different strokes

Different key strokes for different folks

With the recent change in cookie law, the topics of privacy and the tracking of our online behaviours are becoming increasingly hot.

So is personalisation. But when a more personalised experience means a trade-off in personal data, how do we create better online experiences while respecting the privacy of the user?

The wisdom of your keyboard

Ethics in mind, a growing number of studies are starting to look at the relationships between online behaviours and personality, with interesting results.

We’ve touched on this subject in previous posts, and now researchers are finding increasingly ingenious and non-invasive ways to measure our personalities remotely.

Previous studies have found correlations between extroversion and the speed of human movement [1], with extroverts interacting faster with the user interface than introverts [2]. Now, psychologists are finding that some of the main personality traits can be measured from our keyboard and mouse use.

Different strokes

In 2008, Kahn et al. devised an experiment in which they could measure their users’ personality profiles without needing their explicit involvement. Their setup was straightforward – they would measure participants’ interactive behaviours by recording the log files of their keyboard and mouse interactions.

To determine personality, they used a short online test designed to measure the Big Five personality traits: openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism [3].

Then, capturing the type of application that was in use at specific event time (such as Microsoft Word, Internet Explorer, etc) they aimed to identify users’ personality types and their keyboard and mouse behaviour with each different application.


The result? They found that by recording the standard deviation of the average time between events, they could gain insight into a users’ activity level, a sub trait of extraversion. In laymen’s terms, the faster the time between events, the more likely the individual was an extrovert.

Although it may not sound ground-breaking (this is one of the earliest studies of its kind), Kahn et al.’s research suggests that it might well be possible to measure aspects of our personalities from the way we use our mouse and keyboard.

Business implications

These are early days, but if further research is able to establish a firm link between keyboard and mouse use and personality traits, this quick and easy technique may come to replace more tedious, traditional questionnaire-based psychometric tests.

It goes without saying that if you understand the personality profile of your users, this can help online businesses to personalise their online experience to boost engagement. For instant if you know what kind of user interface your users prefer, you can tailor that interface with a skin that is relevant to that particular trait [4].

Facing the future…

Of course, if we’re moving towards a more gestural model of interacting with out online worlds (swiping your iPhone and using gestures in online gaming tools such as the Wii) then the question may become not how do we measure personality through binary keyboard clicks, but rather through an altogether more expressive, qualitative medium altogether.


Want to know more?


[1] Doucet, C. and Stelmack, R.M. (1997) Movement time differentiates extraverts from introverts. Personality and Individual Differences, 23, pp. 775-786

[2] Saati, B., Salem, M. & Brinkman, W.-P., Towards customized user interface skins: investigating user personality and skin colour, Proceedings of HCI 2005, vol. 2, pp. 89-93, 2005.

[3] Buchanan., T., Johnson., J. A., and Goldberg., L. R. (2005). Implementing a five-factor personality inventory for use on the internet. European J. of Psychological Assessment. vol. 21, pp. 115-127

[4] Fine, N. and Brinkman, W-P. (2004). Avoiding Average: Recording Interaction Data to Design for Specific User Groups. In M. Rauterberg Entertainment Computing – ICEC-2004 p.398- 401. Berlin: Springer.

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Best-selling author of "Webs of Influence" (Pearson). International speaker, consultant, columnist at Marketing Week.