A Mobile UI Innovation

Input and output on mobile hand held devices have been a challenge for years. Recent advances in these devices have dramatically increased the resolution of the output to the screen. Direct manipulation via multi-touch has also vastly improved the ability to interact with content on the screen. However, getting input into these devices has seen little improvement other than trying to get to parity with desktop and laptop devices. Apple's iPhone and iPod Touch introduced the software-based keyboard. Although this was novel in many ways, it didn't fundamentally address the problem of trying to type on a very small keyboard with fingers larger than the surface of the keyboard.

I recently came across a true innovation that cleverly addresses this problem. Shumin Zhai and his team at IBM Research have created WritingPad, a free app for the iPhone. The innovation here is that you don't simply tap out individual letters and correct each one as is the case with the default iPhone keyboard but, instead, you simply drag your finger across the WritingPad software keyboard contiguously and the system infers the words. Corrections are done at an individual word level rather than letters.

The other innovation here is how this research team is gathering user feedback on the design of the app. They provided it as a free app in the iTunes Store and with it's built in rating and commenting system, the team has been able to rapidly collect huge amounts of very valuable feedback. A quick read through the feedback indicates that this direction as a new method of providing input into a mobile hand-held device is a real hit and deserves more focus.

So, hats off to the IBM Research team for this design innovation and for an innovative way of collecting feedback on it. If you have an iPhone or iPod Touch and would like to try WritingPad for yourself, here's where to find it in the iTunes Store.