Do U SMS? Text messaging is not the hassle it once was

Few modes of communication burden the user with as much interaction hassle as text messaging on mobile phones. Without help from word-prediction assistants, the word "Hello" requires 13 button-presses, not including an additional 5 to get from the start screen to the messaging app. Nevertheless, the clear benefits of short text message services (SMS) have lured untold millions into uncomfortable, not to say unsatisfying, partnerships with their mobile phones.

I started using SMS because I’m not always in an environment conducive to phone chatter (commuter trains, for instance) or because I want to quickly send a key bit of information (“united 514, arrive 1010pm”). I also carry on asynchronous “conversations” with friends who don’t have continual email access. RIM’s Blackberry and Motorola’s two-way pagers make it easier to do all of these things, but who wants to carry around two devices or pay two monthly fees?

Moreover, I still haven’t seen a mobile messaging device that is pleasant for writing long, detailed messages. Tapping out detailed messages on a Blackberry or Treo may be a step up from a mobile phone, but it requires dexterity and precision that usually appeals only to embroiderers, masochists, and sitar players. If I need to write a lengthy message, I’ll wait to use my desktop.

As a mobile-phone messager, I fall into a narrow demographic comprised largely of teenagers from Finland and Japan. We share a willingness to abbreviate, a high threshold for interaction pain, and a sensitive radar for incremental improvement—which is why we appreciate the assistance provided by the smart word prediction functionality in messaging apps.

For instance, Nokia’s word-predictor assumes that if you press the numbers 4, 3, 5, 5, and 6 in sequence, you want to say the word "Hello." This reduces the number of button-presses to say "Hello" from 13 to 5. That’s an improvement of 61%! Now we’re (getting closer to) talking!

Getting comfortable with the word-selection takes time; proper names, numbers, and common SMS abbreviations are impossible to type with most word predictors. So, toggling between word-prediction mode and basic typing mode, while far from ideal, is essential. How many button-presses does it take to tell a friend "united 514, arrive 1010pm"? Too many to count. But by utilizing the Nokia’s smart shortcut (Menu+1+3) to get to the message composition screen and the word-predictor, I can localize my pain in one area of one device. The alternative—filling my pockets with incomplete solutions—is even less appealing.

¹ Interestingly, it took me a hefty 9 mouse-clicks to derive that calculation from the Windows Calculator, and I know exactly where it is. It takes 16 button-presses to perform this same calculation on the phone. Does anyone have a calculator watch to compare to these?

SMS Primer

1. Forget vowels. I can’t bring myself to do this, but hey:
myb u cn.

2. Don’t be afraid to draw upon all available characters (letters, numbers, and symbols). For “Late,” type L8; for "wouldn’t," type: w%dnt.

3. Forget grammar (and manners). If you’re going to be late, think: “I am going to be 30 minutes late,” but type:
Goin 2 b 30min l8.

4. Capitalize individual letters within words to indicate alternative pronunciation. For instance, a capitalized “E” in fEl creates the word “feel” instead of “fell.”

For instruction on translating English into SMS lingo and vice versa, check out: transl8it

For some really advanced and innovative usages, check out the (UK) Guardian‘s SMS poetry contest

Doug LeMoine

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