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Summary:

OK, so you work on the web. That’s a given. But what are you doing when you work on the web? Most likely, interacting with some application on your computer. Now drill down one more level: are you using the mouse (or other pointing device) or […]

iPhotoOK, so you work on the web. That’s a given. But what are you doing when you work on the web? Most likely, interacting with some application on your computer. Now drill down one more level: are you using the mouse (or other pointing device) or the keyboard for most of that interaction? There’s the question that has the potential to bring users to blows.

I was reminded of this debate by a blog entry from Hank Williams, who was reacting to the recent launch of Ubiquity (which our sister blog OStatic covered). Ubiquity provides a very keyboard-oriented interface, though it includes some mouse affordances as well. After pointing out that keyboardists and mousers are different, he goes on to admit

Now don’t get me wrong, I am a fairly fast typist. But my problem is I can’t remember commands. Putting a keyboard command in my head is like putting sand in a sieve. The reason I love graphical interfaces is because I can’t remember shit.

iPhotoI find this interesting on several fronts. First, as anyone who was using computers in the 1980s can tell you, working with a mouse is not an inborn skill. I can remember agonizing hours in beginning computer classes, teaching people how to point, click, and manage the feedback loop between their hand and the screen. Yet despite that, the overwhelming majority of computer users today are comfortable with a mouse – and from observing quite a few people, I’d suggest that the mouse ends up feeling like the more natural user interface for many.

The other thing that amazes me is the amount of sheer invective that Williams got in his comments. Apparently, at least in some developer circles, being a mouser makes one a target of derision. I’m in the same boat here: I use a few keyboard shortcuts in my most frequent applications, but by and large I’m a mouser. This hasn’t hampered my ability to write software, but perhaps I should stop admitting this in public.

As a web worker, the obvious question is which is better for productivity: mouse dependency or heavy keyboard usage? Unfortunately, the research on this is far from definitive. There’s an Ask Tog article that gets bandied about, purporting to show that mousing is faster than keyboarding. But this article is from 1989, from an Apple advocate, at a time when Apple was trying mightily to make the case for the mouse – so it’s at best suspect. Others have argued just as strenuously that keyboards are big time-savers.

Ultimately, of course, what matters is what makes you more productive, not what works for the mythical average computer user. Very few (if any) people are exclusive mousers or exclusive keyboardists. In today’s world of switching between multiple complex applications, I suspect most of us have found our own level of learning a few important keyboard commands that really help us, and rely on the mouse for the rest.

How about you? Where do you come down on this debate?

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  1. I’m a heavy mouser when it comes to basic computer use: surfing, etc.. pretty general stuff.

    When I start coding, I immediately switch to an all-key approach; Typing code, pressing Alt+Tab (to browser) and F5 is way faster then it’s cheese-loving equivalent :)

  2. I prefer to use my mouse. I do use some keyboard shortcuts like CTRL+C or CTRL+V, but I never bothered to learn all of the shortcuts!

  3. I definitely prefer keyboard. I’m a coder, and it secretly irritates when I’m when another dev is showing me something and the point-click around to compile or whatever. especially when they are slow. it’s hard not to think: ctrl+tab then shift+f12 then down, down, enter then ctrl+shift+l and lastly ctrl+shift+b. then f5 it.

    its just me though and I know that.

  4. Whoa – next you’ll be starting a vi/emacs flamewar. I’d vote for vi, btw. ;-)

    Once you get over the learning curve, the keyboard shortcuts come naturally. In fact, there are several that I use all the time but I’d have to think about what they are since they’re pretty much second nature now.

    There’s no doubt that the keyboard is way more efficient.

  5. Michael Thompson Friday, August 29, 2008

    It depends on what I’m doing. If I’m working on coding shenanigans, you’d better believe my fingers aren’t leaving the home row.

    If I’m designing or surfing I’m probably using an unbalanced combination of both.

    This is such a stupid argument because almost every uses both at some point in the day. I don’t know anyone who is 100% mouse, or who is 100% keyboard — though I do know a few who are around 97% keyboard.

  6. Michael Thompson Friday, August 29, 2008

    @Dave: I vote Vim

  7. I was very much a mouser, but ever since I began getting wrist pain (I don’t think it is RSI – yet), I’ve switched to more keyboard commands

  8. RE vi/emacs: Please put me in the vi/edlin category.

  9. I love both the keyboard and the mouse – though feel that’s a cop out to answering the question (like people who say they like all kinds of music, while incessantly keeping Sublime songs on repeat in their car). If pressed, I’d have to say that I find mousing better for actions I don’t perform frequently, or in programs where my limited use doesn’t justify my spending time to improve long-term efficiencies. As an example, I tend to browse in Mozilla using keyboard commands, but usually browse IE by mouse (since I don’t plan on using it long enough to justify learning any different keyboard commands, if any). Or, take minesweeper (mousing) vs. Total War II: Medieval (keyboard commands).

    Keyboard commands are really the bee’s knees for applications I use on the daily. I have observed a rapid improvement in my speed and productivity from their use. If you’re on the fence about learning commands (instead of clicks) – hop over and start learning… it’s totally worth the effort on applications you use frequently.

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