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A few design ideas that are up for grabs

The following are a few ideas for new products or modifications to existing products that I think might improve them. Stay tuned for more in the future.

New Standard Keys

With the graphical user interface now firmly entrenched as a major player in the operating system world, there are certain functions which are common to almost all applications. These functions can be called using hot keys, but the key combinations require meta-key strokes that are sometimes not particularly easy to remember or strike with a single hand.

The following design adjustment could be made to keyboards, resulting in a number of benefits:

The illustration above shows a standard keyboard with an extra row of keys at the top. That row is shown in detail below:

There are a number of advantages to this design, most of which are the result of these keys representing very frequently accessed functions.

First of all, it relieves users of the burden of memorising key combinations that are sometimes rather abstract. The current keystrokes for cut, copy, paste, and undo, in particular, would appear to have been chosen based on location. With this new design, not only would it be easier to find and use these functions within a single operating system, but the knowledge could be transferable to any other operating system which uses this keyboard.

The keys have been placed in logical groupings, with spaces between segments, to allow for faster and more accurate locating by touch alone. And a single key allows the user to activate the function with one hand - a difficult task with some key combinations. The muscle memory and habit formation involved in striking a single, single-purpose key ought to be less cognitively demanding than the current meta-key method.

Extra space has been added between the function keys and the new keys to help minimise the effects of Fitt's law. (Simply put, Fitt's Law states that the further away a target is, and the smaller it is, the more effort is required to hit it accurately with, for instance, a mouse or a finger.) The Undo key has been placed on the outside edge to allow it to be struck most easily for the same reason.

Open and New have been grouped separately from Close and Quit to reduce the risk of accidentally triggering a destructive operation.

Meta combinations of these keys could trigger variations (i.e. Shift-Print opens the Print Setup dialogue box, Option-New could duplicate the current document).

A number of standard toolbar buttons could be removed, eliminating the need to clutter the screen, or making room in the toolbar for more applications-specific needs.

The extra keys could be programmed for operating systems at the hardware level, requiring no change to the operating system at all. If the OS developer wanted to, they could reclaim the old meta-keys for other purposes (although this may prove unwise for established users). Theoretically, a third party could develop this keyboard and have it work out of the box with established software and hardware.

I am aware of some Windows keyboards offering shortcut keys for playing music and online shopping, but no one seems to have done a particularly good job of designing the ergonomics or enabling the much more common functions of the software that people use.

Keyboards have changed little over the past few decades. Some keyboards retain function keys whose purpose has long been abandoned ("SysReq" for example). It's time we recognised the power of the keyboard and made some simple improvements.

Cell Phone Long Distance

My cell phone contains important numbers for friends, family, and business contacts all over the continent. The phone book is currently programmed with ten digits for local numbers, and eleven (including the "1" prefix) for non-local numbers. Of course when I am out of town, none of the numbers are correct. Long distance numbers may be local and previously local calls are long distance.

What bugs me is that the system is smart enough to know that I do or do not need to dial a long distance prefix, but it's not smart enough to adapt itself and make the change. As a result I am forced to look a number up in the phone's address book, memorise the ten digits, and then dial them with or without a prefix. An unfamiliar eleven digit number can be quite a challenge to remember in a busy or distracting environment.

If my cell phone is smart enough to know where I am, I would like it to be smart enough to add the prefix if and when necessary. I should be able to enter all of my phone numbers as ten digits and let the phone sort out the rest.

As an extra feature, the phone could provide an audio tone when the number being called is currently out of the local area.

Given the number of cell phone plans that involve the same fee for calls to anywhere in North America, this seems like a natural and obvious feature.


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