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The e-ink keyboard

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Another project led by the LDLC R&D team on which I worked, was about conceiving a keyboard on which each key is a small E-ink display. All the keys are customizable with the bundled application, and the keyboard can change according to the running application or website. My job was to design the application that would help the user configure the keys, create predefined profiles, but also other features, such as setting the standby delay or the frontlight, for example.

About the mission

When I joined the Nemeio project in December 2017, I admit that I was kind of impressed. Designing a keyboard is in itself a colossal job, but designing a keyboard that no longer has language constraints, tothat offers features related to accessibility and that overcomes shortcuts seemed to be a real brain teaser. But the challenge was so real, I mean, who has never torn their hair out trying to find a special character on his keyboard ? Who has never been stalled by an inappropriate layout of the keys? And which designer has never tested 12 key combinations before finding the right keyboard shortcut ? Mission accepted !

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Working prototype at the Las Vegas CES

Project process

I had never heard about customizable keyboards in my life, but making some researches on the internet as a first step, I found that we were not the first company thinking about creating this type of keyboard. In fact, there were around 10 other keyboards which had been prototyped or commercialized for a few of them. But then, if so many keyboards had been prototyped, why so few had finally arrived on the market? Why hardly anyone had heard about it ? Well, it did not take long to identify the main reasons. During the competitive analysis, I studied the prices (which were between 200 and 28 000 $... true story), the release dates, the completion or abandonment of the projects, and the reaction of the users about it.

Here are the main 3 keyboards I analyzed for this competitive analysis :

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Sonder Design keyboard
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Optimus Maximus keyboard
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Jaasta keyboard

People who were waiting for such a product to be available on the market had been so disappointed by the past that they almost didn't believe that a customizable and affordable keyboard would ever exist one day.

    These are the most relevant quotes we highlighted from the interviews and investigations :


  • "Whenever they wanted to launch such a product, it was way too expensive or for the pros only, it does not sell, or they even quit before we can pre order !"
  • "I do not see the point of putting hundreds of dollars in a product that will allow me to make a "Like" on Facebook by pressing a key on my keyboard instead of clicking with my mouse."
  • "I'm afraid that the handling of the keyboard and software is very complicated, in addition to hoping to master several types of keyboard... I'm skeptical !"

    On the other hand, others seemed to have a lot of hope in this product and saw the potential to develop :


  • "Imagine having the Photoshop tool icons that you use regularly, at your fingertips, that would be great ! It can also allow you to save space on the screen. I just imagine my open document, no more menus at all. On a small screen, it can make a huge difference !"
  • "There are many cases where the use of multilingual is more than valid with such a keyboard and could have a real pedagogical dimension. I think for example of schools where, more and more, children are learning with digital. "

To better understand what had been a hindrance to the success of our predecessors, we ordered a competing keyboard to study it from all angles and put us in the shoes of our future customers. We studied the design of the Optimus Maximus keyboard, its manufacturing, its materials, its ergonomics and of course, its software interface. I must recognize that it wasn't an easy task at all… The main problem I faced was the technical terms used which almost completely prevented me from understanding how the interface works. It wouldn't have been such an issue if there had been online help, or at least a tutorial, but there was none of that.

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Extract from the Optimus keyboard analysis document

Throughout the project, I also participated in the functional decisions of the keyboard itself by participating in the sprints organized by the development teams and led by our agile coach. In fact, I think it would be impossible for me to focus on the software design only because while I was working on it, the keyboard itself was evolving day after day. I really learned a lot working with these amazing engineers and thanks to them, I could improve my understanding of the whole machine and design a better experience.

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Technical view and main features

    Here is a list of the main features of Nemeio keyboard :


  • Edit 100% customizable profiles (appearance and behavior of keys)
  • Synchronize profiles or save them in the interface for future sync
  • Edit each key one by one or in multiple selection
  • Each key can display text or icon on its screen
  • Invert black & white display
  • Split keys to edit different behaviors when alt or caps are pressed for instance
  • Launch software by pressing a key
  • Keyboard shortcut recording
  • Associate the launch of a software on the computer with the display of a specific keyboard profile
  • Icon library to spare time editing the look of the keys with ability for the user to add his own icons
  • Online help
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The software's tree view made with XMind
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Storyboard overview...
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...Of the 1st user experience

Results

When the time to start sketching the service had come, all the design decisions I took were driven by the will to make the handling of the interface as quick and intuitive as possible. So I designed a WYSIWYG interface, where the user can constantly see his keyboard at the center of the screen. On the left side, a panel gives him permanent access to all the profiles of his keyboard. This interface allows him to edit each key or several keys at the same time, and he can set the look of it and its behavior very easily.

Another big part of the work was to create predefined profiles such as AZERTY, QWERTY, Bépo, other languages using different kinds of alphabet like chinese, russian, or arabic. We also had to design the main icon libraries to help the user configure its shortcuts. We finally came up with a functional interface and keyboard prototype that have been rewarded at the 2019 CES in Las Vegas last winter with an innovation award.

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Overview of the software design
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Nemeio stand at the CES
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Campaign photo shoot

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