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".