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Before personal computers were invented, even before they made their appearance in science-fiction literature, the Qwerty keyboard layout was designed for use on typewriters. While the design considerations were solid, Qwerty wasn’t created for efficiency. Far from it. Because the typebars on a mechanical typewriter could jam when pressing close-by keys, the most used characters were instead spread out as far as possible on the keyboard.

We don’t use typewriters anymore (well, most of us don’t). And yet most of you will still be using Qwerty, the most popular keyboard layout in the world. But not because it’s so easy to use, or even because it’s the best option on the market. The main reason for Qwerty’s dominion is its age.

We need to reconsider. Without those old restrictions, a keyboard layout can focus on efficiency and ease of use. It’s time for change; for a keyboard layout that’s fit for modern keyboards and modern computing. It’s time for the Workman Layout.

Workman Layout

One such improved keyboard layout is called the Workman Layout. It’s not the only project attempting to redesign the keyboard. Dvorak and Colemak are two other options. Erez wrote about his experiences after switching to Colemak How I Quickly Mastered A Superior Keyboard Layout Without Losing Productivity How I Quickly Mastered A Superior Keyboard Layout Without Losing Productivity If you're reading this on a computer, look at your keyboard. Chances are it's a QWERTY keyboard, or something closely modeled after QWERTY, like AZERTY for French or QWERTZ for Germany. Is that really the... Read More . All of these offer quantifiable improvements over Qwerty, but Workman comes out ahead in my opinion, both in terms of efficiency and learning curve.

workman-keyboard

Like most layouts, Workman is built on a foundation of character frequencies. The most frequently used characters (in the English language) should be kept as close as possible. If your fingers are flying over the keyboard like they do with Qwerty, you know there’s something wrong.

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The keys highlighted in yellow are the keys you’ll use most. They’re also the keys that are easiest to reach. The eight keys in the home row are a no-brainer. Your flexible forefinger can easily reach back, but to get to the top row, your entire hand needs to twist or move with it. The length of your middle and ring finger makes it easy to reach up, but unwieldy the other way around. And your pinky… well, your pinky is a pretty useless finger. Sorry, pinky.

What Efficiency Looks Like

It’s all good and well talking about finger frequency and dexterity, but a good idea only gets you halfway. Let’s take a closer look at the results. Trial by fire, with a little help from Don Quixote de la Mancha.

It’s a good read, but more importantly, it’s a big-ass book. If we were to copy the story (English edition) on Qwerty and Workman? It’s a silly idea, and a critical neglect of OCR software, but an interesting thought experiment regardless. Both computers would end up typing around 2,307,734 characters. (To give you an idea what that looks like, Goodreads tells me the Penguin Classics paperback is a daunting 1000 pages.)

don-quixote

Over the course of those 2.3 million characters, your fingers would dance the equivalent of 57,052 metres (that’s 187,178 foot) on your keyboard. On the Workman layout that distance is nearly cut in half at 29,656 metres (almost 97,296.6 foot). Almost half! This reduction in distance is a result of the most frequented keys being (a lot) easier to reach. But it’s not only distance that’s reduced. You’ll also save a lot of time in the process.

You can compare the performance using other literary works. Huckleberry Finn, Tom Sawyer, War of the Worlds, Moby Dick, Sherlock Holmes and even The Republic by Plato all show similar results.

Workman and Colemak

In the tests above, Colemak and Dvorak offer great improvements over Qwerty, but Workman still comes out ahead. What has Workman to offer over Colemak?

keyboard_graded1

Like Colemak, Workman focuses on putting the frequently used keys in easy to reach places. However, Workman works harder to avoid the middle two rows, minimising lateral and diagonal movement. In general, Workman doesn’t just look at the distance between a key and the home row. It also brings the length and dexterity of different fingers into account and tries to balance utilisation of both hands.

For more information, look at the Pros and Cons on the Workman website.

Download and Install

The Workman layout has been submitted to several big operating systems for approval. For now, you can install it manually on your computer. Using Workman is free, and you can use it on your Mac OS X, Windows, or Linux desktop and a lot of other systems.

Download the ZIP that’s provided by deekayen and follow the instructions included for your operating system to install the keyboard layout.

keyboard-layout

Depending on your operating system, there might be a few flavours of the Workman layout available. The default layout is Workman, plain and simple. Workman Extended adds internationalization support, with more accented letters. Workman-P swaps the numeric and special symbols on the top row, so you don’t have to press shift to reach those symbols.

For Mac OS X, there’s extensive documentation with screenshots available in the Readme on Github.

Practice, Practice, Practice

It takes some time to get used to a new keyboard layout. That’s to be expected; you’ve probably been using Qwerty or a similar keyboard layout for a long time. According to a MakeUseOf poll What Do You Think About Alternative Keyboard Layouts? [MakeUseOf Poll] What Do You Think About Alternative Keyboard Layouts? [MakeUseOf Poll] A huge majority of computer users use Qwerty as their keyboard layout; it’s the default in almost every keyboard in the world, and everyone is used to it. But there are at least two more... Read More on new keyboard layouts, the learning curve is what scares most people. Don’t worry, with the right tools, it’s easier to pick up than you might think.

klavor-org

Klava.org is a great place to get started. It’s free to use and you can jump in right away. It’s a good option if you want to switch cold turkey, because it utilises all the keys on the keyboard. You can start with simple, repetitive words and work your way up to bigger paragraphs of text. It even has a programmer mode, where you can try your hand at C(++), Python, PHP, and other languages.

type-fu

A more gentle approach is offered by Type Fu Type Fu: Ramp Up Your Words-Per-Minute With This Chrome Extension Type Fu: Ramp Up Your Words-Per-Minute With This Chrome Extension Want to increase your typing speed? I’m sure we all do. Not only can we save ourselves a lot of time over years of typing, having a high typing speed can be impressive to see.... Read More . It’s a Chrome app and Mac application ($9.99) that you can try for free. You start at level 1, where you only have to use the home keys. When you reach 30 words per minute a few times in a row, Type Fu cranks it up a notch, all the way up to level 9.

Have you ever thought of ditching Qwerty? Ever tried your hand at a different keyboard layout? Share your experiences below, or let us know how you like Workman!

  1. Anii
    March 10, 2015 at 10:32 am

    A really nice article! I'm currently trying to find the best way to type faster so I'm experimenting with different layouts. This far I have done it in TypingStudy (http://www.typingstudy.com/en-us_workman-3/) but I wanted to ask if anyone of you has used some different "helping softwares" to make the transition?

  2. Gary Clay Rector
    October 10, 2013 at 4:28 am

    I use Dvorak but can see that such newer projects as this Workman layout also offer some advantages. However, having observed many people typing (mostly on the QWERTY layout), I have come to believe that the wrist and hand pain because of repetitive stressful movements is not the fault of the keyboard per se. It is caused by letting the wrists rest and trying to type by moving just the fingers for the most part. This is an awfully stressful, unnatural way to type (and impossible on a typewriter). The wrists should be raised, with the hands not bent but making a straight line with the forearms, and movement between rows and sideways movement when typing should be the duty of the arms. The fingers should mostly just be pressing and releasing in a very small up-and-down movement that requires little force. With this sort of "proper" way of typing, any layout should prove not to cause stress or pain.

  3. me
    September 18, 2013 at 3:19 am

    do you guys really type that slow with qwerty? i mean come on guys, its not that difficult and my fingers aren't "FLYING" around the keyboard any more then the other layouts. imma just stick with what i've been doing for the last 20years

  4. just
    September 16, 2013 at 6:55 pm

    I apologize in advance for the comments I just made, if any Microsoft users got offended. But Workman could save you time, if you at least attempted to try some change. Just like the Other layouts. I don't use that system so I don't even know IF you can change your keyboard layout at all in that system. And I realized that some people just don't do change. Sorry folks. Layout changes are fast and easy on my puter.

  5. Just
    September 16, 2013 at 6:13 pm

    My bad the key is already there between the control key and the alt key, "the Microcrap key". for the people that want their computer to tell them what to do.

  6. just
    September 16, 2013 at 5:57 pm

    It would be as easy as adding ONE more button to push on your keyboard to switch between all different layouts. adding a few lines of code to your operating system, and taking a few seconds to do it. why do people cry about new things to try so often. either do or do not, stop crying.crybabies make me sick.

    • Simon S
      September 16, 2013 at 6:34 pm

      Most operating systems can cycle keyboard layouts without issue. I know I do on Mac and Windows.

  7. Tahir Toor
    September 16, 2013 at 1:07 pm

    Very nice to know that there are some brainy people working out, but it is difficult to switch unless all devices are manufactured onward on this standard.

  8. gregzeng
    September 12, 2013 at 2:01 am

    I only am able to use one hand: right hand. Many workers have only one hand free ... the other for other purposes or other machinery.

    Stenographers preparing real-time transcripts (live tv, interpreting into other languages, verbalizing the non-verbals, etc) need these hand friendly machines too.

    A physical stencil on top of a tablet PC (Apple, Win8, or Android) could be used, one or two handed, with audio feedback of keystrokes, words or phrases, (connectd by wire, bluetooth or wifi) if needed.

    • Simon S
      September 16, 2013 at 6:33 pm

      Hi,

      There are variations of Dvorak that are optimised for one-handed typing. It's less intuitive than Colemak or Workman, but probably one of the best optimisations if you can only use one hand.

  9. goffo
    September 9, 2013 at 11:43 am

    It would be interesting to compare the use of each of these keyboard layouts with auto-word completion and predictive text/phrase software. I suspect that this software solution would greatly reduce the number of keystrokes. Perhaps by so much that the choice of keyboard layout is trivial.

    If other than Qwerty layouts are to be used, the keys can be popped off a bog standard keyboard and pressed back into their appropriate new positions (Google how). But this does not work well with ergonomic keyboards where key heights and shapes differ. It is highly unlikely that any manufacturer could sell profitable quantities of ergonomic keyboards with any of these alternative layouts and certainly not for each of them.

    However rational the use of Dvorak, Colemak or Workman layouts, the
    reluctance to re-learn and the growing attraction of ergonomic keyboards together with auto-word completion software might preserve Qwerty until a phonetically consistent, unambiguous and compact universal language takes root - sometime near forever.

  10. Aamnah
    September 5, 2013 at 4:33 am

    I like that in the CODE keyboard (by WASD keyboards), you can easily switch between layouts on a hardware level with the help of DIP switches on the back. The keyboard currently supports QWERTY, Dvorak and Coleman layouts. Maybe if they add a Workman layout.. hmmm....

  11. Aamnah
    September 5, 2013 at 4:24 am

    What you should have included is a link to a 'product'. A keyboard with Workman layout or keyboard skins with the layout or stickers of some sort. Right now, how do i remember which key's what on my Macbook Air if i switch the layout? That's not efficient. If i have an external keyboard, i can take it with me if i have to deal with 'other computers' that all use QWERTY..

    • Simon S
      September 16, 2013 at 6:30 pm

      TypeMatrix is selling skins for their keyboards.

  12. Lisa O
    September 2, 2013 at 2:21 pm

    Just asking, how's gaming with alternative keyboard layout? Are the buttons still at the same position?

    • Chip Siskey
      September 14, 2013 at 6:54 am

      Well, you'd think "hey it's a computer program. it does what you tell it." Which is great except that some game devs are morons. "Games for Windows" is microsofts way of I guess trying to force people to use xbox controllers. consequently, some of the biggest titles of the last few years (skyrim, gta4, dragon age, etc) were designed at the core to use 12 keys . . . coincidence has it there's that many buttons on an xbox controller. To answer your question tho, but sometimes you're stuck with WASD controls. It's not those games, but everytime I consider learning an alt layout, I see this as a major complaint. Can't say I disagree.

    • Simon S
      September 16, 2013 at 6:27 pm

      Some games will recognise your different keyboard layout. At that point, you won't press the 'w', but the 'second key on the top row' to move in-game.

      Most games don't. You can either start remapping keys in the settings (please don't), or switch between Workman and Qwerty real quick using a shortkey.

    • Tim
      December 18, 2013 at 11:08 am

      It is not a problem. You can easily switch between keyboard layouts in Windows 7 and be proficient in both keyboard layouts if you practice.
      If you have both the dvorak keyboard installed and qwerty then the default key to switch is Left Control + Shift. (in windows 7). You can also dock the keyboard layout in the taskbar and give each layout a different icon so you can see which one is being used.

  13. It dont matter
    August 22, 2013 at 5:52 am

    It really doesn't matter ... yer a day late and about 2 million dollars short. The NEXT move is going to be Verbal. As in SPEECH. That's right. Between companies like Dragon and the like,... we are just ONE generation from TALKING to our computers - and how ODD and funny it will be to our grandchildren that THEIR Parents (our kids ) are going to be told "Gee, How ANCIENT! You had to put in ONE stupid Letter at at TIME? Man that musta been slow! ... Then about 50 yrs after that, we will seem like GODS - because not only COULD we type, but we did it rather quickly compared to those who will give it a try for the first time! Talk about RETRO! LOL ... We are the LIVING RETRO! (gonna go lay down now ... I suddenly feel very old and frail) LOL

    • Simon S
      September 16, 2013 at 6:25 pm

      Maybe you're right. It'd be an interesting development. Voice recognition has come a long way in the past decade. It'll be hard to work with dialects and different languages, though.

  14. Michael D
    August 21, 2013 at 6:47 pm

    This pretty neat but I still don't think I will make the change.

  15. Vincent
    August 21, 2013 at 8:50 am

    I tried Kalq on my android tablet, it does take some time to get the feel of it, but i could continue with this keyboard layout on muy tablet - for real computing, I'll stick to more traditional ones.

  16. Pooky J
    August 21, 2013 at 7:30 am

    What they didn't tell you is that Dvorak is designed in such a way that you're likely to hit the next letter with another hand.

  17. Shawn
    August 21, 2013 at 5:18 am

    I once created my own keyboard design (never a working model) based on similar concepts. I didn't have any data on what letters were used more than others; however, I designed one based on easy finger movements. It had 2 sides both small and rounded. The buttons were small nubs close together and the fingers would move very little for each key.
    I always felt current keyboards required unnatural hand positions.

  18. Alex
    August 21, 2013 at 2:00 am

    I only want to say that if we're ever going to break away from the evils of QWERTY we need to pick a single layout. Fragmentation is the death of major change in cases like this. I personally loved Dvorak, but then I needed to use it for games and vim and emacs and don't even get me started on other people using my computer, or me using other peoples' keyboards. Forget about office work, you say Dvorak in a job interview typing test and they look at you like you're crazy! In the end here I am back on this damn QWERTY layout all over again. I hate it, my hands and fingers hurt and typing takes forever. Instead of squabbling over different alternatives we need to pick ONE and consolidate our efforts and work with developers to make it happen.

    • Chip Siskey
      September 14, 2013 at 6:46 am

      Actually, it's one of the few things in tech that does NOT require standardizing. It requires acceptance, not adoption. It's exactly zero skin off my back to change a computer to dvorak layout and back.

      Therefore the problem isn't the tech or the productivity, it's stodgy peoples propensity to poo on something different that they just don't know anything about.

      Any supervisor worth half a crap would kick up-line the request for IT to add dvorak layout to the standard system load. It requires no resources, about 14 seconds of clicking around for the sysadmin, and the end result is your increased productivity and personal satisfaction with your job. What's not to like?

    • Simon S
      September 16, 2013 at 6:21 pm

      It's a good idea, but I'm afraid it's not likely to happen. Look at how the U.S. still doesn't use the metric system, even though it's an internationally recognised standard. It's a slow and painful process to change a habit, even when you're operating on a small scale. To do it worldwide is simply unworkable.

      What we can do now is experiment. Don't get too hung up on what is 'most' used and try which you personally feel comfortable with. Hopefully this will allow us to evolve and—although we'll fragmentise first—converge to a single standard at some point in the future.

  19. Juan D
    August 21, 2013 at 1:04 am

    as a “i type for a living“ person i can only say: colemak, colemak, colemak?

    • Simon S
      September 16, 2013 at 6:17 pm

      Colemak, indeed. You should give Workman a try, too. It has most of the advantages of Colemak and then some. ;-)

  20. kenny
    August 21, 2013 at 12:53 am

    This is stupid.... Standards dont change because one is better that the other. See vhs vs beta video standards). Other factors come into play. My fear is that i get used to this i wont be able to work with other computers they are not setup for this

    • Lisa O
      September 2, 2013 at 2:19 pm

      Exactly. Muscle memory is useless when other computers still use QWERTY.

    • Simon S
      September 16, 2013 at 6:16 pm

      You're right. Being better is no guarantee for being adopted by the general public. However, I believe you can profit for workman even if the people around you are still using Qwerty.

      It impacts your muscle memory, that's undeniable. Personally, I type at 80% of my previous speed when I go back to a previous layout, cold turkey. It takes just ten to twenty minutes to get back to 90%, though. And in between, I'm at 130% on workman.

  21. dragonmouth
    August 20, 2013 at 10:45 pm

    Maybe if I spend as much time with Workman as I have with QWERTY, I'll get as proficient. Besides, before I start experimenting with Workman, I'll have to re-label all my keys.

    • Simon S
      September 16, 2013 at 6:13 pm

      It depends. If you take a lot of visual cue's while typing, you'll need to relable those keys. If you're type blind, you'll likely only need some help at the start. A print-out of the Workman layout might suffice. And once you're rocking the Workman layout blind, it doesn't matter what's printed on your keys. ;-)

  22. Doc
    August 20, 2013 at 9:05 pm

    Seeing as I learned to touch-type on an Olympia electric typewriter in 1983, **thirty years ago**, you'll get my QWERTY layout when you pry it out of my cold, dead hands.

  23. ReadandShare
    August 20, 2013 at 8:04 pm

    Before we undertake this huge task of keyboard re-standardizing and re-training -- how about if we finish up our decades-long conversion to Metric?? :)

    • Simon Slangen
      August 21, 2013 at 7:14 am

      That's actually going pretty well for most of the world. ;-)

    • buch
      August 21, 2013 at 2:25 pm

      you nailed it ! it is only the great USA which still lives in stone age as far as units are concerned.

    • dumbamerican
      September 16, 2013 at 1:20 pm

      we're dumb and it's easier

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