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Does using trackballs instead of mice makes you more productive?

Are there any scientific studies on this subject?

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The correct answer is: GET A TRACKPOINT ;) en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pointing_stick But prepare to get addicted –  Hauser Aug 6 '11 at 11:33
    
How about vs. a touchpad too? –  Brian Carlton Aug 6 '11 at 21:59
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@Hauser: WHERE? Seriously, I once bought a standalone IBM laptop keyboard that including Trackpoint. But it was expensive and they don't make it anymore. So, the advice, while useful is not easily actionable. –  Alexandre Rafalovitch Aug 10 '11 at 19:58
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@Alexandre amazon.com/ThinkPad-USB-Keyboard-with-TrackPoint/dp/B002ONCC6G its expensive yes, but what is the alternative?! ;) I work on a Thinkpad Notebook, so its built in. Also your index finger is more accurate/faster than your thumb for touchpad/trackball, at least to me –  Hauser Aug 10 '11 at 21:35
    
What part of your hand are you supposed to use to move the wheel on that kind of mouse? –  Joey Adams Aug 14 '11 at 5:06
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8 Answers

I don't about scientific studies or anything, but personally any experience I have had with a trackball has slowed me down. Please bare in mind that I have cerebral palsy though.

The thing is as well, you don't want to get to attached, or used to something because you will not always be able to use it! For example: I use a USB touchpad on PC's (because I find them the most efficient and easiest way), but it is a real pain transporting it and trying to make it work on certain computers, etc.

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Dependencies here are personal preference and the types of tasks you do on the computer.
Personally I find the combination between a trackpoint and a mouse to be perfect. For quick normal interactions with the GUI in between typing, the trackpoint takes away the need to move a hand to the mouse. For anything of longer duration, or more complex, the mouse is clearly superior.
Caveat: Trackpoints take quite a while to adjust to, and are initially frustrating to use.

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+1 true, learning curve seems flat for some, but addiction level is often high. Many keep buying only business notebooks with trackpoint (Thinkpad, Dell) if they get used to it. Esp. if you can type very fast, constantly moving hands to mouse/touchpad costs alot time, its like a third leg for turbo programmers :) I do even firefox gestures with my trackpoint. For Mindmapping/LaTeX Coding its really perfect as you often have to hit in between a toolbar button or change edit position. –  Hauser Aug 10 '11 at 23:43
    
My current laptop I special ordered with TrackPoint only. I hate touchpads with a passion. :-) –  Brian Knoblauch Aug 17 '11 at 14:03
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I used a Kensington Pro Mouse ($120 at the time) for about 8 years until it croaked a few months ago. I replaced it with a cheapo Logitech mouse from Costco for $20 or so. No difference in productivity for me with either device.

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I can only offer statistics with sample size 1, but for me working with it is less exhaustive than using a mouse because I only have to work with the thumb, instead of the hand and lower arm.

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I use a trackball mouse controlled by thumb, so my experience may be different.

Logitech Trackman Wheel

Some benefits of a trackball mouse:

  • More ergonomic: You only have to move your thumb, rather than your whole arm.

  • More portable: You don't have to sacrifice the luxury of a good mouse, when you don't have space for a mouse pad.

  • Easier to move the mouse great distances. Rather than having to pick up the whole mouse over and over, you can just spin it with your thumb.

For gaming, I find the trackball to be better for first-person shooters. It's easier to spin around, aim, and follow moving targets. On the other hand, I find the traditional mouse better for real-time strategy games, which involve clicking and dragging in random places very quickly. Hopefully, this sheds some light on what a trackball mouse is and isn't good for.

So in general, it depends on the nature of your work. If it involves moving the cursor around a lot in a small area, you should probably stick with a traditional mouse. But if you find yourself picking up your mouse a lot to pan over, say, huge drawings, then you stand to benefit from a trackball mouse. If you don't use the mouse intensively, then you may want to consider a trackball mouse, for the reasons listed above.

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Of course, answers to your question depend on the type of computer work. However, for typical day to day work (reading emails, browsing the web, working with office documents, etc.) if you want to increase productivity I wholeheartedly recommend that you try to avoid any type of mouse pointer or similar. Use the keyboard and keyboard shortcuts where ever possible!

If you need to use a pointing device, try to avoid frequent switching from keyboard to pointer and back. You are simply wasting time. (This is where pointing sticks/trackpoints have an advantage over other pointing devices because of the fact that the hands do not need to change position when switching.)

I do not think that the use of any pointing device generally creates higher productivity. But I do think that individually one may increase productivity largely. The main reason being that the chosen pointing device simply fits the person and the tasks. And let's not just think about adults: Children might enjoy a trackball with light and sound effects while parents would rather stay away from it ;-)

Talking about ergonomics (and hence productivity), trackballs might indeed have 1 advantage especially for right-handed people: on typical modern PC keyboards more special functions are on the right side. This has the effect that the left hand most of the time keeps its position whereas the right hand moves a lot (Enter, Backspace, cursor keys, etc.). People who use a pointing device at the right side of the keyboard move their arms even more so.

I do not know of any scientific studies but I guess they exist since this imbalance is quite apparent. To my mind, some back and neck pain might be a direct result. Needless to say, this decreases productivity.

Of course, one can just put the mouse to the left side but many people find it difficult to navigate with a mouse that has just switched sides whereas those who I know who tried a trackball (especially the symmetric ones) did not report these difficulties. (Disclaimer: I only have reports of 4 trackball users.)

Final note: Personally, I think that with a trackball I can move the pointer on the screen faster and with higher precision. So, if you have a chance to try one don't miss it. But remember, for productivity the keyboard is king.

Known approaches for keeping all pointing within the keyboard are: - the pointing stick; - touchpad installed on a keyboard; - trackball installed on a keyboard; - CombiMouse (http://combimouse.com).

Summary

  • For productivity, avoid mouse pointers and use keyboard shortcuts.
  • Also, try to avoid frequent changes between devices (e.g. from keyboard to trackball and back).
  • Productivity of pointing devices might differ generally, but individual preferences probably have a much larger influence.
  • Due to the imbalance of PC keyboards, for ergonomic reasons I recommend to place pointing devices on the left side! Symmetrically built trackballs allow to switch sides easily.
  • If you have the chance to try a trackball don't miss it :-)
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TL;DR?

When you're choosing tools:

  1. Try them for yourself rather than relying on the experience and theories of others.
  2. Choose long-term comfort over short-term increases productivity, especially where the increase in productivity is small.
  3. If you want to be confident of a productivity increase, don't just rely on subjective experience. Rather, use objective measures.

Why?

  1. Subjective experience in matters of productivity can be deceptive. As a result, I'd be a little wary of reading too much in to people's anecdotal reports. IIRC, a classic study of user interaction looked at progress bars. The results suggested that a process was perceived as finishing quicker if the progress bar starts off moving slowly and then speeds up towards the end when compared to the same process when the progress bar that moves at constant speed. My point is that, even if people think they're more productive using one type of device rather than another, they could be mistaken. You can't be sure unless you measure their productivity objectively. That said, I fully recognise that there are many, many occasions where people's perception lines up perfectly well with objective reality - I'm simply advocating a little caution.

  2. My personal experience of a particular device in my circumstances for my work won't necessarily map well to yours. Unless you try using a trackball for yourself then you can't really judge whether it will make a difference for you. Of course, if enough people say it makes a difference for them then I'd be more likely to give a trackball a go, but I wouldn't bet my house on it working for me.

  3. You might be better off choosing a pointing device for comfort rather than productivity. If a trackball does make a difference to productivity, I doubt that it would be a big one (although, taking my own medicine, I'd need to measure to make sure). Moreover, as a general rule, the most pleasing input method is likely to be the most productive, so if trackballs are better then I'd bet that at least some of the difference is a consequence of improvements in comfort.

  4. When it comes to designing your workplace, bare in mind that short-term productivity and long-term productivity are sometimes at odds. For example, if using a particular pointing device gives a short-term productivity boost but leads to RSI, then for most people it would be a poor choice of tool. Again, this suggests that choosing an input method based on comfort may be more important than choosing one based on how productive it makes you for a particular task.

My Experience

I think it is great that you're considering your tools carefully, rather than just following the crowd. As a programmer I am very reliant on my input devices, so felt that it would be worth investing some time and money into finding what works for me, and I'm happier at work for having done so.

In the end I chose a gamer's keyboard and a fancy gamer's mouse. They're built to take a hammering, and they feel delightfully comfortable in use. The only down side to this is that nowadays I really dislike using more generic kit, to the extent that I can barely type on anyone else's keyboard, and find normal mice unbearable. Fortunately, this is rarely an issue (except during practical tests when I'm job-hunting). I'm grateful to my past self for today's small pleasures!

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I was using trackball in optical laboratory. There was not enough place for mouse and mouse pad. I could put trackball in one place and navigate easily through software needed to experiments. I have no more experience with this device. IMHO it has the same impact to work-flow as mouse.

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