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RIP: phone keypad, human-oriented design pioneer

Posting in Design

John E. Karlin, the original creator of all-digit dialing as we know it today, passed away at the age of 94, The New York Times reports.

He is credited with designing the keypad we now use every day on all cell phones and smartphones. Karlin, a Bell Labs industrial psychologist, designed the 10-digit keypad, which is now the basic 12-digit keypad as we know it today. As the Times puts it:

"It is not so much that Mr. Karlin trained mid-century Americans how to use the telephone. It is, rather, that by studying the psychological capabilities and limitations of ordinary people, he trained the telephone, then a rapidly proliferating but still fairly novel technology, to assume optimal form for use by mid-century Americans."

In his work, Karlin pioneered the adoption of human factors into technology designs. His research in telephone keypads was also eventually adopted into a range of devices, including ATMs, gas pumps and medical equipment, the Times adds.

Karlin's keypad design resulted from intensive studies of user preferences, optimum speed, and accuracy. The ability of people to remember and retain seven and 10-digit numbers was also a concern. In the process, Karlin's team elevated the role of human design in technology devices. As a former colleague reportedly put it: “He was the one who introduced the notion that behavioral sciences could answer some questions about telephone design.”

And many additional generations of device user-interface designs as well.

(Photo credit: Joe McKendrick.)

— By on February 9, 2013, 6:21 AM PST

Joe McKendrick

Contributing Editor

Joe McKendrick is an independent analyst who tracks the impact of information technology on management and markets. He is a co-author of the SOA Manifesto and has written for Forbes, ZDNet and Database Trends & Applications. He holds a degree from Temple University. He is based in Pennsylvania. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure