Mobile devices are erasing the limits on where we can do our work. Work we once might have done on the desktop can now be done from an iPhone or Android tablet.
We have more ways of interacting with our devices than ever, from dictation to swipes to typing. But typing is still very important, and on a small screen, little tweaks can make a big difference.
But we can also make changes that move us in the wrong direction, changes that look like improvements but are actually wrongheaded.
I’m a fan of tools that improve our productivity as leaders, but not of those that undermine our thinking, decision-making, and purposefulness. Instead, we need to invest time and effort in making our work more purposeful and more efficient, not simply “easier.”
And that’s why I can’t recommend SwiftKey for iOS. Even if you’ve never heard of it or aren’t interested, think through this with me. Ultimately, it’s about how we execute our decisions as leaders.
SwiftKey for iPhone and iPad
SwiftKey has been around for years on Android, where the less-restrictive operating system allows it to integrate deeply other apps, including third-party keyboards (which aren’t even possible on iOS).
On Android, it seems like SwiftKey could be very helpful, especially if you prefer swipe-to-type.
On the iPhone and iPad, I have some concerns. SwiftKey basically works like Drafts—it’s a place for you to type (presumably faster and easier than you could type elsewhere), then send what you type to another app.
The main gimmick is that SwiftKey guesses the three words you’re most likely to type next, and updates those suggestions in real time as you type. If you see the word you’re planning to type, you can just tap it, and it’ll be inserted for you, so you don’t have to type it.
It sounds great, but even in the promo video, check out how slowly the model has to type in order for SwiftKey’s predictions to be useful:
I don’t mean to rag on what looks like a great company with a great Android product, but SwiftKey for iOS is not a professional-grade productivity tool. As the video indicates, it might be good for journaling and writing poetry with one thumb, but that’s not how most of us need to work.
How To Type on iOS
The fastest way to type, as any experienced iPhone user will tell you, is to just bang away as fast as you can, and let AutoCorrect do the rest.
Think, type with two thumbs, proofread, and you’re golden.
Typing should not slow down your thinking, should not take the place of your thinking, and should not misrepresent your thinking.
Why SwiftKey’s Approach is Misguided
SwiftKey’s word prediction is impressive, but here are at least five problems with its approach:
- Typing is faster than looking for and selecting the correct word. If we train ourselves to stop after each word so we can look for the next, the time we save will be more than offset by the time we waste. (If you’re typing an exceptionally long word and want some help, AutoCorrect can already finish it for you.)
- Muscle memory holds more than one word, so we type in phrases, not single words. Interrupting muscle memory in an attempt to save a few taps is only going to prevent us from getting better at typing, and it’s going to slow us down.
- We can proofread a whole sentence much faster than we can verify each word individually.
- Choosing from among several words is far more mentally taxing than simply thinking about what to say, then typing it. You should not have to answer a multiple-choice question with two distractor choices for every word you type. You might think “recognition is easier than recall,” which is true, but that’s for remembering facts, not communicating your own thoughts.
- We tend to use the same phrases and sentences over and over when typing on our phones. Once we’ve decided what to say, typing it should be at most four keystrokes, even if it’s an entire paragraph.
If you’re new to the iPhone, SwiftKey may be tempting, because it will allow you to type faster. But it will also prevent you from learning to type faster, and from taking an even more powerful approach.
Program the Robot
In my workshops, I teach school leaders to “program the robot.” Briefly, this means we need to make decisions, then encode those decisions into systems we can rely on.
For typing on your iPhone or iPad, this means programming shortcuts into TextExpander, and doing your typing in Drafts.
(If you’re a member of the High-Performance Instructional Leadership Network, I’ll have tutorials for you on both of these apps later this month.)
You probably tend to say the same things over and over again. You have “stock phrases,” bundles of words that contain more complex meanings that serve as shortcuts, so you don’t spend all day wordsmithing what you’re going to say. You can decide what you mean to communicate it, and just say it.
You can type “omw” and have Drafts or AutoCorrect (iOS Settings » General » Keyboard » Shortcuts) replace it with “I’m on my way.”
You can type “Billy Jones,” hit one button, and have Drafts email your secretary with:
Could you please call Billy Jones down to the office? We need to talk briefly. I’ll be there in 5 minutes.
One of the key tenets of High-Performance Instructional Leadership is that we should take these stock phrases and use them purposefully—not as clichés that people can use to make fun of us, but as ways of being more purposeful and consistent in our communication.
Once we’ve decided how to deal with a certain type of situation, our decisions and communication can be encoded into our tools, and we can execute them effortlessly each time.
One More Note: Evernope
One cool feature that caught my eye is Evernote integration, which lets SwiftKey scan your notes and base its predictions on what’s already in your Evernote account.
But think about this for a minute: Did you type everything in your Evernote account? Does what you’ve saved to Evernote reflect your writing style?
I would say that only about 10% of what’s in my Evernote notebooks is stuff I’ve actually written. Most is saved emails, observation notes, encrypted data, PDFs, and other stuff that I want to save for future reference.
The Evernote integration may clue SwiftKey into education-specific words I’m likely to use, but it won’t help with understanding how I write or what I might want to say next.
Write With Purpose
This has been a very long post on how we type very small things on very small screens. Over time, the decisions we make about handle the little things add to big things.
I’m convinced that letting your phone tell you what to type, one word at a time, is a bad idea.
Deciding what you want to say—and at another level, how you want to lead—then programming the robot, is a great idea.
What do you need to say, in writing, from your phone? How can you say it more quickly, more purposefully, and more consistently?