Get a good keyboard

If your device does not run stock Android, it is likely that the manufacturer saw fit to bundle in a better keyboard. Unfortunately, better does not necessarily mean more accessible and you may need to download a fully usable keyboard from the play store as a matter of course.

A few months ago, there weren't so many accessible keyboards available and the Jelly Bean and Jelly Bean 4.2 keyboards were the main choices. Since then, however, Google has done the right thing and released its own standalone version of the stock keyboard. This keyboard works perfectly with TalkBack and offers most features expected of a modern keyboard.

Another worthwhile alternative, and the one I use daily, is Kii Keyboard. This keyboard brings superior word prediction and autocorrection for a wide variety of languages to the table, as well as many other features, such as dual language input and text expansion. It is free to use, but certain features marked as premium toggle back off after an hour unless one purchases the full version which is well worth it. Its only drawback compared to the standard Google Keyboard is that it does not honour the Speak passwords settings and therefore requires a headset whenever a password need be input (but you can always switch to Google keyboard for those).

Predictably accurate autocorrection is very important when typing on a soft keyboard, because it allows you to know that you can permit yourself one typo per word and still expect the right word to appear. It isn't something to rely on, but it provides a safety net against breaking the typing flow to correct mistakes.

Kill the lag

When I first began using my phone, I didn't take to the bundled Google TTS too kindly and soon installed Ivona Text-To-Speech for Android. This TTS is free while in Beta and provides some high quality natural-sounding voices. Its main drawback, however, is that it takes a noticeable amount of time to utter any spoken feedback. As I grew more accustomed to Android and TalkBack, this delay began to annoy me more and more until I could take it no longer and had to bid farewell to Nicole's sultry Aussie voice.

One of the first things I noticed upon reverting to the Google TTS was that my typing accuracy increased almost immediately. This led me to realise that one major factor in my typing woes was the lag in TTS response which caused me to overshoot past keys before they could be announced. This, along with an ever increasing need for speed in my Android interaction prompted me to look for a snappier TTS.

Around that time, Reece Dunn released an updated port of eSpeak which I pulled from GitHub and built to test out. ESpeak is a TTS with which I am well acquainted, as I use it regularly on all my computers, both from the command-line and as primary speech output under the Orca screen-reader. It is open source, lightweight, fast, seriously multilingual and only its harsh, robotic voice keeps it from being the world's favourite speech synthesiser. (Download this audio demo if you'd like to hear what ESpeak can do.)

Sure enough, eSpeak proved much more responsive and my typing accuracy finally began to approach a tolerable level as a direct consequence. The bottom line is that TTS lag plays a huge role in both mastering the soft keyboard; you might therefore find it worthwhile to investigate alternative TTS engines. ESpeak is my personal favourite, but I have heard good reports of Acapela for Android, which is more expensive but more pleasing to the ears.

Get acquainted with your keyboard

This may sound trivial, but knowing what typos your keyboard will and will not catch is important in acquiring a good typing flow. Likewise, knowing at about what point in the word it is worth sliding the finger up to read the completion suggestions will help greatly.

My general experience has been that most keyboards can fix one typo in a four to eight letter word and two in longer words. Words of four letters or less are most likely to go uncorrected or be miscorrected because there are too many possible permutations. Conversely, exploring the suggestion bar for possible word completions is only worthwhile when typing words longer than seven characters or so, though that can depend very much on the keyboard, language and actual word. Experience really plays a great part here.

If becoming familiar with the correction algorithm is important, learning the keyboard's layout is paramount. Ultimately, muscle memory will make or break your typing experience and memorising certain landmark keys, such as the keys at the screen edges and, of course, the all important "F" and "J". Being able to hit those keys without thinking will greatly improve your typing performance and speed up the time it takes to settle into a good flow.

Watch your angles

Too many times I have suddenly found myself hitting all the wrong keys and the reason for this is almost always that the phone is at a slightly odd angle. Smooth touch-typing relies heavily on muscle memory, and that memory can be cheated if the device is held in an unaccustomed way. This is especially true for phones, since their smaller screens mean much smaller keys while their form factor means that they can easily become skewed in the palm. Be on the lookout for unfamiliar or stressful environments where you might grab your phone too quickly and rapidly become incensed by your inability to type accurately. If this happens, take a deep breath, make sure you are holding your phone the right way and start from scratch.

Tread lightly

When I first began using the on-screen keyboard, I was pressing overly hard on the glass screen and this slowed me down and frequently caused me to lose track of where I was. In all honesty, this is still a bad habit I need to watch out for, as the notion that hitting the screen harder will somehow help me type faster and more accurately seems deeply rooted into my subconscious mind.

In fact, pressing hard on the screen is quite counterproductive. The first reason why this is so is that tapping the screen too vigorously is more likely to jog the device out of alignment, bringing on the angle problem discussed above. Next there is the fact that pressing for too long on the screen increases the likelihood that the finger is going to move off-centre when lifting it again, causing the character next to it to be input instead. Finally, over-exercising the fingers seems to tend to make the skin slightly oily or damp which makes gliding over the screen much more difficult. Remember, it's a sensor, it does not care whether you just brush the screen or apply a hundred PSI worth of pressure!

Try out different styles

The default keyboard layout works well in general, but, if you can't take to it, you might like to investigate alternative layouts provided by your keyboard; one of them might prove more usable, at least under certain circumstances. Most keyboards provide split layouts for thumb-typing and a T9 layout which might feel familiar to some.

Noteworthy fact, both Kii and Google Keyboard offer a PC layout which, as its name hints, mirrors the traditional QWERTY keyboard most of us grew up with. Although this layout necessarily means smaller keys, I found this to be advantageous when typing in more stable environments, both because less finger movement means a smaller likelihood of getting misaligned and because the layout is so deeply ingrained in my consciousness that I don't have to think in the slightest when it comes to locating keys. As far as speed is concerned, having punctuation marks and numbers all readily available without need to switch to the symbols page also contributes to a more fluid experience, something which is particularly evident when entering URLs. Of course, this more cramped layout is not well suited to typing on the go or in unstable environments; the standard Android layout serves better there. This is only an example, however; the PC layout may not work at all for you, but it is important to try out several and see what best suits your hands, uses and particular device.

Enabling the PC layout for Google or Kii keyboard

  • Open the settings page for your keyboard under Language and Input.
    • For Google Keyboard: Go under Advanced Settings.
    • For Kii keyboard: Go under Languages, Dictionaries and Plugins.
  • Go under Custom Input Styles.
  • Tap Add Style.
  • Select your desired language from the first drop-down menu.
  • Choose the desired style, PC in this case, from the second drop-down menu.
  • Tap Add.
  • Enable the variant as you would with any language.

Alternative methods

There are of course other input methods which can be employed while you familiarise yourself with your soft keyboard or when needing to work around some of its shortcomings.

Voice input

Voice recognition has progressed drastically in the past decade and it is now possible to pick any phone, Android or otherwise, and simply talk to it with the expectation that a reasonable transcription will appear. The technology is amazing but not yet perfect and the resulting text can still sometimes verge on the ludicrous. (As an anecdote, my phone once transcribed "This is very funny" as "You are very ugly"; good thing it was just a test!) There is also the fact that voice recognition can behave erratically if no network connection is available, even if offline data is installed. Over all, voice input is a good option for taking down personal notes or drafts which you can edit at a later time but is not a viable alternative to keyboard input in daily use.

Remote control

Many aspects of an Android device can be controlled remotely and applications such as Airdroid and Mightytext offer great possibilities in that area. Ultimately, though, they can only offer a temporary solution to the input problem and are only really meant to simplify workflow while sitting at a desk or whenever using two devices would be a hindrance.

External keyboards

An external keyboard is a must if you intend to type long swaths of text with any accuracy or speed. This has nothing to do with the accessibility of soft keyboards. The fact is that small keyboards are just not meant for writing love letters or chemistry papers and no amount of sight or accessibility will make it any different.

On the eyes-free list, people frequently seek recommendations for a Bluetooth keyboard. Most standard keyboards will work out of the box, so there is no real need for concern; just find a keyboard which works well for you and it should integrate seamlessly with your phone. For the record, I use a Microsoft Mobile Keyboard 6000 which I like very much, as it mimics the compact layout of a quality laptop, but that is really a matter of taste.

If your device, most likely a tablet, does not support Bluetooth, you can use a USB On-The-Go (OTG) adaptor and plug in your favourite wired keyboard. This is a clumsy method, but remains a great way of taking advantage of the portability and good battery life of a tablet for writing or chatting purposes.

The cloud and clipboard trick

If you ever need to input a block of text in a hurry or a very long string which needs to be copied verbatim, you might use this simple trick to get it done hassle-free. First, you need an application which will propagate text over the network; I use the Draft text-editor over Dropbox, but Google Drive or Evernote would do just as well. Save the text or string to your chosen platform using its interface. Go to the relevant application on your device and load the item in an edit field. Then, it is simply a matter of copy-and-pasting it as demonstrated in my Demystifying Copy and Paste audio demonstration. This works well, requires no setup and is perfect for when you have an accessible computer nearby.

But don't take the easy way out

All these methods have some possible everyday use and can also serve as stopgap measures while you are getting up to speed with the soft keyboard or get you out of a bind when time is of the essence. This said, they should not be relied upon to replace the on-screen keyboard and should be avoided when circumstances permit.

The reason for this is very simple; the human brain is lazy, or efficient, perhaps, and does not bother absorbing what it does not need to. If you start relying on your Bluetooth keyboard or computer to send text messages, you will be unlikely to gain enough momentum to ascent the learning curve and will forever perceive the on-screen keyboard as an inferior input method. My advice is to force yourself to use the soft keyboard under circumstances where sighted users would do so, so long as time and conditions permit, of course. Only thus will you ensure that you use it daily and be likely to find yourself increasingly comfortable with the interface.

Practice makes perfect

This daily contact is very important, because, at the end of the day, no matter how responsive you make your system and how great your soft keyboard is, you will not master it unless you put in the time and energy. This means a certain amount of frustration and embarrassment when even the simplest of input tasks leave you fumbling, but it is truly the only way to break the barrier and make it work.

This is not really specific to soft keyboards. When I first transitioned from a braille keyboard overlay to the full QWERTY keyboard, I wanted to pull my hair out and required a solid forty-five days of tedious practice before I could really type with confidence. The end result, though, once the barrier was overcome, was that I could type far faster than I ever could using braille-style input. Likewise, when I began learning the Russian language, mastering the Cyrillic keyboard was almost as big a challenge as mastering the language itself, but I eventually did so through repeated usage. It was very much the same story when I began using the QWERTY keyboard on my Nokia E71 smartphone for text input; a certain period of practice was required before I could text with speed and confidence.

When I began using my Android phone in early 2013, I had much the same feeling as I did at the beginning of all these transitions, but now, I am cresting the curve and it is suddenly all becoming much easier every day, just like it did those other times. I now not infrequently find myself exceeding the 140 characters limit on Twitter or see my text messages being converted to MMS due to their length.

Wrap-up

So, there you are; some simple pitfalls need to be addressed or avoided, such as getting the right keyboard and ensuring feedback is responsive, but, once that is done, practice is really the only secret. If you follow these steps and put in the time required, I think you will find that the on-screen keyboard is quite usable for its purpose, which is to dash off quick texts, e-mails and notes with reasonable confidence and speed.

Is the technology perfect? No it certainly is not! It could be more responsive, for one thing, and we need to be able to use gesture shortcuts as well as input accented characters just like sighted users can. There is also a desperate need for better ways of taking advantage of word completion and autocorrection as well as cycling through punctuation marks. Certain alternate keyboards, such as Fleksy for Android, currently in Beta, attempt to solve some of these issues, but their overall usability does not yet match that offered by the keyboards mentioned in this article. TalkBack, too, has a few fences to mend before the typing flow can reach perfection; specifically, it is next to unacceptable to have to reach back up to touch the edit field every time just to be able to correct a typo in a word.

But, despite these shortcomings and areas for possible improvement, fluid typing is already possible. It is very important to think of typing on the soft keyboard as a flow experience in which one must get every time to perform well, like meditation. Despite all the good advice and wisdom proffered above, there are still times when I suddenly seem incapable of typing as I would like; often, though, I am the one to blame along with tiredness or nerves and likely would not be faring any better on a super-cramped mini-QWERTY keyboard. Usually, all I need do is take a deep breath, settle and get into the swing of it, and, very soon, I find myself typing with ease again. Don't give up!