At its core, the soft keyboard solves a challenging design problem – how do you offer a functional keyboard on a small device while maximizing screen real estate and minimizing the physical size and complexity of the device itself?
Before the iPhone, prevailing wisdom and moderately skilled Fauxtoshoppers envisioned solutions like these “iPod Phones”:
Now let’s look at Apple’s solution:
Ahh! Much better, right? Of course it is. The entire face of the phone can be devoted to the display. The keypad only appears when it’s needed and doesn’t require the phone to transform like Optimus Prime.
Your UI – Now with less buttons!
Okay, time to quote the trusty iPad HIG:
De-emphasize User Interface Controls
Help people focus on the content by designing your application UI as a subtle frame for the information they’re interested in. Downplay application controls by minimizing their number and prominence.
I like to think of this as the Steve Jobs Turtleneck rule – eliminate buttons wherever possible. The soft keyboard lets app developers do just that. How?
Soft Keyboards are Malleable
You can shape a soft keyboard to fit a particular context. iPhone gave us a taste of this capability by adding contextual buttons like Done and Search to the standard keyboard. Having these keys on the keyboard means they don’t have to be on the page and that effectively means fewer buttons in your UI.
In the example below, the Search button is integrated into the keyboard, eliminating the need to persist a search button in the UI.
Numbers Crunches the Keyboard
With iPad, Apple takes the soft keyboard further than it’s ever gone before. For example, take a look at Numbers, the spreadsheet app for iPad. It offers keypads that are specific to the input type you’re working with (e.g. numeric, date, etc.). This not only simplify the UI, it increases the discoverability of features like the formula editor. Why? Because, rather than being buried in some obscure menu, these tools present themselves to you as soon as you tap in a cell that can use them.
Now let’s take a look at Notes. There’s no edit button here. To edit, you just tap on the page and up pops a keyboard. Saves are automatic, so there’s not even a Save button.
Removing UI elements also improves the “physicality and realism” of the UI that Apple is pretty keen on. When you view a note, all you see is a realistic looking notepad.
The Potential Downsides of Soft Keyboards
The soft keyboard’s strength is also its weakness. Because the keys can be customized, the availability and location of keys can change from one context to another, making them inconsistent. In some cases this could result in more typos and force users to resort to slower hunt and peck typing.
Also, custom keys can be hard to identify on the iPad. For reasons I don’t understand, Apple has decided to remove color-coding of special action keys like Go, Search or Submit. On the iPhone, these keys are blue and easy to identify. Hopefully button color is something that third party developers can control.
One Keyboard, Limitless Possibilities
I suspect we’ll see a wide variety of soft keyboards emerge that are tailored to a specific context since they offer developers and designers a new way to progressively disclose complexity in their applications. However, it may take some time before consistent patterns emerge.