Input on your Touch Screen: Is it Under your Thumbs, or at your Fingertips?

As I’ve said before on my blog and in some of my books, growing up when I did has given me an appreciation of how much change today’s assistive technology had delivered. I well remember having to memorise how many times you had to scroll through a menu on an inaccessible cell phone just to assign a ring tone to a contact, or put it in and out of silent mode.
In 2002, I produced a piece for ACB Radio’s Main Menu in which I described how you could cable a Nokia phone to PC Suite, and with a bit of JAWS cursor work, send and receive text messages. I remember texting friends and family and thinking how cool it was that I could participate in the texting craze, even to that limited degree.
In 2003, a whole new world opened up when I obtained my first fully accessible cell phone, a Nokia 6600 running Talks. To be able to change all the settings, scroll through the menus, and not only send texts, but email right from my phone was just incredible.
It didn’t take long before I was texting away at a good speed, particularly as access to the T9 prediction algorithm became better with subsequent releases of Talks. But from the very beginning, despite reading in the user manual for the phone that you should use your thumbs to enter text on the numeric keypad, I found it cumbersome. I persisted, because I often find that new skills take time, but the brain is pretty flexible and if you persist with something long enough, you’ll get there. But in this case, I did not get there. I found myself able to text significantly faster if I use my first finger.
Similarly, when I owned phones with a tiny qwerty keyboard, often called a “thumb board”, I would also use my first finger. The thumb boards were too small to do touch typing, but again, I just found typing with my thumbs really unwieldy.
Now I use an iPhone, and one of the options I have for input is its virtual qwerty keyboard. Despite a bit of practice, I still find I’m more accurate and fast when I use my first fingers to type on it.
I’ve talked to a few blind people, just in passing when it comes up, about whether I’m alone on this, and while it isn’t universal by any means, I’m far from the only blind person who enters text on small keyboards this way. My sighted friends all seem to use their thumbs. That got me wondering whether being a Braille reader has something to do with this. I’ve been blind since birth, and a Braille reader since the age of 5. Science would suggest that the visual cortex of totally blind Braille readers goes through some rewiring. I read and write Braille a lot. Not a day goes by when I haven’t read some substantial amount of material on my Focus 40 Blue or Focus 14 Blue Braille displays. Like most Braille readers, my thumb isn’t used as part of the Braille reading process, other than to advance the display.
I know some blind people who use their thumbs to enter text. Some are Braille readers and some are not. But I wonder if there is a pattern here that suggests most proficient Braille readers will tend to do better entering data on a touch screen with their primary Braille reading fingers.
I thought I’d throw this one open for a bit of discussion, which I hope will be interesting, even if it’s not conclusive.
If you’re blind, do you text with your thumbs? Irrespective of whether you do or not, are you a Braille reader, and do you think that has an impact on why you do, or why you don’t?
I’d also be interested in hearing from anyone sighted who finds using their thumbs for data entry on a small screen to be cumbersome.
Let us know your experiences in the comments.

17 Comments

  1. John Lipsey

    I am a Braille reader, in fact I worked as a proofreader of Braille materials for 2 and a half years. How I enter text on a touch screen depends on whether or not I’m using Fleksy. However, I never enter text with my thumbs, and having tried, honestly don’t see how people do it. If I’m entering text using iOS standard keyboard entry I type with my index and middle fingers, mostly my index. If I’m typing on fleksy, because i can type at a ridiculously fast rate doing this, I use my index, middle and ring fingers. These three fingers are also the ones I primarily use when reading Braille.
    I’m very curious to hear others’ thoughts on this.

  2. Mary Beth

    What a great topic. I happen to be a partial and only know braille some. I have always used my first finger on either hand to type whether it was on one of my older phones or on my current one an iPhone. I had never known it was suggested to use ones thumbs for typing. That just sounds confusing to me some how. It will be interesting to see what others have to say on the subject.

    • Andy

      I use my index fingers for texting and other textual input on my iPhone. Even on my first phone, an ENV3 from LG on Verizon, I used my index fingers for number dialing and input on its QWERTY keyboard. I, like other people, haven’t ever tried with my thumbs. I know a lot of sighted people use their thumbs, and I always was aware of it, but I just never even bothered trying; my index fingers just seemed like a much more natural way to do it. Even on apps that don’t even require textual input (take Papa Sangre II for instance), they instruct you to use your thumbs to tap on the screen for your hands or feet. Again with the thumbs, and again it just doesn’t make sense to me. I even tried it when I was instruct to do so in Papa, and I found it awkward and cumbersome.

      It’s interesting, Mosen, that you correlate this to being a braille reader, because I was wondering the very same thing myself. I’d be interested to hear from people who do not read braille and see how they deal with this.

  3. Clare Page

    I’ve been a braille reader ever since I first learned to read at the age of five, something I have never used my thumbs for, so, when I was finally able to enter text on a mobile phone, it didn’t even occur to me to try to do so with my thumbs, as I knew that, after years of braille reading, my index fingers were likely to be more agile. When I had a Nokia N70 with Mobile Speak a few years ago, I texted with my index and middle fingers, but, interestingly, now I use an iPhone, I only enter text with my index finger: I honestly can’t explain why I have never used my middle finger on the iPhone’s onscreen keyboard, but I’m getting pretty fast at typing with just one finger after two-and-a-half years of iPhone ownership, so I don’t suppose I will change that habit now.

  4. Erin Edgar

    When I first began typing on a Smartphone, it did not even occur to me to use my thumbs. I firmly believe this is because I was taught to read Braille at the age of 5 and was told to use my index, middle, and ring fingers for the process. I never used my thumbs for this, and they are markedly less sensitive at the tips than my other fingers. My index finger is always my leading finger, whatever the activity.

  5. Lulu Keel

    I never heard of entering anything on a phone with thumbs until I played the excellent audio game Papa Sangre. Then I was told that I had to walk using my thumbs. There were two places on the screen to touch alternately and by doing so one could walk forward. When I tried using my thums I completely missed where I was supposed to be walking and got promptly killed. ThenI tried using my index fingers with which I do everything for which I need to be touchy feely, and I got on fine. Of course, this all stemmed from the time I had a Nokia 6630 and used to text very quickly with it, again using my index finger, but I never could get on with predictive texting though I have tried it in several forms.

    As for entering text these days, I never use the in-built qwerty keyboard for this as my touch-typing on the iPhone is awfully slow. I used a Bluetooth keyboard, either pocket or full-size to begin with, then progressed to Fleksy and now Braile Touch is my app of choice for writing text. I honestly couldn’t envisage either reading braille or texting with my thumbs.

  6. Peggy Kern

    I hold the phone in my left hand, and use my right index finger to type. It just feels right to me to do it that way. Dan, who is sighted, also uses his index finger and not his thumbs, so I don’t know that being a Braille reader is necessarily involved.

  7. Robin

    Oh dear as I suspected might be the case I might be the odd one out here (laughs). That’s nothing new in my world being ambidextrous doing something’s right-handed and others left-handed this topic seems to be no different. When I had an older Nokia device with a telephone style keypad I always entered text using the same index finger with which I read Braille. When I progressed to the touch screen environment of the iPhone though others reported being quite speedy at entering text with digits other than thumbs I never seemed to take to it as quickly so resorted to using thumbs for the keyboard entry on the phone’s screen. However when it comes to exploring the screen to establish positioning and orientation of things, opening folders or launching apps it’s back to the trusty index finger mentioned earlier. Heaven forbid my methods would ever be simple and straight forward. but as is the case with many things the fact that we can interact with them at all and have a plethora of ways to do so is its own modern miracle (smile).
    Happy text entry all no matter your preference.

  8. James O'Dell

    Braille reader since the age of five. Always text with index fingers.

  9. Sandra

    I’m blind since birth and am a Braille reader. I never used my thumbs to enter text, neither on my Nokia phone nor on my iPhone. I wonder if many sighted people prefer using their thumb, because when the phone leans against the other fingers of your hands, it is easier to control the angle of the phone that is most comfortable for you if you want to see the screen. When I use my iPhone, screen curtain is always on and the screen often faces away from me.

  10. Derry LawlsorDerry Lawlor

    Hi Jonathan |I can only use my index fingers for entering text. I use the focus 40 and only read braille with the index finger, I got my first talking phone in 2005 and never use thumbs, I have heard that people do but afraid I am not one of those. I was not born blind but was illiterate until I lost my sight.

  11. Brian Hartgen

    I have been a Braille reader since the age of 5. It was natural for me to want to use my fingers rather than my thumbs to do anything at all with the iPhone, I’ve never thought of doing anything else and certainly I would think using my thumbs would slow me down considerably.

  12. Mohammed Al Shara

    Hi. I also use my index finger of my right hand to type on my IPhone. I haven’t tried to use any other finger, in fact. but as one of you just said, anything with which I need to be touchy, I spontaneously use my index finger. I don’t think it has to do with Braille, as I hardly read any braille nowadays.

  13. Adam

    Interesting topic. I am a Braille reader since the 4th grade but don’t practice as much Braille reading as I should. I use my right index finger to type on the touch screen and this also happens to be the finger I used to track reading Braille with. I use my left index finger for the actual Braille reading. I have played just a little of the papa game as some others have mentioned and for that I am able to walk and use thumbs for that and it feels pretty natural. It seems like since thumbs are larger, it didn’t make sence to try using them on tiny keys on a touch screen qwerty keyboard.

  14. Rich Cavallaro

    This is a very interesting topic Jonathan. I like you and other people who have left comments here, have been a Braille reader since the age of 5. I have used lots of different phones from Nokia, to windows mobile devices and the iPhone. I have tried texting with my thumbs on all of those devices and never ever found it to work. With the iPhone, I hold the phone in my right hand and use my index finger on my left hand to text on the touch screen. I found when I tried to use my thumbs that it slowed me down.

  15. Wayne Merritt

    Hi. I mainly use my index finger on my right hand. I’ve tried using the left index finger but have found it doesn’t work as well. I have been a Braille reader for much of my life. At times though when using Fleksy, I will use both my index fingers to get a bit more speed. Even when I had a Nokia 6620 and then 6682, I used only my right index finger. I have tried using my thumbs a few times in Fleksy but am not used to it and can’t build any sort of speed with them, even in Fleksy.

  16. Henk Abma

    I actually don’t have anything to add here. On any phone I have had, I always used the index finger. My first talking phone was a 6600 just like yours and it actually was a great phone. Later I have tried thumbs with the E72, however I was always hitting 3 keys simultaniously. With my iPhone and Nexus phones I haven’t even conciddered using thumbs. After reading your article I tried just for fun, however with thumbs I am worse than I have ever been with my index finger on the virtual qwerty keyboard.

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