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 despite 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. A possible alternative variation that requires fewer changes is shown below.
An easier-to-learn Colemak variant which keeps 12 letter-keys in their Qwerty positions rather than standard Colemak's 10, including the difficult S.

Some have also complained there is too much emphasis on the central column -  due to the placement of common keys D and H - causing excessive lateral wrist movement. I also found this to be the case initially, but eventually became somewhat adapted to it.

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 life, 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!