The act of a human clicking a mouse to control a computer has been around since the inception of window based GUI (Graphical User Interface) systems. Before GUI based systems were around, keyboards were the prominent way of user interaction with a computer. Mouse based systems were a leap forward in terms of computer usability, and have allowed a multitude of different graphical applications to be built around them.
The biggest problem with the invention of the mouse, and for that matter all current GUI based computer systems, is that they force a user to do a very repetitive motion that had up until their invention not been done before, ie the repetitive small movement of the index fingers to send a ‘click’ to the computer to say ‘do this’. Sometimes this repetitive task can be very intensive (depending on the application being used). This has over the last 15 years or so led to a large increase in cases of Repetitive Strain Injuries (RSI).
So what alternatives to standard mouse ‘clicking’ exist right now for the computer user? (Note: the following is by no means an exhaustive list)
- keyboard short cuts
- voice recognition software
- foot pedal clicking
- graphics tablet/tablet PC pen “taps”
- software generated clicks
- touch screen monitors
Each of the above have their own set of positive as well as negative points. The following is a brief summary of what I’ve found from my experiences with each of them –
- Keyboard shortcuts -these are quick access (single or combination) keyboard strokes which activate a command without moving (or clicking) a mouse and can greatly reduce the amount of mouse use required to do certain tasks. There are keyboard shortcuts available for most of the operating system versions around including Windows (9x, 2000, XP, Vista), Linux (KDE, Gnome) and Mac, as well as most of the applications that run on these operating systems. I have indeed found many keyboard shortcuts to boost my efficiency when using some software applications. Indeed without these shortcuts I would have been only 50% as productive at my job as I was! However the biggest limitations to keyboard shortcuts are as follows –
- They are not well publicised, and as such there is a general ignorance out there as to their existence
- The shortcuts may be common in a certain operating system, but not always transferable from one platform to another.They are rarely common across applications apart from very common tasks eg copy and paste etc.
- A lot of applications could be more productive if more of their menu commands were available as keyboard shortcuts
- There is a lack of ability for a user to customise the shortcuts in these applications.
- You often have to continue to click a button to activate things, eg hit ‘return’ key or mouse click.
- You still have to use your hands on the keyboard
- Keyboard short cuts themselves are also repetitive in nature, and can cause RSI conditions in their own right.
- Voice recognition software – In my own experience, voice control software has always had great potential for relief of over-used arm and hand muscles, however, the effort involved in learning how to use the software, ie teaching the software to recognise your voice is a soul destroying and often futile task (I have had a lot of frustration in my numerous attempts!). Unless someone comes up with a version for a low toned, Scottish speaker, I see it as of little practical use to me personally. The last thing you want to do around an office is talk in a loud distinct and clear voice anyway! You will start to get strange looks from your co-workers!
- Foot pedal clicking is certainly a viable option. There are a few foot controlled ‘mice’ out there. Whilst I can’t be enthusiastic about mouse movement control with a foot mouse (my ankles started to hurt when I tried this motion), the clicking action could easily be done by foot, although double click timing could be an issue.
- Graphics tablets/tablet PCs – these input devices give the user an option to use a special pressure sensitive pen to move about a ‘tablet’ surface. This action is akin to holding a pencil whilst writing. This a relatively natural position which we have been used to ever since we learned to write. The clicking action is either controlled by clickable switches on the side of the ‘pen’ or by ‘tapping’ the pen tip against the tablet. This is indeed a complete change from standard mouse clicking action, but still involves many small repetitive movements (mainly wrist based) for clicking, coupled with a tight grip holding onto the pen. I also find the tablet surface (and edge) itself to be a cold and hard surface to rest my hand, wrist and arm upon. They can also take a bit of getting used to. Personally, as an RSI sufferer, I found the wrist motion to control the pen taps to be too painful to use on a regular basis. My injury may well have progressed too much by this stage, and the continual need to grip the pen also didn’t work for me. It may, however, be a viable alternative to a mouse for many other computer users.
- Software generated ‘clicks’ – This method has intrigued me for a long time. There is software available that can be used to generate a mouse click. The trigger for a click is the movement of the mouse followed by the stopping of the movement for a pre-determined time. This is usually indicative of the user hovering the cursor over a button etc that needs a click to activate. The software can be user controlled to send left, right, centre, double etc mouse clicks, which can be an absolute life-saver for some RSI sufferers (myself included). One such piece of software available (for free!) is ‘Point-N-Click‘ by Polital Enterprises. The use of this type of software is great for certain types of common applications eg web surfing. They can of course detect an unintentional mouse movement and send an unintentional ‘click’. This is often not important, but can have implications if, for example, you accidentally send out a mail message to someone prematurely (as I have done). Fortunately, there are sensitivity and delay controls available to tailor the software’s response to your individual needs. ‘Point-N-Click’ also has a built in “take a break” reminder alarm, which is very useful. Even better, the software is currently free, so you can try it out for nothing!
Alternative mouse click generation software are ‘Nib‘ (formerly free software called mousetool) by Designer Appliances, and ‘Gentle Mouse‘. Neither of them are free, however you can evaluate both with time limited demo versions. Gentle Mouse has the added benefit of not sending clicks until you move the mouse a second time to choose either left or right clicks, the advantage being the reduction in the number of erroneous clicks you send.
- Touch screen monitors – I have not yet experienced a touch screen monitor. They certainly may be a very usable option for an RSI sufferer. I personally still feel that I’d be tapping my fingers against a surface yet again, which for me would still most likely lead to pain. It could, however, be a viable solution for many computer users out there, and looks like a promising development in computer input devices.
As is often the case, there may not be a single solution to combat RSI. It may be more sensible for an individual to choose a few different methods of control, and switch between using them. The key thing is to avoid doing any one repetitive action all of the time.
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