Enfin! France’s most popular keyboard layout is getting an algorithmically designed and long-awaited facelift.
The new layout fills in gaps left by AZERTY, the country’s most widely used typing layout for more than a century, that lacked several essential symbols and led to bad grammar habits. For example, an absent accent mark could be the difference between asking someone for a meeting (congrès), or calling them an eel (congres).
Commissioned by the government, the new layout features more essential symbols on the keyboard—such as the @ symbol, the symbol for euros, €, and French quotation marks, << >>. It also makes capitalizing accented letters easier, such as été (summer) or étude (a short piece of music), without changing the position of the letters.
The country’s Ministry of Culture officially recognized the keyboard problem in 2015, and issued a report the following year outlining why the AZERTY layout wasn’t optimized for the French language. For example, it didn’t have designated keys for the “œ” in œuf (egg) or the “ç” in garçon (boy). Now shortcuts have dedicated keys, so users can punch a button instead of memorizing and typing in codes.
“These material limitations have even led some of our fellow citizens to think that we should not accentuate the capital letters,” wrote the ministry in its report. “A standardized keyboard for French citizens should ideally meet all their needs. It is therefore essential that this keyboard allows the use, under good conditions, of the different languages present on our territory.”
To make this happen, AFNOR, France’s standardizing organization, assembled a team that included researchers from all over Europe. The team produced an algorithm using information from newspaper articles, Wikipedia, legal texts, and social media, as well as ergonomics research and observation of more than 900 users, to establish what keys and characters were most needed and what placements would allow users to be most efficient.
“Before we started working together, they tried to place over 100 characters by hand,” said Mathieu Nancel, one of the researchers on the project in a press release. “Our tool allowed them to focus on higher-level goals, such as making typing special characters fast or keeping it similar to the previous layout.”
The result was released this week, and the new layout is currently available to keyboard manufacturers. Adoption of the new keyboard is not compulsory, but as recommended in the 2016 report, keyboards purchased for government use will need to be in compliance.
The research team says that the algorithm they designed can be used for similar research in other countries to optimize keyboard designs.
“Our goal is that in the future people and algorithms design user interfaces together,” Anna Maria Feit, the team’s lead researcher, said in a press release.