The Power Of Smileys

Everyone uses them

Smileys are used so often nowadays that some suggest they should have their own keys on the keyboard. But exactly because we use them so often, how often do we think about how well they fit into our typing pattern and how we can type them fast and easy. The cumulated strain you can save by using simpler ways to insert them in chats and documents will amaze you. :) For example, in the short time that passed since you began reading this article, over 700 people made a happy face on Twitter.

Studying smileys in detail. Somebody has to do it :)

There are many kinds of popular smileys out there but almost all of them involve pressing the SHIFT key in addition to the 2 or 3 keys which actually make the smiley show up. In 'complex' but classic smileys like :-) or :-( keys are pressed 5 times. smileys should be easier to type! :) There are various forms that are detailed below. It's interesting to note that a smiley is interpreted as such because of the 'eyes' symbol, whichever it is, the actual meaning of the smiley usually being given by the last character which represents the emotion (btw the word emoticon comes from emotion + icon). To keep things simple but as useful as possible (and considering the "make the common case fast" rule) let's take a look at the pure smiley (no winks or sad faces :) since it's by far the most used.

Smiley No. of key presses
:-) 5 (2+1+2)
:) 3 (2+1)
:] 3 (2+1)
=) 3 (1+2)

We see that the number of key presses isn't that relevant because some keys, like SHIFT, can be pressed for shorter or longer periods. That means counting and adding the number of occupied fingers for each character is a better measure of effort.

Smiley Finger effort
:-) 5 (2+1+2)
:) 4 (2+2)
:] 3 (2+1)
=) 3 (1+2)

Can we reduce the finger effort even more? Mathematically we can't reduce it to the action of only one finger on default keyboards because it would mean that there actually exists a single key for a smiley which isn't the case (yet :). That leaves us looking for a 2 finger / 2 key presses solution, and interestingly enough it exists and is used but by very few people: =] . No SHIFT key required. I've seen it used for the first time on Twitter (unfortunately i can't remember who it was) and made it my own as well - you may be wondering why i use :) in this article, but more about this in the next section. What's even more interesting is that, given enough practice, you can either:

  • use 2 fingers as one to press the 2 keys (= and ]) at the same time
  • or even use only one finger to press them both because the keys are physically next to each other.

I won't be referring to 'vertical' smileys like o_O because they're harder to write to begin with. However there is one that makes use of an interesting concept: double-pressing a key just like you would double-click an icon. I'm talking about ^^. This introduces time as a measure of effort as well, because the closer keys are the faster you can press them. And if they happen to be the same key that's even better. :) So let's take covered keyboard distance between the main keys into consideration to have a truly complete view of smileys. :) We'll ignore SHIFT because we usually use the same finger to press it.

Smiley Finger effort Distance Total
:-) 5 (2+1+2) 3 (2+1) 8
:) 4 (2+2) 2 (2) 6
:] 3 (2+1) 2 (2) 5
=) 3 (1+2)
2 (2) 5
=] 2 (1+1) 1 (1) 3
^^ 4 (2+2) 0 (0) 4

Smiley standards and profiles

The classic smiley :-) is probably most used in presentations and formal situations. People who use them in these situations don't always make this choice consciously but it is a fact that a smiley with a 'nose' is easier to distinguish. You see it in regular chats too, but not so often. Let's make an exercise: isn't it true that your chat contacts who use the smiley more often use it without a 'nose'?


IM clients nowadays offer ways to insert smileys simply by using the mouse, but how easy is it really? It means taking one hand from the keyboard and moving it to the mouse or touch-pad. I use the aforementioned =] in informal situations, like chat or tweets, because it's easy and fast to type. You can afford doing this because friends will get used to your typing habits, unlike articles, where, if i were to use =] from the beginning you would have thought i'm a weirdo (which may still be the case, because i'll start using it now =D).


Some blogging platforms recognize smileys in blog posts and comments and replace the text with an actual image. That's a great thing standard wise because it allows for easier recognition by the reader - at this point the only problem is how easily do we type what needs to be recognized? If we were to take this a step further, let's think about how we play games. When we go through the settings we also check out the keyboard shortcuts. What if we could have account specific characters that we would like to be preprocessed and even have the ability to upload our own images to be inserted? Or even better, a 'dynamic' image which could be, for example, a screenshot? Wouldn't it be cool to have the option to double press a key (that doesn't appear twice often, like the comma key) and a screenshot is auto-attached to the email you're writing or auto-inserted in the blog post you're writing. Or auto-uploaded to the Wave you're editing or to the tweet you're tweeting. I could get used to this and it could be extended to all kinds of fun stuff.


On a sidenote, my personal opinion is that smileys should be considered punctuation marks. They express feelings and pauses much better than, for example, a simple exclamation mark and have the advantage that they're grammatically correct wherever you put them =D.


Offline solutions (for the future)

Even though there could be various solutions built as apps on top of an OS, on the long term this wouldn't really be efficient, unless the keyboard interpretation remains at an OS level. Security should also be considered since 'intercepting' keyboard events may either be considered dangerous by firewalls or similar security apps even if they aren't or might actually be a risk by association with key loggers. Much of this depends on the OS of course, but a general idea for a future 'soft' introduction of smileys on current keyboard layouts should mean an event isn't intercepted but its implementation at OS level enriched (e.g. double-pressing the comma key shows a smiley whether your in a browser, text editor or something else).

'Hard' introduction of smileys has been popularized, more or less in a concrete way, but i have yet to discover a company that actually makes keyboards with smiley keys on them. The only such pictures i saw on the web are photoshoped =]. But every good project starts with concept art =], the only question is: do we really want smileys on our keyboards or not?


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