Where keyboard shortcuts may lose a little bit

Tech Life

I wanted to add a glimpse of personal experience in the discussion about what is faster (or perceived so), the mouse or the keyboard. In a recent article entitled Where keyboard shortcuts win, John Gruber, catching a remark in this post by Tim Bray, revives the matter, started by Bruce Tognazzini’s original analysis published in 1989.

Gruber summarises the issue quite well:

The main point here is that according to Apple’s late-80s user testing, it takes longer to use keyboard shortcuts than to use the mouse for most tasks, but it feels like the opposite is true, because for some reason people don’t notice the (significant) time that it takes to recall just which keys to press to invoke a keyboard shortcut.

In other words, quoting Gruber again:

The key to understanding Tog’s argument about why the mouse is faster is that there’s a hidden delay where you stop to recall the actual keys to press for a shortcut.

I’m quite aware of that “hidden delay” on a daily basis, as we’ll see shortly. Gruber proceeds in his analysis saying that

Another exception where keyboard shortcuts should win, and win big, in a stopwatch test: repetitive actions.

When you’re doing the same thing over and over — not even necessarily right after each other (e.g. Paste, Paste, Paste, Paste…) but just several times in close proximity — it’s a huge win to have a keyboard shortcut.

It is indeed. I write and edit a lot of text for my work, so I greatly rely on keyboard shortcuts. However, as I said, I’m well aware of keyboard delays and the advantages of resorting to the mouse every now and then: I use more than one Mac to work, and I often have to switch between different keyboards and keyboard layouts. My main machine is a good old 12-inch PowerBook G4, whose keyboard and keyboard layout looks like this (click to enlarge):


Aluminium PowerBook G4 12-inch. Keyboard layout: Italian Pro

But when I’m at my Small Office/Home Office, and I connect my PowerBook to an external 20-inch monitor, I also change keyboard and use the Apple Wireless Keyboard (the white model, not the latest aluminium one), which has this layout (click to enlarge):


Apple Wireless Keyboard. Keyboard layout: Italian Pro

Which usually is not a big problem, although every now and then I get confused by the fact that the first key in the lower left corner is no more the fn key, but the Control key – and vice-versa when I return to the smaller keyboard. Sometimes I have tried to scroll up and down a page of text on the extended keyboard by using Ctrl-up arrow and Ctrl-down arrow, believing that the Control key was the fn key.

But there’s more. I also happen to use a Titanium PowerBook G4, and its keyboard, albeit quite similar to the Aluminium PowerBook’s, bears another small difference that gets me confused. The TiBook keyboard layout is this (click to enlarge):


PowerBook G4 Titanium. Keyboard layout: Italian Pro

If you compare the first and the third figure, you will notice that the two keyboards are pretty much the same, save for the fact that the two keys between the space bar and the inverted-T arrow keys are Command and Return on the Aluminium PowerBook, and Return and Option on the Titanium. Another small difference which can mean further delays when typing, editing, using shortcuts.

But it gets worse. Another Mac in use is a refurbished Power Mac G4 Cube to which I have attached the old Apple USB Keyboard of my departed iMac G3, which has a different key placement and a different keyboard layout – Italian (not Pro, the old QZERTY format). Click to enlarge:


Apple USB Keyboard. Keyboard layout: Italian (QZERTY)

Here, things get complicated. As you see, the top row of keys where you normally would find numbers has symbols and other characters. To get the numbers, you press Shift – it’s the opposite of the majority of current keyboard layouts, where you would press Shift to obtain those characters. Then we can notice how Z and W have switched positions, and the M is not near the N, but placed a row above, near the L. There are other differences, but the switched position of the Z and W keys is paramount when we consider keyboard shortcuts, because it interferes with a couple of shortcuts that are frequently invoked: Command-Z to Undo and Command-W to close a window or document. When I happen to switch to this keyboard after using any of the others, and I stumble onto those shortcuts, I really need to stop and think, because I already see my fingers pressing the wrong key combination mechanically, automatically, as a reflex.

I know this is not a common situation, and of course I’m not switching keyboards every minute, but when it happens, I really need a bit of time to adjust myself to the “new” keyboard, and I rely on the mouse to avoid wasting too much time. Fortunately mice aren’t so different among one another as keyboard layouts can be.

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