User interface for keyboard input

From: Martin Kochanski (
Date: Thu Jul 18 2002 - 05:44:11 EDT

I'm working on Unicode-enabling a database product for Windows. This obviously includes making it possible for a user to type arbitrary Unicode characters, so I thought it might be a good idea to ask people on this list about the input methods that they found most intuitive. Quite apart from your theoretical insights, many of you will have much more experience than I have of having to enter exotic characters in real life.

One might phrase the question like this: "If I sat you down in front of a program on a Windows machine, and asked you to type an alpha, what would you try first?". This is a question about intuitive expectations, so I am deliberately not specifying what program, nor what version of Windows, nor what keyboard - although we can take it for granted that you have not got a keyboard with Greek letters enabled, and that you do not have Keyman or anything similar.

Incidentally, menu commands are probably not an acceptable solution, because if you can enter data then you must also be able to search for data, and searching means dialog boxes, and dialog boxes are not meant to have menus.

The obvious thing to try is Alt+945: indeed, we have already implemented this; but it has the disadvantage that all available Unicode documentation uses hexadecimal character codes, not decimal ones.

Various Windows programs offer ways of entering Unicode characters using hexadecimal codes, but they all seem to differ. Many of them use Alt+X, but there are at least three different and incompatible ways in which they do this (eg: is Alt+X a toggle or a command? In the latter case, does Alt+Shift+X invert it? Does it affect characters before the cursor or characters that you have just typed?).

Much of this inconsistency is because Microsoft keep on changing their mind about how character entry should be done. This looks like evolution rather than vacillation, and it seems reasonable (though irritating), since the perfect solution is not always the first one you think of. But it does raise questions about what we should do to seem natural and intuitive and Just Like Any Other Windows Program - it is like the old question: "do you want me to hang this picture parallel to the ceiling or parallel to the floor, or do you want it horizontal?".

This question has got rather long, but I thought that the more exact I made it, the simpler it might be to answer.

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