (truncating Twitter messages at 140 characters allowed for some metadata to be attached). It’s a technical limitation driving a supposedly human-centric tool.
But it’s even worse than that. The SMS system that set the boundaries for Twitter is itself a holdover from an earlier technologically limited era. SMS messages were originally limited to 128 bytes by the signalling formats used on the networks. Even though this was eventually extended to 140 bytes (the now-familiar 160 7-bit characters) I’m assuming the technological tail was still wagging the ergonomic dog. SMS was envisaged as primarily for traders to send terse stock market tips, not as a replacement for other forms of human contact (fact: you can contact The Samaritans for support with suicidal feelings via SMS; I can’t imagine a worse situation to be trying to repeatedly re-edit your message to fit it into 160 characters).