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...