How I Quickly Mastered A Superior Keyboard Layout Without Losing Productivity

colemak thumb   How I Quickly Mastered A Superior Keyboard Layout Without Losing ProductivityIf 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 best keyboard for modern needs? I say, definitely not.

I’m not the only one to think so: There are plenty of alternative keyboard layouts, starting with the well-known Dvorak, all the way to more esoteric keyboards like the ASETNIOP, a chorded layout. Almost four years ago, in July 2008, I decided to try out an alternative layout called Colemak.

I haven’t looked back since, but more importantly, I was able to learn it while staying productive, a pretty unique feat when ditching 20 years of touch-typing knowledge.

Why Mess With Something That Works?

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QWERTY became popular in 1878 – we are now in 2012. At the time, QWERTY was definitely designed for speed: It was built so typewriter keys wouldn’t jam when people typed fast. But when was the last time you found yourself hammering away at a mechanical typewriter? Is there any good reason to have letters such as I, O, and U off the home row these days?

The short answer is “no.” QWERTY is such a sore thumb and a relic that it presents an irresistible target for tweakers and optimizers, and tools like carPalx let anyone design their own perfect keyboard layout while taking into account factors such as finger travel distance, symmetric hand use, curling and extending fingers, and more. But you don’t have to design your own layout: Some very smart and dedicated individuals have already worked hard at this problem, and it’s likely the layout you need is already out there.


What is Colemak?

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That’s Colemak right there. It’s a keyboard layout designed by Shai Coleman, and it has a number of unique characteristics: Most importantly, it’s based off QWERTY. Only 17 keys have been moved, and important keys like ZXCV (used for undo, cut, copy, paste) retain their QWERTY positions, as do the brackets, commonly used in programming (the semicolon does change location, though).

It is a feat of engineering, because it cuts the motion required of your fingers by more than 50% compared to QWERTY. When I type, my fingers don’t fly all over the keyboard, but mainly remain around the home row. In other words, it’s very comfortable. Another interesting advantage is its elimination of the caps lock key in favor of a second Backspace key – so no more inadvertent SHOUTING.

It’s a pretty fast layout, too:

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That’s my result on Key Hero, a simple typing test. Note that you can get the same result, or even a better one, with QWERTY – but your fingers will have to move a lot more, and the typing experience won’t be as comfortable.

What about Dvoark, you ask? Good question: Dvorak is an excellent layout, but it changes far more keys, and the net effect is not better, as scientifically proven by carPalx.

The Challenge: Not Swapping Keys, Not Losing Productivity

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That’s my keyboard right there, or at least, its “important” part where all the letters are. It’s the legendary Microsoft Natural 4000, a fantastic ergonomic keyboard, but there’s just one problem with it when trying to swap layouts: The keys are all shaped differently. You can’t start pulling out keys and rearranging them, because they don’t fit into other positions. Also, Microsoft has done a thorough job on the keycaps, and the letters don’t wear off, so you’re pretty much stuck with QWERTY on the keys. That means I had to learn Colemak without looking at the keyboard – part one of the challenge.

The other part of the challenge was related to what I do for a living, i.e, writing. Switching to Colemak cold-turkey would have meant completely losing my ability to type, dropping down to maybe five words per minute – not something I could afford. So I had to find a way to learn to touch-type Colemak without losing productivity.

Taking Off Gradually With Tarmac

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In February 2008, a Colemak user who goes by the nickname DreymaR published an interesting thread on the Colemak forum called Learning it one hand at a time?! where he came up with a brilliant observation: It turns out the Colemak layout has built-in “loops” of keys. You can first change the position of just three keys, (L, U, and I, shown above) and keep typing with regular QWERTY until you’re comfortable with the change. This can take a few weeks or even months. Also, while L, U and I switch places, they don’t switch hands, which makes a big difference. Then, you can switch seven other keys, still on the right hand. At this point you end up with your left hand typing QWERTY, and your right hand typing almost-Colemak. Work like this for a while – it took me several months until I was fully comfortable.

Finally, once you’re happy with the change, just move to full-on Colemak. Presto – you’re done. I have documented my experience at the time using a forum thread from the very first day, all the way up until I could type Colemak easily. If you’re curious, you can go to the thread and see exactly how things went.

One amusing note: On the first message of the thread, I documented my QWERTY performance at the time: “84 wpm, 43 finger repeats, 10.45 meters travelled (on Hi-Games.net).” Today, just for fun, I repeated that test with Colemak:

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It’s Worth It

That’s basically the upshot here. Switching a keyboard layout may seem daunting, maybe even crazy. But if you take the time to do it, especially with such a uniquely gradual approach, it can really pay off for years in improved comfort and speed. If you do a lot of typing, this is a change you’ll thank yourself for down the road.

Image Credit: Anthony Albright

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27 Comments -

Mihovil Pletikos

the biggest problem is that it works well on your computer, but when you go to some other computer it feels confusing…… so i lost my interest in other layouts

Joel Lee

This sounds like a pretty big problem, actually. Having to stay up to date with Colemak for home and QWERTY for everywhere else seems like a pain.

Does anyone know a way around this?

istivan

Erez covered this here, a portable keyboard layout.

cicas

Well that was my only “against” argument and now I have nothing so I have to learn new layout :D
I’ll also try to find some solution downloadable from my dropbox in case I forget my USB stick..
Thanks:)

Joel Lee

Awesome! Thanks a lot. Colemak, here I come!

Erez Zukerman

Woot! Don’t forget to report on how this goes!

Richard

I switched to dvorak a while ago and had the same issue. I found a little program call DvorakAssist which basically allows you to change layouts by starting up that program. I carry it with me on my USB everywhere and works fine on Windows. I’ve never used Colemak myself, but if it is indeed just something you install you could probably just do that, although I don’t know to what extent that will bother other people.

PhilipS

Interesting! I’ve added it to my (long) list of things to try some day.

istivan

Great article; this might be just what helps me take the leap. The Tarmac idea’s really neat.

One thing I find interesting is the frequent berating of the CAPS lock key. I personally find it useful (although, admittedly not that often) and rarely hit it by mistake. Why all the hate? I had it disabled for a while but eventually turned it back on! hehe

Rowdy Rob

I do occasionally hit the caps lock key by accident, and it does cause some minor irritations. I think part of the problem is that it’s underneath the “Tab” key, which is a key that is frequently used for switching between input boxes on web forums (like this one). It’s also right next to the “A” key on the home row! One misplaced pinky, and suddenly you’re shouting at the world!

I can’t think of a compelling reason to have a caps lock key, especially on a computer keyboard. Perhaps it could be a button on the side, near the “home/end/page up/page down” keys are. But it’s especially troublesome where it is right now, considering the fact that “caps mode” is something most people rarely need to do.

cicas

Well while this might be true, is Backspace really the key I want in this problematic place? Btw CapsLock could be triggered by some other key like Ctrl (so ctrl+”key below tabulator” could act as capslock and the same key by itself could possess other function). But I don’t think backspace is the best idea – or at least better. Any idea?

Erez Zukerman

Just to clarify: It’s not that I hate the caps lock key, but I think that using it as an extra Backspace key is quite handy. I mean, I tend to delete text more often than I tend to write in all caps, and the caps lock is in a good location. That said, I don’t think it’s one of the most essential things about Colemak, and I often don’t even have it enabled (I mean, I have the entire layout, but not the caps lock, because that require separate tweaking to install on Windows).

guryushika

Hi, I’m french and I’m a bépo user and a typematrix user, it took me 1 week to get used to bépo on a typematrix keyboard, and now I can’t (I don’t want to) go back to regular non orthogonal layout azerty keyboard.
I hope one day one big company will grow balls and give buyers the choice of keys layout (QWERTY/AZERTY/QWERTZ and DVORAK/COLEMAK/BÉPO…etc) with orthogonal layout keyboards only.
As you said it’s 2012!!!!!!!! and we are still using technology from 2 centuries ago!!!!
Thank you for your article :)

Erez Zukerman

Sure thing, and I’m glad you liked it! I must admit I’ve always been curious about TypeMatrix keyboards — are they comfortable to use? (I’m pretty much hooked on my MS 4000)

Nick

Seems like a really hipster way of using a keyboard. There really is no functional reason to learn a new layout when almost all keyboards are qwerty, and it’d take extra time to learn a layout.

Erez Zukerman

Don’t knock it till you’ve tried it. You should watch the fingers of a Colemak typist and a QWERTY typist typing the same text — Colemak involves half the amount of motion. If you type a lot, that’s half the fatigue and RSI.

Ryan Dube

I agree Nick – learning on a qwerty keyboard from a young age results in the ability to type without really thinking about it. A new layout seems illogical, unless of course a person never learned out to type and just wants to make it faster to chicken-peck certain keys. :-)

Scutterman

Does anyone know of any layouts that could help with RSI? I’ve been getting it in my fingers a lot, to the point where it’s sometimes hard to work for a full day, and if a new keyboard layout could help with that, I may give it a try.

Scutterman

Thanks for the link. Mainly it was just saying what I already know, though the guide may be interesting to read. I can’t get the link to work right now.

I think that Colemak may help, since less distance travelled means less work for the fingers. I just need the time and dedication to start using it.

Erez Zukerman

Another very important factor (more so than the layout, imho) is the keyboard you’re using. What type of keyboard do you have?

Also, have you tried speech recognition software? I was impressed with Dragon when I tried it. Fairly expensive, but it worked amazingly well.

Scutterman

I use a standard dell keyboard both at work and at home, and I also have an emachines laptop that I use the built in keyboard on. I’ve considered speech recognition before, but I do mainly web development so I’m not sure how accurate speech recognition would be in that environment.

Øystein ‘DreymaR’

Hi, this is DreymaR from the Colemak forum. :)

What I find to be as important as Colemak itself is another nice feature of the Portable Keyboard Layout program: The Extend mode! Instead of remapping the CapsLock to Backspace you make it a modifier to get not just Backspace but arrows and all sorts of useful keys right at your home position. Very useful for both productivity and comfort.

I also use an ergonomic mod called Angle/Wide that leads to straight wrists which is important, and some finger load rebalancing. More for the interested that one, but I recommend it at least.

Scutterman

Both of those seem interesting. If I do switch layouts, I’ll look into adding both.

Binaryphile

I stopped using the QGMLWB fully-optimized layout from carpal-x after using it for about 8 months so I could regain my lost QWERTY skills. When I decided to go back to QGMLWB so I could become proficient at both at the same time, I found it too difficult to maintain and decided to give Colemak a try because it doesn’t try to remap every key, and because of its popularity.

Unfortunately, I found that learning a new layout was more painful than reviving my suppressed QGMLWB skills. However, having a basis to compare all three layouts taught me something important.

I realized that the greatest difficulties I had with learning new keys were those that moved off of the same finger, and those that moved in relation to the other keys around them.

I figured out that it I could move a much greater number of keys if a) they all moved together and b) they stayed with the same fingers. What I found is that this approach valued the flow of my typing and the finger impulses I had. I only had to modify the aim, not the entire finger or hand, and this resulted in less thinking and greater accuracy.

The simplest example of this would be to switch the entire home row with the upper row of the keyboard. I’m using this just as an example, although according to the stats, this is actually an improvement for home-row typing percentage.

If you make that switch, you’ve changed over 2/3 of the keys on the keyboard. However, you’ll quickly find that this layout is *easier* to learn than any other. After an initial period of confusion, your brain snaps into the switch and gets it that it’s just a row transposition, which is a simpler transform than swapping individual keys. It doesn’t have to figure out individual key transpositions after that.

After making that realization, I decided to use that as the guiding principle for a new layout, one that achieves the best possible home-row frequency while making transpositions in chunks, and one that honors finger impulses where it doesn’t. I wrote up my results as a website: http://minimak.org/. After using it for a couple days, I was able to achieve more progress than I had with either QGMLWB or Colemak in the same amount of time. I’m interested to hear other people’s experiences, if you’re willing to try.

It shares a tiny bit with Colemak in that it moves substantially fewer keys than most layouts, but it’s more like the Asset layout in its goal. It resembles neither when you look at it though. Take a look and see what you think.

Erez Zukerman

Hi there,

This is the most epic comment I’ve ever received since starting to write for MUO. Have looked at your site, and the layout looks really interesting.

What typing speeds did you get with it? Do you have a rough estimate of how many users are using this layout?

Binaryphile

Thanks, I do get a bit verbose…glad that it sometimes gets interpreted as epicness. ;)

I’m an average typist by nature in the first place, around 80wpm according to typeracer.com, now about the same with Minimak and didn’t get any faster with QGMLWB either. I like challenging myself and wanted to see what it would be like to try a new layout. I honestly didn’t know if my fingers would be capable after 20+ years of QWERTY!

I’d say the primary benefit rather than speed would just be reduced finger motion compared to QWERTY. I loved the feel of Carpal-x fully-optimized; it felt like hardly moving. Minimak is somewhat similar to that feel, although probably not as aesthetically pleasing because it doesn’t optimize for all the things Carpal-x takes into account. We’ll see in time as it’s still new even to me by comparison. I’d imagine Colemak feels similar, going by your description.

The whole experience just emphasized to me how hard it is to learn a new layout, and how important it is to take that into account in layout design. It was also hard to maintain QWERTY (although Colemak surely fairs better). While I came to believe in the principles behind Colemak, I thought there was still a way to take it further.

Since I only came up with the layout a month ago, the jury is definitely still out, but I hope it can be helpful to someone else as well.