Design vs. Convention: a Journey


“It’s impossible.” I said to my boss, after double-checking the anthropometric charts. “The screen’s too small to fit all the letters at the recommended touch-target size, especially a trucker’s fingers.”

We were developing a fleet messaging system for small in-vehicle touch-screens. The “impossible” problem got me thinking: do all the keys need to be the same size? After all, some letters are used much more often than others. And if I make the keys different sizes, why not group the ones that are used the most, and put them where the driver can see and reach them the best?

I was a young designer then, and decided to screw convention and redesign the keyboard from scratch, considering only the tangible problems of finger travel, typing speed, and minimizing the user’s hand from blocking their view of the keys while typing.

My concept for a small in-vehicle keyboard, created sometime around 2000.

I was pretty proud of what I’d come up with, until I showed it to the engineering manager and he’s like, “What?” and told the devs to just code it a normal letter grid. Sigh.

Convention: 1, Design: 0

That was 15 years ago, long before smartphones. But years later, I couldn’t help remember it whenever my stubby fingers struggled to type on the tiny iPhone keys.

It nagged in the back of my mind for awhile, like an itch you can’t scratch. I’d occasionally doodle what a better non-QWERTY mobile keyboard might look like, thinking maybe I’d make it for Android. But with a wife, 4 kids, and 2 jobs, it didn’t get done.

Then Apple announced support for third-party keyboards. All my life I’ve had product ideas, and my (late) mom always encouraged me to pursue them, but I never saw any of them all the way through to market. Did I dare design against convention again? Did I not learn the first time?

I had to do it. I had to produce my “big idea” that I believed was a superior solution to the 140-year-old QWERTY layout, even if it failed miserably. So while my wife baked in the sun on our child-free vacation last summer, I was nearby in the shade designing what I hoped would be a kick-ass iPhone keyboard.

I considered thumb reach and the motion of the thumb’s saddle joint (finally putting a bit of my Ergonomics/Biomechanics master’s degree to use!). I researched letter, bigram, and word frequencies.

I iterated extensively, cleaning the design as it progressed.

An early sketch, which I was calling the “Thumbprint” keyboard at the time.

The final result? HERO Keyboard reduces finger travel by 35%, and the most-used keys are 30% bigger. Eureka!

The current version of HERO keyboard.

With the design done, I had to bravely venture into things I’d never done before: set up an Apple Developer account (and get a “DUNS” number — wtf?), made patent preparations, and hired an oDesk developer (I can’t code beyond HTML/CSS, and maybe break some javascript :). The first dev, who was fairly inexperienced, failed (#lessonlearned, #moneylost). The second got the job done, and the “Minimum Viable Product” version hit the App Store in late 2014. Joy!

But for any app dev noob like myself, the joy fades quickly when you realize you’re not at the finish line. Nope, you’ve just rounded a bend into a completely different and somewhat scary forest of App marketing, ASO, PR, growth hacking, refining “the pitch” on HEROkeyboard.com, and more that I don’t want to think about. So I read tons of articles and blogs, learned as I went, and…

Convention: 2, Design: 0

But did HERO’s launch fail because the market rejected it, or was it my lack of promotional ability? Or HERO’s lack of some now-common features like an auto-complete bar? Hard to say (please let me know what you think in the comments!)

My second (wiser) PR push finally got a few reviews on smaller blogs which led to some sales, so I think people see the value in the efficiency over convention, and the braver ones are willing to give it a try. Randy Marsden (Swype co-founder and current head of Apple keyboards) emailed me a brief compliment on the keyboard — probably the best professional kudos I’ll ever get! — which was certainly encouraging.

So the score’s 2–0, and the keyboard desperately needs some enhancements that I can’t afford.

Shall I give up? Call it a failure? Conclude that people are so resistant to change that they’ll mysteriously begrudgingly hold on to an inefficient status quo? I almost did, then I said “Aw Hellz no (paraphrasing) — I’ll try a Kickstarter!”

So that’s the Plan B where I am now — one week into the HERO v2.0 Kickstarter (which is its own spooky forest for another article). If that fails, Plan C is to partner with a developer and profit-share (anyone interested? :), and I suppose Plan D would be investors.

The video pitch. Can’t argue with Thomas Edison.

One way or another, I’d love to see if people would buck 140 years of QWERTY to embrace a fully functional uber-efficient HERO Keyboard. So if you have any advice or can share your experience designing against convention, please comment below. Thanks!