A Smartphone Optimised For Typing
3.5 billion people use smartphones. Their needs are not all the same. Some people type a lot, and want the most efficient and least error-prone typing experience possible . They want this more than other things. How might we design a smartphone for such people? Specifically, the use case we’ll optimise for is typing a long email or Google doc while queuing at the supermarket or airport.
If you think this is a niche, a small percentage of 3.5 billion is a huge market.
Going after a niche is also a good business strategy, because otherwise your phone will be undifferentiated compared to the 10,000 models available, and therefore fail.
So how would we design a phone for this target market? Designing for this market means that whenever there’s a tradeoff between the typing experience and other factors like video watching experience, we choose the former. Users who aren’t primarily interested in productivity while typing are an afterthought for this product, to be catered to to the extent it doesn’t make the device worse for the target audience.
So, what would we do differently from the status quo?
First, each key on the keyboard should be 1.6 cm². This has been found to be more productive than smaller keys: specifically, 1.3 cm² keys are 15% slower .
If each key is 1.6 cm², the width of the keyboard is 16 cm. This is because there are 10 keys in the QWERTY row. This means that the keyboard appears on the long edge of the screen, because the short edge is not 16 cm long.
Even the long edge of most phones isn’t 16 cm. Not even big phones like the Huawei P30 Pro or the iPhone 11 Pro Max. Maybe we’ll make the long edge slightly longer, or make the keyboard 15cm instead of 16.
A landscape keyboard means that landscape will be the primary orientation of the phone. The home screen will support landscape, unlike two phones I checked: the Huawei P30 Pro, and the iPhone 11 Pro. Rotation lock will lock to landscape, not portrait. All builtin apps will support landscape. The setup wizard will run in landscape. When the device boots, the logos will appear in landscape. There will be no buttons on one of the two long edges, because otherwise they may be accidentally pressed when the device is placed on its side on a table, for example. If the phone has stereo speakers, they’ll be on the two short edges, so that you get the stereo effect in landscape. And so on. This will be a phone designed for landscape first and foremost.
In addition to designing for landscape, we’ll have to nudge the user to use landscape. When the keyboard appears in portrait, the UI will rotate to landscape to encourage the user to type in landscape. If the user insists on using it in portrait, he can rotate to landscape and back again. Without such nudges, users will stick with their habits .
The keys will be square unlike a typical landscape keyboard:
This is because both the width and height need to be big enough to tap comfortably. This means that the keyboard will be taller, and so cover the entire screen, without leaving any space for seeing what you’re typing or the UI of the app.
This means, in turn, that we need a different form factor, like a slider :
The bottom half will be just the keyboard, and everything else will be on the top half.
Notice that the sliding happens in landscape mode, not portrait, since our phone is designed for landscape.
We should also measure the efficiency of a hardware keyboard as compared to an onscreen one with the same size. If you think hardware keyboards are outdated, validate that assumption rather than going blindly by market trends. Or maybe hardware keyboards don’t make sense for the average phone user but do make sense for someone who wants a productive typing experience (our target user). Validate all these questions rather than following the herd.
 For others, battery life. For yet others, camera. And so on.
 A second study corroborates this, comparing different key sizes: 2.3, 1.1, 0.8 and 0.6 cm², and finding that productivity decreased along with key size.
 If this is too annoying, we’ll switch to a milder nudge, where the keyboard opens in portrait if the phone is in portrait, but shows a toast suggesting the user to rotate to landscape. This toast appears only once a day, to not be annoying. Or maybe once a week. But it won’t have a “Don’t show me again” option, since that defeats the point.
 An alternative is a flip, but a flip phone can’t be used without opening it. So it’s worse than a slider.