Keyboard layouts

Keyboard layouts.jpg

Lots of people want to improve their typing speed. When typing at a computer is involved in a lot of work we do every day, you can expect that becoming a faster typist will have a pretty big impact on personal productivity.

Typing skills can, of course, be improved. Plenty of people went through keyboarding classes in high school, with that fancy software that forces you to type text and grades you on speed or accuracy. There are websites that let you gauge your typing speed, like TypeRacer or 10fastfingers.

It’s sort of surprising that, typing being as important as it is, the average typist can churn out only about sixty words per minute. That’s not an awful score, of course: it’s average. But many professional typists and people who use typing frequently in their day-to-day lives find themselves typing at upwards of 120 words per minute. So why do we let human productivity be limited so much by something as easily fixable as typing speed?

In fact, typing is pretty difficult. Repetitive strain injury, or RSI, is a serious problem for many people who do lots of typing in their lives. A cause often cited as one of the biggest causes of both RSI and subpar typing speeds is the standard keyboard layout that we have been using since the day of typewriters. Though there is some argument about its validity, a widely-circulated supposed reasoning for the QWERTY layout is that letters were placed very deliberately on the keyboard so as to avoid typewriter jams, which were very inconvenient for a typist to correct. It was desirable to avoid jamming, which had more of a noticeable impact on productivity than simple slower typing speeds. This is a credible theory, because modern keyboards do still carry some limitations from the typewriter days. Most keyboards, for example, still have staggered columns of characters, which were designed like this simply to give room for all of the keys to be connected back to the typewriter. There are some modern “ortholinear” keyboards that place keys in a perfect grid, but they tend not to see much mainstream adoption.

So if QWERTY is so horribly flawed, what are the alternatives?

Most operating systems will let you choose which keyboard layout you want to use when you first install the operating system. Most of the choices in these selections are for different country layouts, normally small variations on QWERTY. But one or two choices, like Dvorak and Colemak, are completely different keyboard layouts designed to improve typing speed and prevent RSI.

In the Dvorak keyboard layout, all of the vowels are on the home row of the keyboard, easily accessible for touch typists without moving the fingers away from the home row. The other keys that need to be pressed using these left-hand fingers are assigned less important characters, like punctuation and the less commonly-used letters.

To create Dvorak, Dr. August Dvorak, who designed this layout, did a lot of analysis on English typing to determine what was causing slowdowns with QWERTY typists. He focused on a few core principles to maximize typing speed and reduce finger travel distance, which would help prevent pain in the hand and fingers. He tried to ensure letters would be typed by opposite hands, and that a single finger would rarely be used to type two letters in a row; this is why vowels tend to stay on one hand and consonants on the other. He placed the most common letters on easy-to-press keys, like the home row and the top row. He also placed the consonants toward the right side of the keyboard because right-handed people will end up typing more words with their left hand.

Colemak is similarly designed, except it keeps the location of common shortcut keys like a, z, x, c, and v. This makes it easier to learn, because learning typists do not have to worry about correcting their muscle memory for typing and for using shortcuts. Colemak also does not move as many punctuation keys. Through extensive statistical analysis, the developers of Colemak are confident that it outperforms both QWERTY and Dvorak on English writing.

Consider switching to a different keyboard layout if you do a lot of typing. You don’t even need a fancy keyboard; most Dvorak and Colemak typists either use QWERTY keycaps or blank keycaps. Once you become a touch typist, you won’t need to look at your keyboard anyway.