The secret to the Windows 8 keyboard design: common sense

Launching a new operating system may not require reinventing the wheel, but it could mean reinventing the keyboard.

That’s the conclusion Microsoft reached as it developed Windows 8, an operating system whose reliance on the touchscreen forced the company to reconsider even the tiniest of things about how users input and interact with text.

In a post on the Building Windows 8 blog, Microsoft user experience developer Kip Knox details these painstaking considerations, many of which touch on the most basic facets of tablet use. Microsoft obsessed over every single component of the keyboard: What do we do with the number row? How big should the spacebar be? Do we even need a keyboard at all?

To get the answers to these questions, Microsoft studied things as minor as how long users looked at on-screen objects, which words they typed most often, and how they held tablets in their hands.

Microsoft’s ensuing conclusions about user typing habits should be obvious to anyone who has ever used a touchscreen keyboard. One of the realizations was that the tablet’s lack of physical buttons or haptic feedback often makes typing difficult. To fix this issue, Microsoft added feedback cues like color changes and sounds, both of which are aimed at making the on-screen keyboard as close as possible to an actual keyboard.

And then there was the question of which keys should appear on the keyboard.

This is a big concern. With so little space on a tablet’s screen, every centimeter of real estate is important. While this is true with smartphones, it’s perhaps more true with tablets, which users are likely to be spending far more continuous time with.

So Microsoft did the obvious: It got rid of the keys that people didn’t use. This is the same straightforward line of thinking that allowed designers to get rid of both the start button and desktop widgets. With the ability to start anew, why keep features that got no use?

What emerged from the studies, perhaps disappointingly, is a keyboard that looks a whole lot like the one Apple installed on the iPad. It’s as if Microsoft thought it was the first to climb Mt. Everest only to find Apple’s flag already waving at its peak.

But the success of the Windows 8 keyboard depends less on how it looks and more on how it functions. While Microsoft isn’t first to consider these things, it’s still a good sign for Windows 8 users that the company’s spending so much time sweating the small stuff.

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