Text Input on Mobile is Hard But...

by Luke Wroblewski September 8, 2010

When it comes to text input on mobile devices the conventional design wisdom is: "avoid it. it's hard." Yet the volume of text messages sent across the globe seems to suggest otherwise...

In looking through several mobile design resources, I noticed a common theme regarding text input on mobile devices -don't do it. Consider the following examples:

  • "Although unavoidable in forms that need information form the user, avoid using text boxes and text areas as much as possible. It’s difficult for the user to enter content into free text inputs such as text boxes..." -Mobile Design and Development By Brian Fling
  • "Given the typical input limitations of a mobile device, the interface must as far as possible minimize user input. Where possible, use selection lists, radio buttons and other controls that do not require typing." -Mobile Web Best Practices, W3C
  • "Filling out forms for web based services on mobile devices is a very time consuming and frustrating task for users because of the limited text input capabilities. -Automatic form filling on mobile devices.

While I don't dispute that triple-tapping prose on a feature phone can be a painful experience, the volume of people that regularly send text messages on their mobile devices is astounding. Consider:

  • 4.1 billion text messages are sent per day in the United States alone. (source)
  • One in three teens sends more than 100 text messages a day, or 3000 texts a month. (source)
  • Texting by adults has increased over the past nine months from 65% of adults sending and receiving texts in September 2009 to 72% texting in May 2010. (source)
  • Adults who text typically send and receive a median of 10 texts a day; teens who text send and receive a median of 50 texts per day. (source)
  • 72% of all teens or 88% of teen cell phone users are text-messagers. More than half of teens (54%) are daily texters. (source)
  • 61% of smartphone owners send or receive SMS daily. 32% of feature phone owners send or receive SMS daily. (source)

Looking at these statistics, I feel conventional design wisdom may be overplaying the need to limit text input on mobile. People are entering text (albeit short imprecise messages) all the time on their phones and mobile devices. In fact, text messaging continues to grow around across the World.

So it may be high time to start believing that text input on mobile devices is not only permissible even desirable. People have their mobile devices with them all the time, which gives them an opportunity to contribute content wherever they are. Let's give them the chance by no longer trying to avoid text input on mobile.