In 2015, France's Ministry of Culture wrote to the French Parliament4 criticizing the lack of standards for a keyboard layout. It pointed out that AZERTY, the traditional layout, lacks special characters needed for "proper" French and that many variants exist. The national organization for standardization, AFNOR, was tasked with producing a standard.5 We joined this project in 2016 as experts in text entry and optimization.
The French Language uses accents (for example, é, à, î), ligatures (œ and æ), and specific apostrophes and quotation marks (for example,' « » " "). Some are awkward to reach or even unavailable with AZERTY (Figure 1), and many characters used in French dialects are unsupported. Similar-looking characters can be used in place of some missing ones, as with "for", or ae for æ. Users often rely on software-driven autocompletion or autocorrection for these. Also, they insert rarely used characters via Alt codes, from menus, or by copy-pasting from elsewhere. The ministry was concerned that this hinders proper use of the language. For example, some French people were taught, incorrectly, that accents for capital letters (for example, É, À) are optional, a belief sometimes justified by reference to their absence from AZERTY.
[[The following letter and response are published in the Letters to the Editor pages of the August 2021 CACM (https://cacm.acm.org/magazines/2021/8/254319).
As a UX professional, I read the article "AZERTY amlior: Computational Design on a National Scale" (Communications, Feb. 2021) with interest. I compliment the authors on thorough research and excellent use of graphics and summaries in the article. The authors focus on translating goals such as "facilitate typing and learning" into quantifiable objective functions. I miss objective information about how the redesign affected real users' performance and satisfaction. I would also have liked to know what the authors learned from usability tests of the keyboard, which are unavoidable in user-centered design. In my interpretation of user-centered design, users should not just be involved in a public comment phase but throughout development. I welcome algorithmic optimization of usability, but I recommend that algorithms never replace real user involvement.
We agree that user involvement is important. As we describe, different stakeholders were involved in the design process, painstakingly and throughout. Moreover, rigorous empirical research is the very foundation of the models that our objective functions utilize. Keyboards are not traditionally evaluated in "usability tests," but in carefully controlled transcription tasks. Historically, predictions made by predictive modelssuch as the one that is the basis of our optimizerhave agreed very well with empirical measurements (see Zhai et al.(2)).
Antti Oulasvirta, on behalf of co-authors
(2.) Zhai, S. et al. Performance optimization of virtual keyboards. Human-Computer Interaction 17, 2-3 (2002), 229269.
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