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Humans and technology

The fastest texters in the world couldn’t care less about texting

October 2, 2019
image of person holding phone and texting
image of person holding phone and texting@iamSherise via Unsplash

In what they’re touting as the first and biggest study to yield insight into the typing behavior of smartphone users, researchers analyzed thousands of texters and found some surprising facts about how we text.

What was the study? A group of researchers led by Kseniia Palin at Aalto University in Finland created a text-typing test; 37,370 people took it (you can take the test here yourself). The team compared the results with those of a similar typing test on a desktop that had 168,000 participants. On average, two-thumb texters were able to tap out 38 words per minute, 25% slower than the 51 words per minute people typed on keyboards. The error rate was remarkably low, clocking in at  2.3%, which researchers credited to algorithmic methods like predictive text and autocomplete that use context to improve spelling, sentence structure, and grammar. (Autocomplete works? How about that.)

Teens are better at texting, but: They text a lot less than millennials. Kids aged 10 to 19 were the fastest, able to type about 40 words per minute on their smartphones. Comparatively, 20- to 29-year-olds clocked in around 37 words per minute, and older millennials aged 30-39 were only able to type 32 words per minute. That might seem surprising to some, but Feit speculates that the youngest group knows smartphone keyboards as their first input device. As for why they text less than older groups? The platforms they inhabit, like TikTok and Snapchat, are primarily visually driven.  Millennials tend to stick to platforms like Twitter and Facebook, where text is more pervasive.

Keyboarding class doesn’t make better texters. Feit says that it could be because traditional typing classes develop very specific  muscle memory. On a desktop keyboard, the entire array of keys are within easy reach. On a smartphone, though, accessing characters requires changing formats and screens, which slows things down if you’re not used to it—or native to it. .

How to be a faster texter: Use your thumbs. Swiping—a feature on Androids and only recently added to Apple’s iOS—increases speed as well, though research isn’t available on how that fares against frantically punching a smartphone screen with your thumbs. And use autocorrect instead of predictive texting. Feit says the latter “requires the user to switch their attention to the list of predicted words, check if it contains the word they want to type and select it, then resume regular typing.” Precious seconds wasted.

Shouldn’t we just get a better keyboard? Yes—but for some reason, we seem to really like QWERTY, despite the far more efficient options out there. Feit points out that alternative keyboard layouts optimize the position of characters so that more frequently used keys are closer to the thumbs, or maximize the number of letters you can access by putting the keyboard at the back of the device. But while we love speed and efficiency, we’re glued to our QWERTY keyboards because, well, we’re used to them.

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