Alright. I’m putting this in the Blog section, as i’m pretty sure this will be an ongoing effort. Feel free to move it though.
(Please Excuse any Language or Typing mistakes. I’m not a native English speaker and i wrote this down top to bottom. I’ll read it all again and clean up mistakes i made. But It’ll take some time).
So, to start this off, i’d like to admit, that i might have a slight keyboard Problem. After getting my First mechanical Board way back (a CMStorm TKL), i dove ever deeper into the Keyboard culture. Starting from Cherry Switch differences, over Varying Setups, Ergonomic Keyboards all the way to custom building my own Boards.
I’ve learned a lot about keyboards in the process, and even more about my personal preferences when it comes to them. I’ve personally had around 8 or 10 different keyboards in the past 5 years, most of them aren’t used anymore for various reasons i might get into later.
With doing some “research” on more ergonomic keyboard setups, one sooner or later will come across the whole keyboard layout discussion. And so did i. I work at a desk 8-10 hours a day and spend the majority of my free time at the PC as well. So naturally i wanted this time to be as comfortable as possible, and, most importantly, as healthy as possible.
Let me say this here: Sitting at a Desk for 16 Hours a day is NEVER the most healthy thing you can do in life. That much is clear. Moving, doing things outside and generally using your Body and muscles to an extend is always a more healthy way of living. Since my job is what it is and i love it, and my hobbys are what they are, and i love them, i wanted to make the best out of the Situation.
There are a LOT of things one can get into when it comes to Desk Ergonomics and such. I’m not going to tackle a lot of it, as there is a decent amount of research done on it and you can just look it up. Overall, one can make small, easy adjustments to the Desk, Chair, Monitors and such to make working on a PC much less fatiguing and bad for your body.
Just do some research before going out and buying a 600$ Standing desk. They might not be what you want/expect.
So, what DO i want to talk about here? Well, you might have guessed it: Keyboards and keyboard layouts.
Keyboards, as in the physical thing
So, there is some decent research around. It’s just really hard to get access to or find with Google or DDG.
In general, I’d like to split keyboards into three categories (pun intended):
- Regular Keyboards
- anything that’s one board with Keys in a straight line and some form of uniform stagger. So Normal Keyboards, Tenkeyless, 60% etc.
- Slightly Ergonomic Boards
- Anything that’s still one Board but tries to incorporate Ergonomic Features. So, No stagger, planks, Anything with Split halves (MS Natural Ergonomic), or staggering in different directions per hand.
- Fully Ergonomic Keyboards
- Fully split halves, And anything truly out there (Kinesis Advantage, One-Handed Boards, Ergodox etc. There are a LOT of weird keyboards around )
So, With that out of the way, i just want to say that this terminology has nothing to do with the actual Ergonomics of that keyboard for you. It’s just the amount that the creator thinks or tries to make a board ergonomic.
Overall, since most of the Health stuff is well researched, i mainly want to go into a more personal, opinionated view on this stuff.
Posture and Bodysize
The very first thing you might or might not realize is, that People have different bodies (duh). So, what might work for you might not for me. Shoulder width has a huge impact on how comfortable you might find a normal keyboard. Same for seating position.
So, if you are a 140 pound, small person, you might think very different than a 260 poung Body Builder about split keyboards. I personally have rather wide shoulders. Yet, i haven’t had much luck with putting keyboard halves far apart. Rotating my Arms outwards caused serious pain for me after a short period of time. And you need to pull those halves far apart to make room for a mouse. having a split keyboard and a mouse to the right of that only makes the outward rotation worse. On the other hand, a board with slightly rotated halves (the Natural Ergonomic from MS for example) lets me keep my arms in the middle while giving more room to the shoulders.
I wish i could give a more general approach here, put in the end, the best i can say is: Don’t trust anyone else when it comes to the overall layout of you keyboard. Try some things, objectively look at what you’re doing and act acordingly.
There is nothing right or wrong with using a “normal” keyboard and having no Problems with it.
So, the Next thing you might Consider is the overall size of your board. Do you want to go full on 70s Terminal style with 150 or more key? Regular 108 Key? 75%? 60%? Alphas only? There is basically anything out there.
The Ergonomic community seems to agree, that for you posture and overall health, a smaller board is better. For various reasons.
- It lets you position you mouse closer to you
- With proper Mapping, a lot of keys are close to the Home row
I’m personally not really sure on that. I’m going to touch on something i’ll come back to later when talking Keyboard layouts:
When it comes to your whole body, the scientific consensus seems to be that you should move around while sitting, and that you should stand up regularly and walk a bit. So, why does everyone seem to think, that Moving your arms and Hands as little as possible is a good thing?
Sure, putting your mouse way to the right and turning your arm outwards is bad. But having it right of a 108 Key and going to it while also repositioning your upper body a bit accomplishes that you don’t move rotate your arm to much, while also keeping your body moving.
Also, please look at what you do with your keyboard. I personally use the Numberpad a LOT. That’s why i’m partial to full-size keyboards at work.
At home, i’m mostly gaming and writing Forum Posts, so a Tenkeyless is perfect. Leaving away the Function Row on a 60% serves no Ergonomical benefit and cut’s functionality that’s used often and hard to get to otherwise. It’s mostly for looks.
I’m not in a position to say “Smaller Boards are worse” or such. It’s just that i think a certain amount of sceptisism is at hand, and going with what feels good to you is more important than on paper ergonomical benefits.
I want to quickly touch on thumbclusters. The Ergodox has gained a lot of momentum recently and i guess most people are now familiar with that concept.
The idea is, to offload certain functions from harder to reach keys to the thumb. Generally, on regular keyboards, the thumb does only space. Many people think, that that’s an underutilization of one of the stronger indexes, while the pinky does a whole bunch of work with shift, ctrl, alt etc.
My personal experience was, that pushing keys with the side of my thumb was painfull after a time. It might take getting used to, but you also need to remember, that your thumb has one less joint. So reaching around stuff and getting to specific keys can be really challenging.
Thumbclusters can work, but it takes getting used to, a lot of work and more controll of what you do with your thumb. I don’t think they are universally better. And the Ergodox in particular has the Cluster rather far out for many people with regular hands. This leads to your thumb being permanently stretched outwards. In a natural position, your thumbs are rather close to your hand.
Overall, again, it’s a very personal thing. Don’t think that thumbclusters are universally Better or more ergonomic. They can be, but don’t have to be.
Keyboard Freakin’ Layouts
The big one, you’ve al been waiting for. As some might remember, i recently switched to the Neo Layout. Welp, i’m back to qwertz, and boy do i have some thoughts.
The first thing i have to say is There is NOT a whole bunch of actual research from independent sources out there. At least not that i could find. A whole bunch of “News” and Articles and “Research” by those that propose different layouts. I don’t consider this research.
The first alternative most people will come across is Dvorak. Maybe Colemak. I’m not getting into the whole qwerty history thing. Many people did and there is no consensus. The overarching idea that qwerty was designed to slow down typists or to prevent key-jamming seems to be not true. The most reasonable explanation i found was, that it was developed by the first company that sold it with input from their Customers on things like, preventing misstypes and making certain things easier to reach. But we don’t know. Your guess is as good as mine.
Generally today, keyboard layouts are compared on a bunch of different measurements:
- Row usage, “best” to "worst
- Home Row
- Top Row
- Bottom Row
- Usage of “Strong” vs. “Weak” Fingers
- Same Hand bigrams
- Same Finger bigrams
Sometimes there are more depending on who you ask.
Most alternative Layouts are in some way specifically designed to optimize for those metrics. And this has several Problems.
The English Bias
Most of the alternative layout you find (Dvorak, Colemak) and those that generally are popular and come with Windows for example, are heavily optimized for English typists. Varying Languages have wildly different usage of different Letters, the most common bigrams between English and German for Example: (Source: TU-Freiberg )
As you can see, optimizing for
th can be quiet nice in English, while being useless in German. So, if you aren’t writing most of your stuff not in English, you can forget about a LOT of the benefits Dvorak or other alternative Layouts claim. There are German Dvorak layouts out there, but they are basically Dvorak plus Umlauts.
Talking of which, most alternative layouts are made for US Keyboards and have no Umlauts in them. Maybe in a third layer somewhere, but if you are from northern Europe or, god forbid some eastern European country, good luck typing anything fluently on Dvorak.
The “Less Movement” hypothesis
A lot of the measurements above focus on moving your fingers and Hands less. As said above, when it comes to sitting at a desk the universal recommendation is to move around and stand up every now and then. Why are we so obsesses with minimizing movement in the Hands?
I guess if you religiously keep your Index Right Finger on the “j”, reaching certain letters can be hard. But Heck, just move your Hand a bit. Once you reach a certain speed at touchtyping, i found my hand constatly Hovering around and slightly adjusting for upcoming words or letters.
The experience of a keyboard layout the focuses on not moving your Hands was really irritating. I don’t put my palms down most of the time (as you should, if you ask Touch Typing “Experts”). Keeping my Hands and fingers steady in a single Place while hovering above the Keyboard was really tough and my fingers tended to cramp after some time.
I’ve not found any research on this subject. I’d really like to get something “Substantial” here stating that moving your fingers less is better. So far i haven’t found anything. And my personal Experience has been, that Layouts that let me move my Hands more are more “engaging” and less fatiguing for me.
Feel free to chime in with your own experience!
A common claim is, that alternative Layouts will make you type faster.
First of all: Unless you job is literally to type all day and you get paid by the amount of lines you write, i’m not sure how big the impact would be, even if the gains where true.
For any regular person, even those that write a lot at home of work, those benefits are miniscule. It’s already clear that, with Practice, most people can comfortably reach 200 characters per minute on qwerty. Many more, some less. You start to reach a point, where you’re brain’s the limit. Unless you’re writing the same text again and again, you need to process what you write and think about what you want to say. At now around 250 Characters per minuten on qwerty, i’m close to writing as wast as i can say things in my head. I still pause a lot to think about how to write stuff etc.
And it’s not like Dvorak will get you up to 500 Characters per minute. Even the most ambitious claims are 20 maybe 30 Characters more on average. Assuming you can catch up with years or decades of qwerty writing. If you didn’t touchtype before, you should. And then, maybe dvorak or such is a good entry point.
For anyone currently Touchtyping already, the loss in Speed and Productivity while learning will Probably offset any Gains you might get form an alternative Layout. Maybe focus on making less mistakes instead. A whole lot of speed lies in not mistyping too much.
Again, i’m interested in independent research on this subject. I haven’t found any so far.
Oh, and if you really have a Need for Speed, maybe start looking into stenography. With Plover, some hardware changes and a lot of dedication, you can get up to 150 WORDS per minute. But that’s a completely different subject.
Actual Computer Use
At the end of the day, a lot of theory about Ergonomics is all well and such, but you want to actually use the Layout.
Well, there are Problems here too.
If your chosen alternative Layout comes with Windows, fine, that’s one hurdle less. If it doesn’t, you might need to install layouts, fiddle with Autohotkey etc.
Let’s just say your chosen Layout is Dvorak. It’s available in most OS’s out of the box and works pretty well.
First Problem is, that some Applications, especially Games, don’t honor the layout. This can be good and bad. Overwatch for example ignores the OS Layout completely. So even if you’re on Dvorak, Movement keys and such are still in the same place. Jay. But you now also have to write in QWERTY when you’re writing in the chat. Meh.
Other Games, Like Rocksmith 2014 for Example will Honor the layout for the Most part. So Selecting stuff With “P” will be in a different Spot. But the search function suddenly uses qwerty. What?
Remote Desktop will ignore your Layout entirely and just use the default for the language that’s set up on the remote machine. So yes, you can have your PC set up with Dvorak, the Remote machine set up with Dvorak and you STILL get qwerty over RDP.
Now let’s talk keyboard shortcuts. They are either all over the place, or you go through the trouble of remapping that stuff through Autohotkey. The latter option again doesn’t work with RDP and such. Use Vim? Well good luck using hjkl for movement. Yes, you can remap it in Vim but this doesn’t work on machines you SSH into.
There are options to make this more “usable”. QMK is a firmware a lot of custom keyboards use. It’s incredibly flexible and can give you anything you’d ever want without relying on the OS, as it changes the actual keycodes. This also works over RDP. Look it up if you’re interested: https://docs.qmk.fm/#/
But this requires a custom keyboard. Nice, if you want to spend the money. For anyone else, there is a USB Converter for regular keyboards, but i haven’t tested it.
And this doesn’t solve the Problem entirely. Games will now all need to be remaped, you still have a Problem when someone else wants to use your PC and working on other Machines can be mindbending. Especially in the beginning when you’re fresh off qwerty.
So, a whole BUNCH of text later, where does this leave me? I’m a German who’s writing 50% English and 50% German. I tried Dvorak, German Dvorak, Colemak and Neo. All for long enough to reach 75% of my qwerty writing speed and be Productive at work. I gave them all a fair shot and really wanted to switch.
I wanted to be on Neo. Just because i think it’s awesome for someone to actually think hard about those Problems and trying to solve something they saw as flawed.
In the end though, i’ve now conceded to qwerty. The technical challenges, new health “Problems” other layouts brought and my overall happiness with where i’m at with qwerty just won’t let me justify going with anything else. Yes, going with something non mainstream can be interesting and a nice challenge, but there’s something to be said for using a standard that 99% of the world agreed upon.
I’ve already said it a lot, but i’m struggeling to come up with proper research on a lot of those subjects. Especially on Finger/Hand movement and Bigrams. Those are Topics where i tend to disagree with a lot of people claiming the benefits of alternative Layouts, so having something substantial to argue upon would be nice.
I’d also really enjoy engaging in a discussion with you. Wether you swtiched to something else, Love qwerty to death or have tested a bunch and returned. Sharing experiences can paint a broader Picture and with something as personal as Ergonomics, i’m sure there’s a lot to be said for having input from different sources.
If you have any questions on what i just wrote up, on Layouts, Technical stuff, Keyboards or Building your own etc. Feel free to ask what ever crosses your mind. I’m willing to help with anything
Finally, i’m now trying to incorporate some things that Neo did well into my qwerty layout. Having Caps-Lock as an additional Layout for Punctuation and Braces and such was really nice. Also, haveing a “Hold-Space Shift” might be a nice option to look into. Space basically acts normally if pressed fast, and engages an additional layer when held. This should be doable with AutoHotkey, but i’m looking into this. If you’re interested in this or have some input on how to make this work, feel free to hit me up.