Saturday, 16 August 2014

Colemak keyboard layout - post-switch results

It's now about 3 months since I switched to using the Colemak keyboard layout, so for the benefit of anyone thinking of doing the same, here is a update on my progress and some thoughts on the switching process.

As far as typing speed is concerned, I am now able to type pretty much at the same speed as I could before the switch - around the 50wpm mark according to typing tests. The key difference is though, that my typing has become an easier and more pleasant experience, with less stretching of fingers, and I am now using a much improved touch-typing technique. Nevertheless I am still seeing gradual improvements, and expect to surpass my previous ability in due course.

My keyboard as it now looks - thanks to some inexpensive stickers!

I had first learned to type using Qwerty, around 30 years ago, in a haphazard way, never adopting the recommended touch-typing technique. Qwerty itself is partly to blame, as it does not really encourage good practice, with its commonly needed keys such as T, E, I and O away from the "home" positions. With Colemak on the other hand, with the most common keys right under your fingers, and its careful avoidance of same finger key pairs, it practically forces you into typing correctly.

So for me, part of the process of learning Colemak, has meant being much more disciplined about using the proper technique. I have spent many hours over the last few months doing typing exercises to hone my skills. Some useful websites for this purpose are 10fastfingers, and TypeRacer.

It has to be said, I went through a difficult and painful time in those early weeks. This is not entirely due to having to learn a new, unfamiliar layout, but having to use fingers that had rarely been used in my hunt-and-peck days - especially my ring fingers. The upshot of this is when you suddenly need to type something quickly, it can be frustrating, knowing you have effectively lost a skill you've been able to take for granted for years.

Fortunately, the painful period is fairly short, and within a few weeks my ability to type was back up to a reasonable speed, if still not quite as fast as before, but with consistently growing speed, accuracy and comfort.

One criticism of Colemak is that despise its superficial similarity with Qwerty and claim of being easy to learn, in practice it is still a significant undertaking. Some of the layout changes it makes, such moving the S key, and arguably the G key also, do end up making the transition more difficult for new users for only modest improvements in the various optimization metrics. Some also complain it puts much emphasis on the central column, causing excessive lateral wrist movement -  due to the placement of common keys D and H. I also found this to be the case initially, but eventually became adapted to it.

A possible easier-to-learn Colemak variant which keeps 12 letter-keys in their Qwerty positions rather than standard Colemak's 10, including the difficult S.

Ultimately though, there's no such thing as the perfect layout, and all layouts are about compromise, having to balance competing objectives. And it seems harsh to overplay Colemak's minor weaknesses after living with the truly awful Qwerty for many years. Colemak is still in my view the best all-round optimized, well-supported layout.

Judging from other's experiences in the Colemak forum, it also appears to be the case that those Qwerty users who already have a good touch-typing technique can usually pick up the new layout much more quickly and easily than those of us who had to learn the proper technique simultaneously.

So the big question is: Is it worth the switch?

I would say, if you tend only to use computers that you have control over, and if you anticipate doing a lot of typing during the rest of your career, then the answer is certainly a Yes! Of course, there is an uncomfortable transitional period lasting a few weeks, which is the biggest barrier to entry, and there's no easy way of getting around that. But if you persevere, you will reap the benefits of using a comfortable, optimized, ergonomic layout for the rest of your life! So I say Go Colemak!

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Learning Colemak step-by-step

Previously, I mentioned I'd decided to learn a modern, optimized keyboard layout. After much deliberation on the various options available, my chosen layout was Colemak.

There are two possible approaches I considered to learning Colemak:

1. Go cold turkey. Decide on a day to make the switch, then use Colemak exclusively. This would be the fastest method but would also be painful initially as my ability to type effectively would be gone for some time - possibly weeks - as I adapted to the new layout.

2. Piecemeal Transition. Colemak has a scheme designed to make the transition easier by changing only 3 or 4 keys at a time in a sequence of steps. This method is known as Tarmak. Although it may be a slightly slower approach, by allowing the user to adapt to relatively few key changes at a time, typing ability can be somewhat maintained during the transitional period.

I opted for the piecemeal transition approach, Tarmak.

So, I set up my keyboard for Tarmak-1, put stickers over the changed keys, and went to some typing test websites. First results: it was a painful experience - as though I'd forgotten how to type, even though only 4 keys had changed. Making even a modest change to the keyboard after so many years experience with Qwerty was surprisingly unsettling.

Tarmak-1 moves the all-important E, and also N, into optimal positions.

This initial period was the most difficult, and often frustrating. Typing required constant vigilance for any of the changed keys, which in this first phase, includes the very common letters E and N. As one of only two keys to switch hands, E is particularly difficult to re-adjust to.

But I continued on and it soon began to click. While I would still make frequent mistakes, there would also be moments that hinted at what was being gained. For example, both "ne" and "en" are very common letter pairs in English, and so some early satisfaction was gained when I was able to type these efficiently in their new positions on the home row.

After about a week, I moved on to Tarmak-2. At this point the three most common letters in English (E, T, A) are right under the fingers. I found this second step to be much easier, and adapted especially quickly to the new T position. It certainly seems easier to adapt to changes when they remain on the same finger.

Tarmak-2 makes the second most common letter, T, much easier to reach.

I think that Tarmak-2 is worthy of consideration as a layout on its own right. With relatively few changes, it already fixes the majority of Qwerty's flaws. For those thinking about changing layouts but are concerned that full Colemak is too radical a change, you could do worse than try Tarmak-2, and then decide later whether or not to continue to full Colemak.

Personally though, using an established layout that enjoys good support was a key part of my decision, so once again after a week or so, I continued to the next step...

Tarmak-3 moves R to the home row, but S also moves one space to the right.

Tarmak-3 moves R and S to their Colemak positions. I had the most misgivings about this step as I consider S to be one of the few keys that Qwerty actually positions well. And as expected, this change gave me problems, often hitting R whether I meant S. If I could change one thing about Colemak, it would be to leave S in the Qwerty position - the difference in typing efficiency is extremely minor but it would make Colemak easier to learn!

After a week with Tarmak-3, I was by now impatient to complete my Colemak journey, so I decided to skip Tarmak-4 and go straight to full Colemak. That meant a lot of keys changing at once, notably the I and O keys into position in the home row. Being a major change, again my typing suffered for several days. But on the upside: I had made it, after nearly a month spent transitioning, I was now a Colemak user and there was no going back, so I could now focus my attention on improving my typing knowing that all keys were in their final positions!

Tarmak steps 4 and 5 combined, resulting in the full Colemak layout!

I'll post an update on my thoughts on Colemak and the whole switching process once I have fully adapted to my new layout. I wonder how long that will take...

Sunday, 15 June 2014

Alternative keyboard layouts

It's well-known that the ubiquitous QWERTY keyboard is not a particularly efficient layout. It's one of those cases where a standard gets adopted in the early days of a new invention - the typewriter - and as people become familiar with the standard, the motivation for reform falls away.

QWERTY: no-one likes it; it doesn't care.

I have at times in the past thought about this issue and wondered whether it would be worthwhile to learn a different, better-designed keyboard layout. For a software developer, the keyboard is a critical tool, but the QWERTY keyboard often feels like it's working against you. There is large amount of finger movement required due to commonly used keys being harder-to-reach, while uncommon keys, such as J, K, F, and semicolon, are in the easiest to type, "home" positions.

However I had always rejected the idea of switching, on account of the drawbacks being to great.

Reasons to switch layouts Reasons to stick with QWERTY
1. More comfortable typing experience.
2. Reduced risk of common typing ailments, e.g. RSI.
3. Improved typing speed.
1. Existing typing ability on QWERTY adequate.
2. Learning a new system could be time-consuming and difficult.
3. QWERTY keyboards so dominate that it might be difficult to avoid them entirely.

For me, reason #3 was the killer issue for sticking with QWERTY. I was concerned I would need to continue use QWERTY, and trying to maintain the ability to type in two different layouts was out of the question.

But recently in weighing up these factors, the balance has started to shift. What about the drawbacks that prevented me taking action before? Well, they have become less significant. Pretty much all my typing these days is done on my own computers, so the need to sometimes revert back to QWERTY is eliminated. Also, should I need it, there is software available which lets you temporarily change layouts that can be run from a USB memory stick without the need to install anything.

Although some report faster typing speeds after transitioning to a new layout, for me speed is of secondary importance - I am more interested in potential gains of comfort and usability. If I am going to spend so many hours at the keyboard, I want to take whatever steps I can to make the experience as pleasant as possible. And while the learning curve is still an issue, there are layouts out there that make for a (relatively) easier transition from QWERTY, and my thinking now is that the long term gains would be worth the short term pain.

So, I did some research on some optimized modern layouts. Some, like Dvorak, are well-known alternatives but are an extremely radical departure from QWERTY, and hence harder to learn. Others, like Minimak offer an an easier learning curve at the expense of being less optimized. I also liked the approach of the Norman layout with its emphasis on ease of learning while being an fairly well optimized modern layout. There is some good analysis of various layouts at the Carpalx website.

In the end I decided to that the layout I would switch to was... Colemak. This is a modern, well-optimized layout which also retains several keys in their QWERTY positions. In particular, most of the bottom row is unchanged, meaning common shortcuts for copy, cut, paste, etc, remain in familiar positions. There is also a learning method available (called Tarmak) which switches a few keys at a time to make the transition easier.

Colemak: Better typing since 2006

My decision to choose Colemak over the other easier-to-learn layouts like Minimak and Norman was that Colemak is moderately well-known(*) and well-supported. It's comes built-in on my Android phone and I believe it's available in Mac OS X as well. It also has a small but growing active user community.

So, be it wise, brave, or simply crazy, my transition to Colemak has begun! More on my progress to come...

(*) Insofar as any non-QWERTY layout can be described as "well-known".