For many of us, our approach to typing on a smartphone is something we stumble upon. Unlike composing words on a typewriter or computer keyboard, there is no widely taught, proper way.
If speed is the goal, however, a study of around 37,000 people suggests that one particular approach is better than others: writing with two thumbs and embracing autocorrect, but avoiding predictive text.
“That is basically the trick of typing quickly,” said Per Ola Kristensson, a professor of interactive systems engineering at the University of Cambridge and one of the authors of the study, which was presented at a human-computer interaction conference in Taipei on Wednesday.
The study focused on the stubbornly persistent Qwerty keyboard, which was originally designed to minimize mechanical typing jams in typewriters. Despite questions about its utility and the emergence of alternate systems, much of the world still relies on the setup.
To conduct the study, researchers asked volunteers from around 160 countries to memorize a series of sentences and write them both on desktop keyboards and mobile phones.
There has never been another typing study on this scale, according to the researchers, but they said that when they compared their findings with smaller studies, the gap in speed between the two devices appeared to be shrinking. When smartphones first came out, people typed about 20 to 25 words per minute, said Anna Feit, a researcher in human-computer interaction at ETH Zurich and another author of the study. Now people average 37 to 40 words per minute, she said.
As the authors write in their study, the average person is nearly 70% as fast on a phone as on a laptop. One remarkable typist hit 85 words per minute on a mobile device.
Pedro Lopes, a professor of human-computer interaction at the University of Chicago, who was not involved in the study, said the results signaled a “paradigm shift.” That change is even more evident among young people. On average, subjects between the ages of 10 and 19 were about 10 words per minute faster on smartphones than people in their 40s.
One unexpected finding was that a significant number of subjects used a two-finger typing system on full-size computer keyboards. However they approached typing, those who used predictive text generally wrote more slowly. Examining word predictions and making a choice is far slower than using autocorrect, Kristensson said.
Jack Dennerlein, an ergonomics researcher at Northeastern University’s Bouvé College of Health Sciences, said the study reinforced what other studies have shown: Two-handed typing is faster than one-handed typing.
But the limits on speed involve more than the kind of keyboard or the dexterity of the individual. There is also the element of imagination, said Kristensson, who is an inventor of gesture typing, a swiping technique intended to save time. No matter the system, people cannot exceed 120 words a minute, he said, because they cannot come up with what to say that quickly.
“Typing rates are bounded by our creativity,” he said.
Regardless of speed, most of us are not that original: Half of the words people text are the most frequently used 200 words in English, he said.