Rails Test Prescriptions Blog

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The Eternal Battle of the Keyboard and the Mouse, A Sidenote

This week I did Obtiva’s weekly Geekfest with a presentation/bookreport on the Making Software book. I’ll write more about that book later, right now I want to expand briefly on something I referenced at the end because it’s one of my favorite tech/UI examples to talk about.

We were discussing the relationship between an experts gut feeling about what works and what can and can’t be shown using empirical evidence. Specifically, the difference, even for experts, between our perception of our effectiveness and our actual effectiveness.

I referenced something from Bruce Tognazzini’s book Tog on Interface about how… well, here’s the exact quote, because I didn’t get it completely right from memory. This was originally written in August 1989 — Tog is talking about the UI guidelines for the original Mac models.

We’ve done a cool $50 million of R&D on the Apple Human Interface. We discovered, among other things, two pertinent facts:

  • Test subjects consistently report that keyboarding is faster than mousing.
  • The stopwatch consistently proves that mousing is faster than keyboarding.

This contradiction between user-experience and reality apparently forms the basis for many user/developers’ belief that the keyboard is faster.

One thing I love about mentioning this example to a room full of developers is that everybody leaps in with “But I use Vim, and my keyboard shortcuts really are faster…” Sure. You are a unique snowflake.

To be fair, Tog is talking about users new to the mouse, though that hardly weakens his point, and he’s mostly talking about common tasks on the order of cut, paste, and save, not the kind of super powered keyboard stuff that Vim users use (or, you know, TextMate users, it’s not like I ignore keyboard shortcuts).

That said, the basic argument — that the time spent trying to remember the keyboard shortcut is cognitively engaging, while the time spent on the mouse is boring and thus seems longer — still sounds plausible even for Vim users. Frankly, I don’t know what similar studies would show today. I’m not even sure you could design a similar study about Vim, since Vim expertise is such a huge component of effectiveness.

At Geekfest, I combined details of this with a different study about whether the Mac’s top-of-the-screen menu bar was faster than Window’s style menubar in the window. (Hint: it is. Still.)

The point is the Tog book is great. Really dated now, but still a lot of fun to read. The other point is that it’s worth checking your assumptions every now and then to make sure they are valid.

Tune in next week for more on Making Software and the whole project of empirically studying software development.

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