When the Yoga Book was first conceived, Lenovo’s engineering team set out to offer customers a compelling reason to upgrade their tablets. Ever since the arrival of the modern tablet, there had been no real innovation to the tablet form factor that would justify to owners they needed to get a new one.
So the engineers zero’d in on one common complaint among users: tablets just weren’t cut out for productivity—and the subpar typing experience on the touch screen was the primary reason why. But designing a smarter and more productive tablet posed a difficult challenge—adding a mechanical keyboard could make the tablet more productive, but would turn it into a detachable or change the format of the tablet altogether, resulting in less portability.
Very early in the Yoga Book’s conception, Lenovo engineers explored the possibility of a fully flat, touch keyboard. This would make the keyboard 60% thinner than a typical mechanical keyboard, and measure just 1.2mm thick. The initial concept, however, was not well received among customer focus groups. But in-depth market research did offer two insights:
- People found touch keyboards frustrating because the regularity of mistyped words and constant switching of keyboard layouts slowed down productivity; and
- Younger generations of tablet users—young millennials—were comfortable with touch screens and were more open to the idea than earlier generations.
This gave the Lenovo team hope that touch screens could become a potential productivity interface if the right modifications were made. They would subsequently turn their focus to how to bridge the comfort gap between mechanical keyboards and their touchpad counterparts. If they could do this, then an ideal design was possible for those who wanted touch-first, on-the-go productivity in their tablets.
After over 18 months of development work, involving five major studies, extensive user testing, the creation of unique hardware and software capabilities, new touch controls and a complete layout redesign, Lenovo finally unveiled Yoga Book’s instant halo keyboard feature.
Here’s a deeper dive how they arrived at this keyboard:
Continuous optimization of hardware and software
The halo keyboard is a fully flat touch panel, with zero travel (meaning that fingers don’t have to do any ‘travelling’ when they type). It’s designed to show up only when needed, functioning as an alternative to detachables, so you don’t have to carry a mechanical keyboard with you wherever you go.
Study participants invariably preferred the experience of a mechanical keyboard to that of a touch keyboard. So the halo keyboard had to emulate as close as possible their sense of touch, recognition rate and quick response. To achieve this, the Lenovo team tested countless samples, constantly tweaking and improving the software. These software optimizations included the addition of haptic feedback, which lets users feel slight vibrations when striking the keys, and TouchPal’s predictive keyboard, which makes typing faster by combining the feel and accuracy of a mechanical keyboard with software that predicts the words the user is typing.
The Lenovo team also focused on getting the right level of semi-transparency throughout the entire touch panel, to ensure the right uniformity in brightness when the keyboard was lit up. Lenovo even assessed over 100 samples to get the right anti-glare (AG) coating on the keyboard to get the best touch experience.
Intentional versus accidental typing
Touch keyboards need to recognize the difference between an intentional key strike and an unintended brush. And unintentional typing on touchpads occur far more often on flat keyboards than on mechanical ones. The keyboard was therefore modified so that during the act of typing, all of the touchpad would disable save for the center. A quick touch of the centre would bring the touch pad back to life, while a resumption in typing would disable it once more. Critically, palms resting at the bottom of the keyboard would not relay touch data. Finally, the keyboard could detect the strength of each finger movement, recognizing the difference between an intentional strike and an accidental touch, which further increased performance and accuracy.
A typing style for everyone
Lenovo’s user testing revealed that every person’s typing style was different, down to where they would rest their fingers. Each individual user, however, was fairly consistent in where they would place their hands over the keyboard. To cater to each user’s unique style, Lenovo developed layouts for two different types of typists:
- Hunt-and-peckers accessed a Fixed Virtual Layout (FVL), which offered a fixed keyboard layout for consistency.
- Touch-typists used the Moving Virtual Layout (MVL), which adapted to fit the user’s natural style, learning where the user intended to strike the keys through experience. On a mechanical keyboard, the user could dynamically adjust the position of their fingers onto the keys, helped by the shape of the keys and gaps in between. To overcome this problem on a touch keyboard, the halo keyboard used artificial learning to correct repeated mistakes or mistyping, learning the difference between common errors, like when a user hits the Alt key but intended to hit the spacebar instead.
These changes make the keyboard more comfortable to use and boosted productivity.
Smaller finger movements
Our research also found that people prefer smaller finger movements when they’re not using a physical keyboard, so they made the pitch of the keys slightly narrower. Lenovo then gave the keyboard a customized backspace, optimized in width and size after testing and analysis, making it easier to strike and increase overall speed and productivity through typing. The halo keyboard feature used a different layout from most tablet keyboards, which typically made users switch to different layouts for letters, numbers and special characters. The Lenovo engineering team abandoned this layout, choosing instead to adopt a full keyboard in which the numbers and characters were fully accessible.
Both style and substance win out
Final comparison tests of the halo keyboard reported a typing performance comparable with that of a physical keyboard and a significantly improved experience—66% faster—over other tablet keyboards. The user testing also revealed that the backlighting the keyboard helped with the overall user experience, especially in terms of improved visibility when typing.
Lenovo set out a difficult challenge, which the engineering team worked hard to meet over the course of many months. And that all paid off. Thanks to the innovative use of materials and software-driven learning into how people type, the halo keyboard is much faster than other touch-screen keyboards, while its design conforms more naturally to how users work and play.