The speed of typing and user experience design

I found a fascinating blog entry this morning on the misconceptions surrounding the speed at which people type, the error rate, and how that should affect software and web design. In the blog, Vincent Gable points to some research done by Teresia R. Ostrach, President of Five Star Staffing, Inc., who was frustrated by the unrealistic expectations employers had for prospective employees. She tested 3,475 applicants’ typing speeds and error rates, with the following results:

Average Typing Speed

Mean = 40 WPM = 240 characters/minute
Median = 38 WPM = 228 characters/minute
Standard Deviation = 16.7-WPM = 100 characters/minute

Vincent points out that Wikipedia claims the average typist can type from 50-70 WPM, but it appears that “normal” expectations are much higher than reality.

The other interesting point Vincent makes is about the error rate Teresia found in her study:

“… an average error-rate of about 6% per word. Put another way, more then 1 out of every 17 words has a typo in it, which is kind of a big deal.
The error-rate is probably artificially high, because subjects were taking the test under a lot of pressure — it determined if they got a job or not! But even the best group of over-qualfied typists still had a 4% error rate; or a fumble on 1 out of every 25 words. And that’s significant.”

Vincent points out this means that spellcheckers and auto-correctors are essential, but it also means those of us designing web applications where typed input is involved need to gracefully accept typing errors.

The best web applications don’t penalize the user for making mistakes–they figure out what the user meant. Search engines that ask “did you mean this?” are far more usable than forms that won’t submit until the user fixes some esoteric typing error. Web applications such as job applications and e-commerce forms should accept and auto-correct user errors, rather than balking at some obscure formatting error, then leave the user struggling to find and correct those errors.

Also, software and web applications should let users enter the data in whatever format is comfortable to them. It’s easy for a web application, for example, to strip out spaces or dashes in a credit card number, but very hard for a user to enter a string of 16 numbers correctly without using dashes or spaces.


2 Responses to “The speed of typing and user experience design”

  1. 1 Ron Allen September 8, 2008 at 3:26 pm

    I’m physically disabled in that I can’t walk. Typing has been something I can do and could do without having to lift and carry so in my youth and even into my forties, I’ve test my typing speed. I reached the fastest typing speed in my early forties. I’m presently 63. My highest typing speed was 143wpm, which was a one minute timed session. I made no errors during that session.

    For 35 years I’ve been a researcher and technical writer. Please put aside for a minute the ethics and morality of what I’m about to say. I’m acknowledging that I have written 100 masters theses and dissertations so you may understand where my knowledge and experience originated. In one masters thesis and one dissertation I explored the relationship between growth factor in the brain of a rat and training methods for particular tasks. Twenty years ago a conclusion in what was an extensive project that included 300 rats who where trained in unique ways in the performance of complicated tasks. When a rat or a person is placed in a learning situation, growth factor in relevant neurons increases which facilitates the growth of unspecialized and specialized dendrites and this makes it poissible for learning to occur. The question I asked in these two graduate papers was this: What would happen if I subjected large groups of rats to an a learning environment in which they were placed in a perpetual state of ignorance. A state of ignorance was accomplished in that the rats were frustrated so that tasks were almost learned but not quite. When a series of ladder configerations, or swimming courses were almost learned so treats were learned to be acquired at a near perfect rate, the rats were placed in a new course or had to learn a new series of tasks.

    The results in what amounted to two studies were to me astounding. The rats seemed to become genius rats whereby at the end of two years of frustrating their training experiences, sufficient connections were created inside their brains so that toward the end of the second year, eighty percent of the rats learned tasks at lightning speed. The rats were in the end euthanasized at the end and during various stages of the experiments. Various parts of their brains were tested for growth factor, which was in general higher than normal in all the rats especially toward the end of the experiments.

    When I was fifty years old, I decided to become like one of my rats in that I had a strong desire to learn how to play the piano. I play the harmonica very well and guitar but I couldn’t master either because my physical disabilities restricted my capacity for playing both instruments. But since I type effortlessly and with no tendonitis or carpal tunnelling or any joint inflammation, I concluded that it may be physically possible for me to become a good pianist. The only downside was my left little finger is deformed from a childhood fracture. Then there was my age. The little finger didn’t restrict my ability to type as well, though I eventually had to stop practicing speed typing because the tendon in my left little finger became inflamed. I knew at that point I may never type faster than 143wpm, though I had heard of a Russian who typed hundreds of wpm.

    Based on my experience with rat populations under controlled learning environments, I estimated that I could become a good piano player (playing anything I hear in any key) in ten years. And so I proceeded to frustrate myself like when I set out to torment and frustrate hundreds of rats whose success would end in their death but my achievement would be learning to play the piano. As soon as I almost learned a rhythm, a piece, or anything on the piano, I moved to something I couldn’t do.

    A major conclusion of my experiment with rats was that the speed of learning was not age related but related to a state of ignorance. People produce growth factor in the brain when placed in the presence of problems they are motivated to solve. Most adults avoid learning new things because it’s damned painful intellectually. So, people stop learning later in life not because of old age per se but because they avoid situations that facilitate learning which retards growth factor production which is essential to learning, and a brain devoid of growth factor does not grow and therefore learn.

    I’m not going to detail my piano play experience, though I will say that I am an accomplished pianist to a point. I play anything I hear including complex Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven pieces. At sixty-three, improvements are occurring at miraculous rates. In the end, my deformed little finger has been compensated for in that I chose to learn the play the piano differently from how I learned to type.

    If you recall, home keys are essential when learning to type but using home keys is what restricts speed and accuracy. Before setting out to learn the piano, I studied videos of master pianists. They didn’t play the keyboard from their fingers but by moving their arms at the shoulder, their hands almost hovering above the keyboard. The space above the keyboard is more important that the keys in both typing and playing the piano. Therefore, playing the piano or typing is not a hand-eye coordination experience but a hand special relationship experience; rather hand-arm-body special relationship. One feels where one’s fingers will land without being conscious of home keys when playing or typing best. When piano teachers teach children to launch their fingers from preordained locations such as centre C, these children do not, I assure you, become expert pianists. They learn to read music and play notes as if they were typists. Whereas I’m learning to type for the first time as if I were playing the piano.

    For the first five years I learned complicated pieces on the piano, but in a targeted way in that learning to play meter, notes, while reading music was so complicated that only a few people could truly master it as children when compared to the millions who have tried. Since I started out at age fifty, certain things had to be learned out of order. For example, I concluded that first I must grow the piano inside my brain via dendrite connections. After developing extreme skills, I would learn to read music. I thought the process would take ten years. It’s taken thirteen so far but learning acceleration is occurring just as it did in the lab rat experiments. Therefore, in six months I will tackle reading music and I believe quite successfully.

    But relative to typing, hand space relationships are essential to becoming an accurate speed typist. Looking at the piano is a distraction. I used to look at the keyboard to target notes that are sperate by an octave or two but the piano has shrunk in my mind so needing visual cues is decreasingly necessary.

    When I type now, I use my fingers to feel for the “f” and the “j” only. Once knowing the position of my hands above the keys, my hands hover above these two keys as I type more and more from my shoulders than my fingers, like I do when playing the piano. In the end, I believe I will achieve 200wpm. It will take another five years to compensate for learning from home keys.

    I believe you are right when you say that typing errors are higher than folk lore suggests, but just as IBM altered the keyboard configuration when the typewriter was incapable of mechanically responding to speed typists (slowing typists was therefore intentional), training methods is the reason people type slowly and make so many mistakes.

    Have you noticed in the Olympics that after a record is broken in any sport, others soon follow whereby what was an unbeatable record is eventually achieved daily while athletes aspire toward unbreakable records? So it is, I believe, with typing. If people were taught to type like master pianists play the piano, speeds of 150wpm would be common place.

    I’m presently learning to master a hand-eye coordination game called Zuma because the areas of the brain necessary to become a master pianist or typist for that matter, are developed while mastering this colourful game. I truly need to become a master pianist before I die but this will only occur after solving a few essential problems.

    For example, growth factor in the brain is restricted when people learn certain things. For example, when a person believes it’s necessary to do something mindlessly, as in typing, learning is suppressed and therefore, growth factor in the brain is equally suppressed. In the west, people believe controlling themselves and in this way their world, is accomplished by suppression emotions. They essentially turn themselves off from the possibility of learning new things because learning new things creates anxiety which exacerbates old childhood unresolved fears. A coping strategy is growing old.

    My chosen profession of ghost writing for intellectual wanna bees required that I master more than 30 fields. Actually, creating this business was like the structure of the rat experiments described above. I never practiced the professions for which I researched and studied at the graduate level in dozens of universities throughout the world. I didn’t attend grade school or high school since I was diagnosed as being mentally retarded. My researching career placed me in a perpetual state of ignorance which made it easier and easier for me to specialized in fields that conflict in the brain, such as electronics, engineering, literature, education, and fields I can no longer rightly recall.

    I’ve called myself in jest an archipelago savant. It works this way. An idiot savant is a mentally retarded person in who is an island of genius. In the movie Rain Man, Dustin Hoffman played the role of an idiot savant. Another name for an idiot savant is island idiot. And archipelago like the Hawaiian Islands is an island chain. So I coined the term archipelago savant as a point of humour because if a person specializes in many fields, it’s impossible to claim he’s an idiot. I was an idiot for charging pennies on the dollar for my work. But if I didn’t cheat myself, no one would have believed a four foot genius in a wheelchair could possibly save their fading academic career. But when I made my services affordable, I started look smart indeed to prospective clients, most of whom were from Asia (Malaysia) and the middle East (Saudi Arabia, Iran, and the United Emirates). I earned enough to put my son through collage and to buy a house and a few cars, but hardly the earnings of a person authoring three hundred technical books.

    The point my friend is that exploring typing instructional methods is the reason people type slowly. Listen to Beethoven’s Concerto number 5 in E Flat Major, which is so beautiful that when I play it I weep in such exquisite joy. But the point to you is not my emotional life but the trills in the piece. Listen to the trills and you will understand how quickly fingers have the potential of moving. The fast movements are a matter of training not genius. As a Russian speed typist demonstrated, typing hundreds of words per minute is possible. When asked how he does it, he said his hands hovers above the keyboard and he moves his shoulders very slightly to gain accuracy. I read this 30 years ago and has an tremendous influence on my piano playing today.

    I don’t know if this is the kind of thing you wanted your readers to write about, but I know very few people who car about this stuff and I thought I would enter my two cents.

    I no longer live in the United States. In fact, I fell in love with a British woman seven years ago and moved to Australia where she lives. I gave all my earthly possession to my American wife who, because of me, experienced a horrible tragedy when I left her without warning after a 25 year marriage. I knew I would never become a master pianist should I remain a corrupt ghost writer of theses and dissertations, which the lifestyle my ex-wife and I created required.

    Because of my age, stroke, heart disease and all that are likely. But in the mean time, I’ve never learned as quickly as I’m learning not just the piano, but in my writing career. Life is truly a miracle. You talked about how fast you used to type in your hay day. Now that is a self-fulfilling prophecy if ever I heard one.

  2. 2 MJMyers March 12, 2009 at 6:55 pm

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