The LAB: Innovating a Computer Keyboard with Attribute Dependency (April 2009)

by | Apr 13, 2009 | Creativity Tools, Evaluation Ideas, Technology | 2 comments

Zachary Campau is an MBA candidate at the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan who I met last week while lecturing there. He was intrigued by Systematic Inventive Thinking, and he emailed me with a proposition. He noted that I preach a lot about the value of team innovation, but I don’t practice what I preach. He noticed in my LAB series that I innovate alone, thus not taking advantage of the power of collaboration. He was right. So I accepted his offer to join me in my next LAB posting…this one.

We decided to innovate a computer keyboard using the Attribute Dependency tool. But there is more to the story. We did this all via phone while he was in Ann Arbor and I was in Naples, Florida on holiday. In fact, I decided to multi-task by both innovating with Zach while doing one of my favorite pastimes: fishing. My ultimate dream was to create a BIG innovation while simultaneously catching a BIG fish. Of course, luck would determine the ultimate outcome. The big innovation was something I could count on happening. Fish, on the other hand, tend to be less cooperative.

With Attribute Dependency, we begin with a list of internal and external attributes of the keyboard and surrounding situation. Here is the list (Zach acted as team scribe as I had my hands full):

Internal Attributes:


  • Keyboard Configuration
  • Keyboard Language
  • Haptics (Force Feedback)
  • Shape of Key
  • Sound of Key

External Attributes:

  • Gender of user
  • Profession of user
  • Application in use (Outlook, CAD, Computer Game, etc)
  • Time of Day
  • Price
  • Education level of user

We created a two-by-two matrix of these variables (which you can download here). We picked combinations of variables at random to create new dependencies (or break existing dependencies) between the variables. These became our Virtual Products. We then worked backwards in true SOLUTION-TO-PROBLEM fashion to come up with novel (non-existing) innovations for computer keyboards. Here are the ideas we generated working together as a team:

1. Language + Profession: The keyboard changes key language based on the profession of the user. Professions that could use a language changing keyboard include: Emergency Response (9-1-1), Online Customer Support (taking a call from a different country would change keys), a professional translator, Interpol Officer – querying different countries databases could change the language output of the keys. Another benefit is on-the-fly translation: as you type in English, the output is processed/translated into another language. This could also apply to computer languages. The keyboard is configurable specific to computer programmers based on what language they are programming in. When a webmaster is creating a page and needs to insert a java-script function, they could change the configuration to show different programming language specific keys. User could type in a generic language, and keyboard could auto-convert to C++, Perl, Ruby, HTML, Java-script, php, as required.

2. Shape of Key + Haptics: The dependency here is that certain keys have different force required to push them. For example, critical keys (such as delete key) require more effort to push. Force changes based on key position ( keys pressed by pinky fingers are easier to push or harder to push than keys pressed by index fingers). A special shape could be printed onto the keys to indicate the force to press is different. Built in error control, i.e. “are you sure?” built in via a hard key press. Another idea: typing harder prints in bold or CAPS.

3. Education + Shape of Key: Training keyboard for beginners, using different shapes to help locate keys that are part of that day’s lesson. Keys could be taken out/replaced, or shape somehow changed based on education of user. Key shape changes for MBAs versus Kindergartners.

4. Price + Configuration: Here is an example of an existing dependency that we want to break or reverse (the more advanced configurations are less expensive). One idea is to tie the keyboard to other revenue-based models. For example, imagine eBay giving away a free keyboard that is optimized with auction buttons as a way to drive more user fees. Perhaps the keyboard uses a subscription model. The keyboard would have an ‘Onstar’ type button where calls for service/support would earn a fee. Or, when certain advanced buttons or configurations are used, some sort of advertisement is served to the user, thus earning a fee for the keyboard manufacturer.

5. Haptics + Time: Force required to press keys varies by the time of day. Casinos gambling keys are easier to push or faster during certain hours, and make the user spend more time in the casino in certain hours. Lock-down mode – during off-business hours, a computer’s keyboard is impossible to use to enter data (for corporate security reasons). Key force varies on time of day (earlier it’s harder to press keys, and as the day goes by it becomes easier). If a user is on a keyboard for many hours, it gets easier to use, preventing fatigue. As kids use the Internet or a computer game for an extended period of time, it could become more difficult or impossible to press keys. Develop a finger strengthening routine where certain keys become more or less difficult to press based on time user is on keyboard, like “interval training” for your fingers.

I was impressed with these ideas. I have never seen these innovations in the market. The exercise helped me envision a keyboard with small LCD screens instead of keys that can be programmed to light up whatever function they will have (a letter, a number, an action, etc) – the ultimate in flexibility in computer keyboards.

Sheephead Best of all, I was able to fulfill my other objective while innovating (though not quite as big).

You can connect with Zach at