Smartphone Keyboards Vs. Your Productivity

What's keeping you from being more productive with your smartphone? Users gripe about keyboards and password requirements, survey says.

Thomas Claburn, Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

January 13, 2012

4 Min Read

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Smartphones are perceived as business productivity tools, but they might be just the opposite, at least among those not sold on mobile devices by necessity. A study conducted by researchers from Google, IBM, Northwestern University, and UC Santa Cruz finds that non-mobile business users--those not already working in multiple locations throughout the day--prefer computers to mobile phones to do their work.

In itself, this isn't particularly surprising: People tend to prefer work tools with which they are already familiar. But the study's findings might prompt some reflection among IT managers about the cost and benefit of enterprise smartphone adoption and about the actual demand for mobile versions of Web and desktop services.

The issue, according to researchers Patti Bao, Jeffrey Pierce, Stephen Whittaker, and Shumin Zhai, is that significant barriers limit productivity on a smartphone.

The most common problem cited by the 243 survey respondents--mainly Android, BlackBerry, and iPhone users--is the difficulty of using a smartphone for text input, compared to a computer. Survey takers said the small form factor of smartphones is a problem because of the diminutive screens and clumsy input mechanisms.

[ Concerned about mobile security? Read Mobile Apps Quietly Steal Your Privacy. ]

Respondents worried about errors in calendar entries and emails that had been created using a smartphone. They expressed concern about the possibility of email appearing to be insufficiently professional, messages littered with typos, and text made incorrect by auto-correction. The researchers confirmed that typing on a smartphone keyboard is significantly slower than typing on a computer keyboard--2.72 times slower in words typed per minute.

Tactile keyboards didn't alleviate concerns about the difficulty of text entry on smartphones. The study found that, contrary to popular belief, typing on a tactile or hard smartphone keyboard (24.67 words per minute) provided no statistically significant typing speed advantage over a virtual or soft keyboard (20.35 words per minute).

The study found that although respondents tended to be fairly adept at smartphone typing, their concerns kept them from creating content on smartphones unless necessary.

Survey respondents also considered passwords on mobile devices to be particularly burdensome. The researchers attribute this to the difficulty of detecting password errors during entry, when characters are masked. They also pointed to the difficulty of toggling between keyboard character sets when entering passwords that combine mixed-case letters, numbers, and punctuation marks. The tendency to use smartphones in short sessions also appears to make users more aware of arduous password entry. As a result of these issues, respondents often opted for simple passwords, which is exactly the opposite of what most computer security professionals advise.

"This aversion to device passwords calls into question how widespread the use of smart phones for business is really likely to be if companies require passwords as the price of access and users have the option not to use their phones for work," the study states.

The researchers suggest that alternate forms of input, such as voice and gesture commands, could help make text entry on mobile phones more tolerable, but note that it's unclear whether these techniques will offer any measurable improvement over smartphone typing.

They also offer several recommendations with respect to passwords on mobile devices: 1) make passwords application specific, rather than having a complex corporate password for mobile access; 2) improve password entry interfaces by showing the last few characters to facilitate corrections; and 3) establish password policies that don't require users to switch between keyboard modes to access different character sets.

In addition, they propose that smartphones support distinct personal and business modes, and that security mechanisms cover the business context rather than the entire device.

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About the Author(s)

Thomas Claburn

Editor at Large, Enterprise Mobility

Thomas Claburn has been writing about business and technology since 1996, for publications such as New Architect, PC Computing, InformationWeek, Salon, Wired, and Ziff Davis Smart Business. Before that, he worked in film and television, having earned a not particularly useful master's degree in film production. He wrote the original treatment for 3DO's Killing Time, a short story that appeared in On Spec, and the screenplay for an independent film called The Hanged Man, which he would later direct. He's the author of a science fiction novel, Reflecting Fires, and a sadly neglected blog, Lot 49. His iPhone game, Blocfall, is available through the iTunes App Store. His wife is a talented jazz singer; he does not sing, which is for the best.

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