Tuesday, 18 August 2009

Predictive Text Attention Deficit Disorders: what a load of shiv

If anyone hasn't seen the Armstrong & Millar "History of Swearing with predictive text" then watch it (see the bottom of this post)! All the mumbo jumbo that's been discussed this week in the broadsheets (the Telegraph) and tabloids (Daily Mail) about predictive text making kids dumb, impulsive and brings on Attention Deficit Disorders makes we want to send text messages full of expletives!

But fortunately the IT press got wind of this and thankfully some sensible observations from the Register made me cool down. Also, some of the online Daily Mail readers who posted comments made some really valid points, namley Jeff a school teacher in London who says school kids use multitap and don't use "predictive text" because it does not actually predict (and therefore save keystrokes). He says:

I'm a teacher and I don't believe school kids use predictive text. I've asked classes over the years and kids don't use predictive text because its "rubbish"; kids say it does not predict or help them type less.

Teenagers use "multitap" i.e. to type "c" they type the abc key 3 times. The issue therefore is NOT predictive text but the keyboard type. Kids are constrained by the keyboard's physical size.

So either, tell the phone manufacturers like Nokia, Samsung etc to only provide kids with phones which have qwerty keyboards (not likely to happen) or put in better predictive text.

Most phones use T9 which is old. Personally I use Adaptxt software on my Nokia (downloaded for free from the Adaptxt.com website) which does actually predict in advance and does encourage me to use proper English. Some of the pupils in my class think its rather good and I'm finally cool (not book)!

One final comment on this research: what a waste of time. Their initial assumption was wrong!

To delve a little deeper then: existing predictive text solutions (so for the majority of the world that is T9) just try to complete words and even then it doesn't do a very good job of that; T9 doesn't learn from user behaviour so makes the same stupid word suggestion every time. In other words, as user experience goes, "predictive text" sucks.

But as Jeff the teacher from London points out, what are we going to do about it? He rightly says, if the world wants kids to stop using predictive text and compose messages in their full language as opposed to phonetic versions, then handset OEMs need to supply mobile phones to teenagers with qwerty keyboards. Currently, qwerty devices target business users and if you review any telco or OEM device portfolio for teenage devices, very few are qwerty in form factor. So maybe there is no demand. If there was, surely OEMs would cater to this message-friendly user segment? Fjord, now home to Christian Lindholm (of Nokia fame), say qwerty for teenagers will be a growing trend as these young social communicators want efficient input.

I don't think the driver for this change is going to be concerns over Attention Deficit Disorder but 2 things need to be realised:

  1. predictive text as we know it isn't actually predicting. Rename it. "Word completion" isn't catchy but that is all it does. There is no prediction so school kids (and let's face it lots of other people too) won't use predictive text because the experience does not match the expectation. Yet, there are a number of input technologies that aren't being used: Jeff mentions Adaptxt but there is also Cootek, Wordlogic and others that should be considered. Has anybody actually compared these input technoliogies? Perhaps better "predictive text" will increase the number of emails a user sends or the number of times they post to Facebook from their mobile?
  2. the industry needs to educate users that qwerty hard keyboards are the most efficient method of input. 12 key maybe de rigeur in Western Europe and Asia for non-smartphone/text-heavy users but text entry on a qwerty will make for a superior experience.
Decision makers responsible for input technologies at handset manufacturers need to examine input user experience: Fjord rightly point out that Twitter is going mainstream, Facebook updates and wall comments are exploding. So handset manufacturers need to give users devices which allow them to express themselves fully.

New input technolgies can assist the user's messaging experience. Qwerty handsets for young social communicators will encourage mobile blogging, mobile Facebooking and Twitter updates. And does all this not drive demand for mobile internet tarifs at telco operators?

This is a win win for the industry and users. And as Armstrong & Millar's Predictive Text Commission would say, that is not a load of shiv.