03/04/2013

Keyboard layouts

In my Cheaper by the dozen review, I wrote about the typing lessons in the Gilbreth household. I guess they used a QWERTY keyboard layout. It's the de facto standard. I know, there are exceptions like AZERTY in French speaking countries and QWERTZ among German oriented nations. Not to mention non-Latin script countries where other characters are needed. But why is QWERTY (still) so popular? Is it efficient? And what about preventing Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI)?

Back in the early 1870's, Remington introduced their first typewriter developed by Christopher Sholes. It only printed capitals. During the evolvement of the machine, the keyboard evoluated. At first, the keys were alphabetically sorted on what's now called the home row, i.e the row of keys where the fingers are in rest. However, when typing speeds went up, they faced frequent typehead jams. The engineers tackled this problem by rearranging the keys in a way the most frequent used ones were placed apart. They experimented till less jams occured. Their solution was the QWE.TY layout. It's said that they finally changed it to QWERTY to enable their salesmen (...) to type TYPE WRITER from the top row.

Frank Mc.Gurrin invented touch typing. He won a typing contest in 1888 using a QWERTY keyboard. His opponent was a four finger typist who used a Caligraph 2, a machine equipped with separate keys for lower case and upper case letters. The match was covered in the newspapers which spread not only the news but also the opinion that QWERTY was most efficient.

The Scientific keyboard was introduced in 1893. The most common used letters in English were situated along the bottom row with the most common ones in the center. However, QWERTY continued to be the choice for businesses, those days the buyers of typewriters.

In 1932, dr. August Dvorak ("duh-VOR-ack") of the University of Washington and his brother-in-law aimed to enhance typings speeds. They developed the Dvorak simplified keyboard by moving around 31 keys. Studies showed significant improvements for typing English texts altough others questioned these results. In favour of Dvorak it needs to be said that recent studies confirmed the enhancements. However, Dvorak didn't become popular as businesses and typists were used to QWERTY. Furthermore, investments were low as many countries faced the Great Depression and World War II broke out.

The Dvorak simplified keyboard (picture: Wikipedia)

After the appearance of PC's and laptops on the desks at work and at home, a new interest in ergonomic keyboards arose. In 2000 HÃ¥kon Hallingstad introduced Arensito. It's suited for heavy use of special characters. Two year later, Peter Klausler created his keyboard. Michael Capewell invented Capewell in 2005 and designed optimized versions of QWERTY (C-QWERTY) and Dvorak (Capewell-Dvorak). In 2006 David Piepgrass showed the world Asset and Shai Coleman invented Colemak In 2010 O.J. Bucao introduced Workman and David Norman showed the world Norman. That's a whole bunch! Are they really better? And which one to choose? It depends. duhh

There's no best solution for everyone. Your choice depends on several factors. First of all: what's your purpose? Are you programming or writing? In which language? Secondly, how many time will you invest to learn a new keyboard layout? And last but not least: what's important to you? The distance covered? The number of 'hits' on the home row? Minimizing vertical or lateral movements?

If you're unsure, there are several applications available to measure your typing habits like Martin Krzywinski's carPalx and the Keyboard Layout Analyzer. The first mentioned, is also able to design your ultimate keyboard. carPalx and Norman published studies of the enhancements of the different keyboards according to QWERTY. Their results show amazing enhancements of total effort.

Source: carPalx and Norman

My keyboard of choice is Colemak along with a mechanical keyboard. First of all, it has the highest score. It's also relative easy to learn as its creator moved only 17 keys from the QWERTY layout, keeping  ZXCV in place. As an avid user of shortcuts, I often use these.  To learn Colemak, I enjoyed a good training in 9 days for free!

Colemak (picture: Wikipedia)

Back to our questions. Why is QWERTY still popular? Based on the studies cited above, it's not because of effiency. I guess, it's about standardization: 'everyone' uses it, so 'everyone' teaches it, 'everyone' buys it and so on. I presume there's also a correlation between typing efficiency and the risk of getting RSI. Therefore it could be interesting to investigate the differences between Workman, which aims to mininmize lateral finger movements, and the others whose focus is on minimizing vertical movements. I've still one question left. Did Dvorak suffer typehead jams? In neither of the articles and studies I read, it was mentioned. Do you know the answer?

Which keyboard layout do you use?

Enjoy!

Edit: One of our readers attended us on an informative article about RSI.

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