What it is: Poor design often exists for decades due to inertia and resistance to change.
If you have a Windows PC, chances are good if you look at the numeric keypad, you’ll see cursor keys overlaid across numeric keys. Not only does this look ugly, but it serves no purpose.
In the early days of the IBM PC, IBM stupidly designed a truncated keyboard that lacked a separate numeric keypad that’s found in most modern keyboards of today. Because IBM originally designed the numeric keypad to serve dual purposes as both a cursor movement keypad and a numeric keypad, you had to press a Num Lock key to toggle between the two functions.
Of course, look at the Num Lock key and there’s often no way of telling when it’s been pressed or not. The only way you can find out is if you press a key to see if it moves the cursor or types a number.
While some keyboards display a light to let you know when the Num Lock key has been pressed, an astounding number of keyboards do not, leaving you to guess whether Num Lock is pressed or not.
If you look at today’s keyboards, they typically have separate cursor keys and a numeric keypad that still retains this Num Lock key. This gives you the option of having two cursor keypads, which is something almost nobody will ever need or want. Because of IBM’s originally faulty design, PC keyboards of today still retain this antiquated Num Lock feature that serves no purpose and only confuses people.
Even worse, some laptop keyboards still include this Num Lock key and the dual function of the cursor keys and the numeric keys. However, an amazing number of laptops no longer print the cursor keys on the numeric keys. That means the numeric keypad looks like it’s always a numeric keypad, but if the Num Lock key is pressed, the numeric key suddenly reverts back to moving the cursor – yet without identifying cursor key labels on top.
The Dell laptop image below shows this confusing feature. Notice how the numeric keypad looks like it always types numbers, but there’s a Num Lock key above the 7 key. That means the numeric keypad can still move the cursor around.
Imagine someone not knowing the Num Lock key can toggle to make the number keys move the cursor. If they accidentally press the Num Lock, they have no idea why pressing a number on the numeric keypad suddenly moves the cursor and doesn’t type a number at all. Without descriptive labeling, this numeric keypad appears cleaner and simpler, but is actually more confusing.
This Num Lock key and the dual function of the numeric keypad contributes to making the simple act of typing far more confusing and difficult than it should be. Why do PC manufacturers continue supporting this Num Lock feature that few people need or use? Why do some PC manufacturers remove the cursor key labels on the numeric keypad, yet retain the Num Lock feature that only serves to confuse novices even more?
More importantly, why do PC manufacturers still retain a faulty design from 1981 just because IBM made a mistake designing their PC keyboard?
The fact that decades later, this faulty numeric keypad design still exists is a testament to how resistant to change people and corporations can be, and how they accept additional confusion for no good reason other than the fact that it’s always been done that way.
Computer companies need to look at all technology as a way to simplify people’s lives, not complicate them. The PC keyboard complicates using a computer for no good reason. It’s time for computer companies to wake up and design products that are more intuitive, but until that time arrives, we’ll likely all be stuck using poorly designed keyboards for PCs.
The only company willing to buck this trend is Apple. With so many PC companies mimicking Apple with Mac mini and MacBook Air clones, you’d think they would also copy the cleaner and better designed numeric keypad that can only be used as a numeric keypad. Until that day arrives though, Macintosh users can at least avoid the problem that PC users must confront everyday they use their keyboards and wonder why this antiquated design still exists after all these decades.