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Users of programmable text editors such as Emacs and Vim claim that using a mouse for day-to-day programming and computing tasks makes you less efficient.

For example, in this playful Welcome to Vim video by Derek Wyatt, he calls the mouse a "rat-tailed beast" [6:17]. It's clearly done in jest, but I get the feeling he's only half joking, and every accomplished Vim user I've spoken to seems to feel the same way about using Vim in conjunction with a mouse. (i.e. They don't do it and ridicule those who do.)

Having used Vim/gVim for about a year, I love the modal editing system, but I'm not convinced yet that keyboard-only input is more efficient than mouse and keyboard input combined. My feeling is that the preference for keyboard-only input expressed amongst hackers stems more from a connection with the past, a necessity for a reliable input method with servers and mouse-less machines, and the feeling of superiority and 'eliteness' it may bring to some users. So...

Is there any non-anecdotal evidence (e.g. usability study) to suggest that using a mouse in conjunction with a keyboard is less efficient than using only the keyboard?

share|improve this question
Try not to erect straw-men here: most Vim users don’t ridicule mouse users, and it would be hard to corroborate this claim. We do, however, claim that using the mouse may be less efficient. As a separate claim, this can be investigated. – Konrad Rudolph Jun 7 '11 at 16:41
This is impossible to answer due to vagueness of "day-to-day computing tasks". Please clarify – user5341 Jun 7 '11 at 16:52
@Konrad - I didn't mean to imply that most Vim users ridicule mouse users. Only that the majority of the ones I've spoken with do. – Nick Jun 7 '11 at 17:09
@DVK Thanks. I've removed the 'day-to-day computing tasks' qualifier. Any evidence that mouse use is more or less efficient interests me, regardless of the specific computing task. – Nick Jun 7 '11 at 17:09
@DVK - Thanks for editing the question. That's a much more precise way of phrasing it. – Nick Jun 9 '11 at 10:51
up vote 42 down vote accepted

One of the standard references on the topic is an article by Bruce Tognazzini, the founder of the Apple Human Interface Group and a renowned usability expert about using the keyboard vs. using the mouse: "Keyboard vs. The Mouse, pt 1" (Originally published in the AppleDirect, August, 1989; Republished as Chapter 6, in Tog on Interface). Among the long discourse:

We’ve done a cool $50 million of R & D on the Apple Human Interface. We discovered, among other things, two pertinent facts:

Test subjects consistently report that keyboarding is faster than mousing.
The stopwatch consistently proves mousing is faster than keyboarding. 

However, having provided one reputable reference, I will trump that with the resident $deity. In a Jeff Atwood's 2008 Coding Horror post titled 'Revisiting "Keyboard vs. The Mouse, pt 1"', he takes issue with the naive interpretation of Tog's article linked above (namely, only using the quote that I myself shown out of context), and points to another very relevant snippet from the same article:

And, in fact, I find myself on the opposite side in at least one instance, namely editing. By using Command X, C, and V, the user can select with one hand and act with the other. Two-handed input. Two-handed input can result in solid productivity gains (Buxton 1986).

Atwood concludes, wisely:

I don't think anyone would argue that learning keyboard shortcuts is faster than using the mouse to navigate and learn a program. Clearly it isn't -- it's quite painful, as anyone who has ever been stranded at a Unix command prompt can probably tell you.

However, as Tog himself notes, when the keyboard shortcut is already memorized and well understood, it's a clear productivity win.

As an example, Jeff provides this obvious one:

Let's assume that we're typing some text into a document of some kind, and we wish to save the document we're working on.... If it seems ridiculous that the mouse method:

1. Take your right hand off the keyboard
2. Place your right hand on the mouse
3. Mouse over to the File menu
4. Click File
5. Click Save
6. Place your right hand back on the keyboard 

Could be measurably faster than the keyboard method:

1. Use your left hand to press Control+S

I assure you that you are not alone.

The reason why this is true is alluded to by Jeff, but to elaborate on it a bit using the basic User Interface Design 101 concepts:

  • It is very easy to start moving the mouse
  • it is very hard to stop moving it.

Therefore, clicking on a menu item that is in the corner (best) or at the very top edge of the screen (worse but OK) is a fairly easy UI task for a human hand-eye coordination.

Clicking on a small element of the sub-menu 3 levels deep in menu tree, on the other hand, is much harder.

Therefore, as noted in my comment, the efficiency answer depends to a large part on the specific task to be done and a specific interface (or rather its design from mouse and keyboard work perspective).

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great answer and I completely agree. Navigating text (I use emacs) is one thing; doing picture/video editing/CAD is a wholly different animal. I'm guessing that the question is with respect to text editing, in which case I'd agree that the keyboard is faster. – Hendy Jun 7 '11 at 18:14
Entertaining read, Bruce's article... but he should probably cut back on the Apple Kool-Aid... I mean, I don't know about Apple users, but I surely don't get an amnesia by double-tapping d to delete a line; more details to back up his claims would have been nice - like a link to the actual study. When you disagree with power users, the burden of proof is on you. Jeff's point, though, is spot-on IMO. – Mihai Rotaru Jun 7 '11 at 18:53
@Mihai - I am pretty sure the study would be proprietary non-published Apple material :( – user5341 Jun 8 '11 at 1:11
Some other discussions on mouse vs keyboard here: and here: that largely support your answer. (i.e. "It depends what task you're carrying out.") – Nick Jun 15 '11 at 15:54
@Nick - the first link is the link from the top of the answer :) I will try to edit to include info from second one – user5341 Jun 16 '11 at 15:18

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