In Defence Of The PgDn Key

One of the most common anecdotes at tech conferences is the "child swipes TV" story. This is the gist of it: my infant offspring walked up to the television and tried to swipe the screen because they think it's an iPad. This "proves" that touch-screen interfaces are intuitive. Babies can use them!

Keyboard picture from Shutterstock

There are two problems with that story:

  1. Everyone tells it now. It has about as much impact as describing how big data let Target discover someone was pregnant yadda yadda yadda.
  2. It doesn't actually demonstrate that touch is intuitive. It demonstrates that your child has seen you incessantly swiping away at phones and tablets, and is copying you. Kids do that a lot.

So I'll give credit to Cisco SVP for global collaboration sales Snorre Kjesbu for coming up with a variant on the tale. During Cisco's APJC Collaboration Connection 2014 event in Macau, which I'm attending this week, Kjesbu described how his eight-year old daughter came in while he was working on a presentation on his PC. She swiped the screen, and then complained when the presentation didn't move to the next slide. He explained that you can do that using the PgDn (Page Down) key. Her response: "Why would you do that?"

Kjesbu's point was that enterprise tools need to be designed to allow for that mindset, where mobile OS interfaces have become dominant. "It can't be so you have great tools at home and old-fashioned clunky stuff at work," he said. "You need to work towards that home experience." (There's some quite impressive technology Cisco is working on in that area, and I'll write about that in more detail tomorrow.)

I wouldn't dispute that designing apps to take advantage of those options makes sense. What you need to avoid doing is eliminating or hampering the ability to use a keyboard at the same time. It's so easy to get caught up in designing a simplified interface that you cut out the code that lets you use a connected keyboard to do the same thing.

There's an obvious example out there in the wild: Windows 8. In its original version, it was manifestly a touch-first interface, to the point that using Modern apps with a keyboard (or mouse) was downright unpleasant. It wasn't until Windows 8.1 Update that Microsoft belatedly decided to make the interface more friendly for keyboard users. This was not a wise idea. Touch might be a future expectation, but the majority of Windows devices right now have a keyboard connected. Ignoring it was foolish, and didn't help the reception of Windows 8 one bit.

The bias is evident in more subtle ways too. Many current notebooks don't have PgUp and PgDn keys (think MacBook Air, or most Chromebook designs). There's usually a keyboard shortcut to do this -- but if you become used to not seeing a PgUp or PgDn key, you may not go looking for it, or think to add support for it.

Designing software that will appeal to a new generation of users should not mean eliminating options that work well as it is. Technology can be accretive, not disruptive. Supporting everything is more helpful than supporting just one sub-audience.

When you want to type -- when you want to work with text -- a keyboard still wins. Learn how to use it to the full yourself, and don't abandon it when you're developing new tools for others. And maybe spend some time typing in front of your infant children.

Disclosure: Angus Kidman travelled to Macau as a guest of Cisco.


    Well said. Modern keyboard layouts are getting stupid. Why the small arrow keys on most modern laptops. Most users use these a lot. And PgUp/PgDn are useful. I bought a ThinkPad recently and the main reason was the decent size arrow keys and PgDn

    I fucking HATE current laptop keyboard designs, they completely remove the Ins/Del/Hom/End/PgUp/PgDn key cluster in a lot of cases, the windows "menu" key is gone, escape and tilde are fucked around with, print screen goes go knows where. You know, people actually use these keys. That's why they're still on normal keyboards! Dirty fuckers.

    Now, with that vitriol out of my system. Design and usability of "enterprise" applications. Yes, absolutely, they should be designed to appeal to the "touch" generation. In most cases "enterprise" applications appear to have been designed by someone that once saw a computer interface, and thought that everything should only be accessible via certain specific key combinations, that surely don't need to be visible on the screen at all (everyone has the 4 page "shortcut" sheet pinned to their cubical, right?). It is extremely difficult and time consuming to train people into using interfaces they're not familiar with, making it more like interfaces they use outside of work reduces that training significantly, this is especially true now days, with the gap between these "enterprise" applications and touch applications being so dramatic.

    While I agree with the need to apply *some* of the usability enhancements we've seen in the home to the enterprise environment, there's a big difference between the primarily consumption based home environment and the production based work environment. A wii or an iPad are both incredibly easy to use devices with polished user experiences and intuitive interfaces, but I wouldn't want to have to create a spreadsheet on either one of them.

    These keys are incredibly important for actually doing real work on a computer. I probably don't use pgup / pgdn as much, but home and end I use constantly, as well as the arrow keys. Spot a typo in what you're typing? Arrow back, fix, hit end, resume typing.

    To do that with a mouse, let alone something as imprecise as a touch screen, I would have to take my hand off my keyboard, move it over, move the cursor, click, hope it put it in the right place, if not click again until it's there, do the edit, then move my hand back to the mouse / screen and do the same thing again to move the cursor to the end of the line again. I hit Shift-End a lot too (end of document).

    Same for home - delete the current line by holding down shift and hitting home. I do this all the time when entering text. I did it at least twice while writing this. I don't even need to move my right hand out of its resting position at the home row, just swivel the wrist slightly and I'm over those buttons.

    I don't give a crap if it's 'intuitive' to a four year old. They're not being paid to write text on a computer. Doesn't matter how good the touch interface feels and looks if it's a pain in the ass to operate efficiently. Even Microsoft didn't make that mistake (Navigating Win8 with a keyboard is still possible and actually more efficient than using a mouse or touch).

    OK, here's a cheap shot. The presenter's name was "Snorre"? Worst name for a presenter I've ever heard :)

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