2010.03 | Touchscreen or Keyboard?

The iPhone versus Blackberry debate brings out many strong opinions around the best interface for a mobile device.  Many business users rely heavily on a keyboard, and love Blackberry for it.  iPhone users have become accustomed to the less tactile, but very flexible input option of the touch screen.  What it truly comes down to is the use to which one puts the device.  If a great deal of text input is required, a keyboard is usually optimal.  For interactions that go beyond text input, a touchscreen has many unique benefits.

This same discussion has arisen many times with respect to self service solutions in a real life retail environment and the best interface depends on the solution.  Experience dictates that in many (not all) self service situations, a touch screen is a better option.  While the decision needs to be made based on the application and its intended audience, there are a number of valid reasons to utilize a touch screen keyboard instead of a phyical keyboard, including:

  • Cost Effectiveness – Additional acquisition and maintenance costs for physical keyboards are avoided with the use of touch.  Ruggedized keyboards necessary for self service can be costly with diaphragms built in for spillage and dirt and are composed of many moving parts.  Moving parts are the most likely to fail – particularly in a retail situation.  Given the size and scope of self service deployments, these cost savings can be significant.
  • Usability – An onscreen keyboard can simplify user interaction as it keeps the clients eyes in one place – on the screen.  As most kiosks are touch screen based, it is generally more intunitive to users to have one interface point – the touch screen.
  • Multi-Language Capability – Given increasing globalization, and regional language requirements as in Quebec, using on screen keyboards allows them to be adjusted by user.  Choosing a different language in the application provides another keyboard – a facility impossible with a standard hardware based keyboard.
  • Interface Flexibility – An onscreen keyboard provides the ability to customize a keyboard to suit the purpose of the application.  For example, if an entry requires only numbers, a number pad only can be shown on the screen, or if the application is searching a directory, non-relevant keys can be set as inactive, and relevant keys can be highlighted.
  • Interface Customization – A touchscreen keyboard can be changed to match the application and branding of the kiosk and can even by adjusted by banner.
  • Increased Uptime – Adding peripherals like keyboards to a system increases the potential for system failure. Keyboards can be broken, lose keys, are often spilled upon in consumer facing environments.
  • Responsiveness – The current iterations of touchscreen technology and fast processors mean a far more responsive product than in the past that is as responsive as a physical keyboard for minimal data entry. Take the increased usage of the iPhone with its touch interface as a confirmation of increased customer comfort with this interface.
  • Security – A touchscreen keyboard decreases security effort and risks by removing the need to lock down system based keyboard combinations like Ctrl-Esc and Ctrl-ALT-Del.
  • Customer Perception – Avoiding a physical keyboard provides a streamlined look for a kiosk solution – it looks like an interactive kiosk and not a PC. A kiosk is more novel and engaging to most consumers than a PC. They want to see what it does. Watch them in a store.
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