“Thumbs”-on with Typewise: an alternative mobile keyboard layout

Here are our impressions after a week with the new Typewise mobile keyboard app (and we got to chat with the developer’s CEO David Eberle).
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For more than a week now, I’ve been slowly learning, getting frustrated, and then slowly becoming competent and faster using Typewise, a new smartphone keyboard app for Android and iOS. The Swiss developer behind the free app (with a paid-for “PRO” version) is looking to create a more efficient version of the legacy qwerty keyboard – albeit without completely tossing out the existing layout. Uptake has been fast, including a recent surge of users in South Africa, so we wanted to see what the fuss was about.

Typewise offers a novel, hexagon-based keyboard for dual-thumb typing, which allows for larger keys and fewer typos. In addition to the evolved layout, they’ve placed a strong focus on autocorrect support for multiple languages simultaneously (in the PRO version), along with user privacy. The result is a larger, faster, and intuitive evolution of the qwerty layout, with several smart swipe-based shortcuts and gesture-controls to make up for fewer visible punctuation/function keys. However, it does require some adjustment at first, especially when navigating a qwerty keyboard has become muscle memory, and the developers themselves suggest it can take upwards of two weeks to become comfortable.

That said, first impressions are good and it’s immediately clear how much space they’ve gained with their hexagon design and multi-purpose keys. Quickly swapping back and forth between the hex and traditional layout (Typewise doesn’t lock you into layout once installed), it’s clear each key gets double the screen space, reducing the likelihood of your thumbs grazing the wrong input. You’ll quickly realise the number of punctuation and function keys have been drastically reduced, and there are now two central “space” keys to allow either thumb to reach it with ease.

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There’s a simple but entertaining training game to get you used to the layout and shortcuts. It’s well worth spending some time here before attempting any rapid responses to social media posts.

At first glance, the layout feels familiar but, admittedly, my thumbs were lost for the first few days. Most keys are still near one another as expected, but the hexagonal layout means several have shifted diagonally up or down, especially at the end of each shortened row. The most difficult adjustment to make is finding letters displaced further by the central space keys. However, after a week of use and some more time in the training game, my thumbs are starting to gravitate towards these new positions automatically.

Despite the reduced number of function and punctuation keys on the hex keyboard, Typewise utilises several quick and intuitive shortcuts that other developers could learn from. Capitalising a letter is done by stroking the letter key upwards. Backspace is handled by a quick swipe left anywhere on the board. Swiping left and maintaining contact allows you to adjust the exact amount of deleted text before lifting your thumb confirms the deletion. For basic punctuation – think commas, full stops, question marks, or exclamation marks – several keys have multiple functions, which are triggered by swiping up or down, or pressing and holding while moving up or down. The gestures themselves are easy to learn once you’ve committed them to memory but sometimes I found the app misinterpreted my press-and-hold attempts (and years of console gaming make me think my thumbs are reasonably precise).

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If you’re someone who uses a lot of numbers or precise punctuation in your messages, you may find the Typewise layout a little less functional.

Unfortunately, switching to the secondary keyboard for punctuation, numbers, and other mathematical functions makes for a less intuitive experience. The large key size accommodates all the number keys and commonly used punctuation/math functions, but there are still a dozen combination keys that can make it an arduous task to quickly find a backslash or currency symbol. As a result, I found Typewise best for social media apps but stuck to the standard qwerty layout for productivity apps like banking or calendars.

Another Typewise highlight – especially as we become more aware of the extent many apps and websites go to collect data – is the privacy options. At the expense of contributing anonymous data for app development, you can toggle the privacy mode that ensures nothing leaves your device. The autocorrect and word-completion AI functions entirely offline.

If you’re looking to further tweak your typing experience, access the simultaneous multi-language autocorrect function (for 40+ languages and growing), or want additional gesture-controls for added functionality, you will need to support the developers and invest in the PRO version. If you’re curious, you can try out the PRO features for a single month cheaply and, if the added functionality appeals to you, you can save on a yearly sub. Your mileage will vary but I found the added customisation and gesture support a worthy addition, and felt the pricing was fair given there’s no intrusive advertising in the free version.

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There are several options to further tweak the basic hexagonal layout, access the multi-lingual autocorrect feature, and incorporate gesture functions, but you’ll need to pick up the PRO version.

We also got the opportunity to ask Typewise CEO, David Eberle, a few questions about their motivations, development challenges, and privacy considerations:

gameblur: The “qwerty” layout is so old and entrenched at this point, I’m sure most people never think about its origin or even consider alternatives. What sources do you turn to when conceptualising an alternative?

David Eberle: That’s right – the QWERTY layout was invented for ten-digit typing on mechanical typewriters almost 150 years ago. So the fact that most people are still using it for one or two digit typing on the tiny screens of smartphones is due to legacy, rather than logical reasons. Because the way we type on our smartphones is completely different to the way we type on a large, physical keyboard (we’re yet to see anyone touch typing on their phone!) We explain this in further depth here: Texting Vs Typing https://www.typewise.app/blog/texting-vs-typing-smartphone-keyboard-needs-upgrade

We realised that the QWERTY layout was not optimal for the smartphone. So we conducted various trials and undertook research to come up with a keyboard that is specifically designed for the way people type on their smartphones, rather than just using the legacy layout.

gameblur: We know smartphones are near-ubiquitous around the world, which means billions of different thumbs – encompassing all ages, sizes, and degrees of skill – to consider. How do you decide on the key sizes and gesture complexity when designing a typing app and what accessibility issues do you consider?

David Eberle: When we created the Typewise keyboard, one of the things we did was make our keys easier to hit. We did this by increasing the size of the keys (they’re around 70% larger than a typical smartphone keyboard), and by changing the shape to our patented hexagonal layout. Hexagons are by nature the ideal because they have the roundest possible shape that fits together without any gaps.

We came up with many different iterations and gesture ideas and tested them on many different people before we settled on the final version. And it’s still a work in progress. We are constantly reviewing feedback from our test groups to continually improve the keyboard and make it even faster and more accurate to use.

You’re right that everyone types differently. That’s why we use a Dynamic Layout that adapts itself to the user. So depending on where you usually hit the keys, they will be shifted in the background and our autocorrection AI will also take your typing behaviour into account so that it is personalised for each user’s different typing style.

On the topic of accessibility issues, we offer a number of different colour themes, the ability to enlarge the key font, and various control over the gesture duration. However, we were quite shocked when earlier this year, one of our users who has severe Rheumatoid Arthritis contacted us with an incredible story about how using our keyboard had helped him get his life back on track.

He had been homeless for a long time and had been experiencing severe trouble getting help as he can no longer use normal computer keyboards or phone keyboards which meant he had had great difficulty applying for the help he required to get back on his feet. After discovering Typewise, he was able to communicate again and this led to him getting his life back on track.

It has a very humbling story because we had never considered that our keyboard might help someone in such a profound way. But it made us think about how we might help more people with reduced dexterity in their hands. It’s a great example of how there can be unexpected benefits that you never conceived when first designing a product. You can read an interview we did with him here: https://www.typewise.app/blog/smartphone-keyboard-rheumatoid-arthritis

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gameblur: It must be hard enough to generate autocorrect learning algorithms for a single language. How big a challenge was it to implement multiple languages simultaneously?

David Eberle: It was (and still is) a challenge! It was particularly difficult because we also wanted to support slang and dialects. As a company based in Switzerland (a country with four official languages), being able to seamlessly switch between languages when typing on our phones is very important to us.

In the German part of Switzerland for example people speak Swiss German which hasn’t any official vocabulary or grammar. So everyone types differently and in the past had to disable autocorrect completely because it worked so poorly.

That’s why we not only built an autocorrection AI that learns heavily from the user but also is language independent. To train it we developed software which simulates how users type.

This allows us to generate text with typos which a Neural Network can then use to learn how to correct the original text. That’s how we were able to release Typewise keyboard for 40+ languages already, and how we will be able to add Cyrillic languages and Arabic next year.

gameblur: There are recognised dictionaries for several major languages, but social messaging apps must cover a mix of common words, cultural jargon, and plenty of abbreviations. Is the autocorrect algorithm designed to learn exclusively from the users, or are their compilations of informal language to work with?

David Eberle: Language is constantly evolving and as you rightly say, there are always new words and terms appearing. So we employ a dual strategy of keeping our wordlists updated with the latest jargon/abbreviations/trending phrases, as well as enabling our AI to learn from users directly.

gameblur: Privacy has become an increasingly problematic issue, with many people now aware of extensive data collection (even though many of us have no idea what they’ve agreed to in the past). Is the creation of an offline mode a technical challenge that deters some developers from implementing it, or simply a choice to service some data collection agenda?

David Eberle: Yes, Privacy is now a huge topic and rightly so. Most people willingly donate huge volumes of their personal data to big tech companies and it’s only more recently that people are realising that’s not a good idea. We are very privacy focussed at Typewise, which is why we build all our products with privacy baked in.

This means your keystrokes are never shared. Most of the incumbent keyboards transfer your typing data to the cloud for analysis, and require permissions which we believe are not necessary a keyboard app.

All of our autocorrect and text prediction AI takes place on your device itself. We don’t, won’t and indeed can’t, collect any typing data by design. We offer offline mode for absolute privacy, but the same applies for Typewise Custom and PRO keyboards – your typing data never leaves your phone. You can read more about why we think this is of extreme importance here: https://www.typewise.app/blog/privacy-typewise-keyboard-secure

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