iPad Keyboard Layout WTF

You blew away 500$ on the craps table at Vegas flirting with the waitress in the low cut dress. I bought an iPad. So let’s call it even and stop judging, shall we?

Since everybody and their mother is writing an iPad review, I’ve decided to do the Internet a favor and not contribute to the hypefest. Instead, let’s talk about an interesting “design bug” in the keyboard layouts.

Due to the touch screen nature of the device, the iPad takes a leaf from the iPhone and implements multiple keyboard layouts, depending on the application context. I’m calling four of these layouts “Email mode”, URL Mode”, “Text Mode” and “Special Character Mode”. Here’s a side-by-side of the first three modes:

This morning, my roommate Meg pointed out an interesting observation in the Text Mode layout. the iPad has an interesting placement of the question mark (”?”) character as a shift-modifier for a comma(”,”). Now, there’s this “?123” button that when pressed, shows you special characters and number keys. But when you press it, the “?” key disappears! Where did it go?

Closer inspection shows that it has moved to the center of the keyboard. This is odd, you’d think: The question mark has always been right next to the shift key since the beginning of time. Further, this bizarre disappearing act when switching modes is unintuitive. Why would someone make such a design decision? Let’s take a look at iPhone’s Special Character Mode for an answer:

Notice how the “?” character on the iPhone is at the center, unlike classic keyboard layouts, where it’s to the left of the shift (which in turn has been replaced by the backspace key). The iPad is clearly trying to maintain consistency with it’s iPhone heritage. However, since it is a very different beast, it also tries to be change things up a bit and borrow from it’s big-boy-computer heritage; ending up with strange design oddities like these. Which begs the question, should a tablet be designed as a larger phone, a smaller computer, a bit of both, or just something completely different?

While this is a fairly minor quirk, it is representative of many oddities in the design of the interface across the board. Despite Apple’s willingness to throw the past out and redesign UIs, the need for consistency with its own family of products often creates ugly contradictions.

About the author:

Arnab Nandi is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Computer Science and Engineering at The Ohio State University. You can read more about him here.


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