Thoughts on software and life.

Thursday May 13

Two-Handed Interaction

Some time ago I was able to identify the greatest reason why I often feel that PCs are a pain in the ass to use. It's not because of bad UI, it's not because of a lack of natural language capabilities, and it's not because there aren't enough features in the products I use. It is because of the awkward dance our hands must perform to operate the keyboard and the mouse.

Don't get me wrong, I love the keyboard and mouse. I just that I hate how often I have to move my right hand back and forth between them. Is it asking too much to be able to rest my hands in one place and just leave them there? There are three main culprits for this problem:

1. Keyboard shortcuts that use the right side of the keyboard. If my hand is on the mouse, I should be able to keep it there unless I need to type some text. If I just want to perform a keyboard shortcut, I should be able to do it with my left hand.

2. The text cursor. Precise movement of the cursor in a text editor requires I stop typing, move my hand off the home row, and onto either the cursor keys or the mouse. Wouldn't it make more sense if I could move the cursor around just by tapping keys with my left hand (like, say, Alt-F for left, Alt-S for right, etc...).

3. Gratuitous dependency on the mouse. My biggest problem with the mouse is that it gives designers an excuse to cram too much crap onto our screen. If users can see it, they can click it, and the feature is a success! If designers had the restriction of staying with the boundaries of how many command patterns a user could easily remember, there would be a lot less garbage in software today. Using the mouse forces you to rely on hand-eye coordination instead of hand-mind coordination. It forces you to scan the screen before you can do what you want to do, instead of letting your hands instantly react to your impulses. The mouse is a wonderful tool for a lot of applications, I just think it is frequently abused.

In first-person shooter games, quickness is imperative, and so games are designed so that everything you need to do can be done without moving your left hand from the keyboard or your right from the mouse. Microsoft and Apple, unfortunately, weren't so concerned with efficiency or ergonomics when they designed our current system. What's really sad is that the man who invented the mouse, Doug Engelbart, did in fact think about this problem, and had a nice solution for it which has been completely ignored. Pity.

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