SWALEKH

Duration: ​Jan-May 2015
My Role: UX Designer at Reverie Language Technologies
Skills: Competetive Analysis, Need Identification, Interaction Design, Product Conceptualization

Summary

     
Swalekh or "write in your own language" literally is a keypad application developed for smartphones by Reverie Language Technologies (India) which focuses on solving the problems related to native Indic language input tools. It supports more than 11 Indic languages covering all major regions of India.
 
I was fortunate enough to be a part of the Swalekh team and was required to design the layout for the Punjabi language keypad which happens to be my native language. My work contributed to the first and second version and I have not been associated with the current development and progress of the keypad application and take no credit for it.

I would like to thank the whole team at Reverie, especially Vivekananda Pani, Arvind Pani and SK for their support and guidance. 
   

Background

​​​“If you talk to a man in a language he understands, that goes to his head. If you talk to him in his language that goes to his heart”. 
–Nelson Mandela

Every day we read, write, browse and share tons of information amongst us. Information is available for almost everything under the sun and most of them; if not all, are communicated to us in English. Demographic surveys hint at the vast chasm between the availability of content in English and the non-English speakers.  The internet is saturated with the monotony of one language expression. It is high time for non-English languages to come out of the non-existent zone to their speakers and audiences.

The Problem

English is an awesome language and so are all others. But from a keyboard designer’s perspective, all Latin or Cyrillic-based languages give you great leeway for good keyboard design. These languages have a smaller number of letters in their alphabet. Thus envisioning an English language keyboard is easy when it comes to the amount of real estate it consumes. Moreover qwerty has already been imagined long back. But what is the correct way represent letters of the alphabet for local languages?

Keyboards consume about 40% of a smartphone’s screen space. Even with English language keyboards, sometimes one has to scroll on the screen above the keyboard. Now move to a language that has almost double the number of letters in their alphabet. Design a usual keyboard, and user experience goes for a very long walk.


Naturally, if all were to be crammed into a keyboard, a large amount of real estate on a smartphone would get consumed, leaving the hapless user with hardly any space to see what she has typed. A different approach was needed to design the smartphone keyboard. Something that was not an eyesore, that was intuitive and simple.

The Approach

A critical factor while typing in local languages is that the keypad should be close enough to mimic how people have learned to speak and write the language. It should be close to how people have picked up letters of the alphabet of that language. What a host of us who are habituated to typing in English do not realize is that the nature of hand-eye-mind coordination while typing English and any of the local languages Swalekh comes in, is greatly different.

So local language keyboards have to be designed the way languages are spoken. This is particularly true of the Indic languages.

The Solution

Fortunately, people who thought of these languages (thousands of years ago), gave us hints how to solve the display-on-smartphone challenge. Swalekh was designed keeping core properties of these languages in mind. This makes it truly represent the language.

The approach came in the form of phonetics. The main idea behind designing the keypad was the science that goes into speaking, and the amount of effort it takes to speak each consonant

PLACING THE CONSONANTS

 ​The first thing for a better, more intuitive keyboard was to group consonants together on the similarity of their phonetic sound.
The pairs of consonants are arranged in the order of the part of the mouth which is stressed during speech.
  • While speaking the left most consonant, the stress is placed on the throat.
  • For the next three alphabets, the stressed is placed at the back of the tongue, the middle and the tip of the tongue.
  • While speaking the consonant on the extreme right, the stress is on the lips.
Accessing the consonants is easy. The larger ones can be typed by tapping. You can get to the smaller ones just by holding the larger ones a little longer – just stress a little bit – just the way you speak.

PLACING THE VOWELS

The logic for "matras" or vowel sounds in the script was on the lines of availability on demand.  In proper written form, no word starts with a matra and is always associated with a consonant. Thus, to save screen space and clutter, the matras in the keypad appear only after a consonant is typed, thus making Swalekh a dynamic keypad.

The Product

Version 1.0

 The first version focused on getting the technicalities and the functioning of the keypad right with the intended design. It was used for alpha testing and was not released for public.

Version 2.0

The second version included some minor changes in the working of the keypad to improve performance, but from the design end, the major change was incorporating material design to give the keypad a slick clean clutter-free look which was fresh and appealing.