Too many keys

Something happens to me about three times a week: I’m composing an email message to someone in Microsoft Outlook and, while happily typing away, I mistakenly hit some combination of keys and send the email out before I’m finished. I think the keys I hit are CONTROL and ENTER, but of course I’m not paying attention at the time, so I can’t say for sure.

I think this points out a deep failure in our current approach to using computers which is that, at any given point in time it’s far more possible to do the wrong (or at least unintended) thing than it is to do the right thing.

While I’m typing in this note, for example, there are innumerable things I could do with my keyboard or mouse that would cause problems: close the program, erase what I’m typing, turn off the computer. For example, one of the most common technical support calls I get from friends and family is the problem of people hitting CONTROL and A (which is the shortcut for Select All in Windows) instead of SHIFT and A. When they do this, and then blindly keep typing, their entire document gets erased. This can happen so easily, and so quickly, that it’s hard not to thing that your computer is broken.

And that’s only one example.

If you think of successful common everyday devices, the really useful ones are those that don’t have this problem. A push-button phone, for example: pick it up, press the buttons. You can mistakenly press the wrong button, but it’s usually pretty obvious that you’re doing that. It’s hard to accidentally call Hong Kong unless you want to, and there’s really not much you can do with a phone by accident that will make it disappear.

I wonder if it’s possible to create a different computing environment, one where it’s easier to do the right thing at any given time than it is to cause havoc.

I’m not sure if such a system would have to be really, really complex, or really, really simple.


Steven Garrity's picture
Steven Garrity on October 9, 2001 - 17:13 Permalink

Microsoft Research is working on technologies along the lines of what you are suggesting. I couldn’t find the specific link, but as I understand it they were looking at avoiding inappropriate interruptions and distractions for the user.

For example, if you are typing madly in the middle of a long sentence or paragraph in a word processor, your instant messaging or email program would wait until you have finished your ‘current though’ (of course, it would just determine this by delays in keystrokes).

Alan McLeod's picture
Alan McLeod on October 9, 2001 - 19:47 Permalink

Is this the same brain trust that created the “random autoformat” function for Word?

Peter Rukavina's picture
Peter Rukavina on October 10, 2001 - 02:56 Permalink

As I said, I’m not sure if the solution is really complex (the computer learning my behaviour and staying out of the way when it’s not wanted) or really simple (just plain simplfying the whole thing).

Ann Thurlow's picture
Ann Thurlow on October 10, 2001 - 14:24 Permalink

Oh no…it is possible to call far away places by mistake. I was trying to make a collect call froma pay phone and got a woman in Mexico

Alan McLeod's picture
Alan McLeod on October 10, 2001 - 15:46 Permalink

My mother once worked in the late ‘70’s with a Mrs. Carter who, calling home, misdialed the area Code and found herself deep within the White House. She said “this is Mrs. Carter…is my husband there” found herself in a conversation with security about who exactly she was and what she thought she was doing.