When researching this article on google, I found that the subject of my post today is one that elicits angry, angry responses from people. And I know this to be true: I've experienced it first hand. I've often been a little puzzled at such reactions, but analysis of it isn't the subject of today's article: it's about keyboard layouts. So what can I say? Please don't take offence at my opinions about best practice in typing. Maybe just remember this article for when (if?) you develop symptoms of RSI.
Phew, with that out of the way, let me fill you in on my recent adventures in keyboard layouts. I'm a pretty damn good QWERTY typist, but I've also got really bad hands. I won't go on with medical lingo, but I'll say that I can't use laptop keyboards for very long, and even on my Kinesis kit (which is a life-saver), I've got to be careful to take breaks and so on, otherwise I find myself unable to type for a couple of days while my hands recover.
This shouldn't come as any surprise though, QWERTY is notoriously bad in terms of the amount of work the typist has to do. I won't go on with all the metrics people cite, because those are easy to find too.
So, every once in a while, I think to myself that it'd be great to learn an alternative layout. It seems like a solved problem, but it is a bit of a time investment, so it's not something I do flippantly, and I've been wrong about it before: some time ago, I taught myself the Dvorak layout. A lot of the criticism leveled at alternative keyboard layouts is that they take too long to learn. And maybe they do; that depends on your perspective. For me, I was able to type effectively on Dvorak after about 2 weeks. I still wasn't as fast as QWERTY (sorry, I don't have measurements to hand), but certainly fast enough to be productive at work.
But for me, it's not about speed. Dvorak held the promise of making my hands do less work, and that's a big deal to me: it means I can work longer: both as in more hours in the day, and also more years of my life. I used it for a little while, but eventually gave it away. The reason I couldn't keep using it is that while as a total my hands did less work, it placed more strain on my right hand than with QWERTY; in particular on the right pinky (which, after a terrible window-closing accident, is my weakest finger). And honestly, it was a real mental exercise to learn, which meant that I'd moved fatigue from my left hand to my right hand and brain. I viewed it as a net loss, so just ramped up the number of typing breaks I was taking a bit, and switched back to QWERTY.
That was a while ago now, but fairly recently I stumbled upon Colemak, which is a newer keyboard layout than QWERTY and Dvorak, and has a few properties that I find appealing. The key points are that they've made it easier to learn (far less mental fatigue when learning it), resolved the lopsidedness of Dvorak, including right-pinky-work, and it requires far less work to use in total than either QWERTY or Dvorak.
Sounds too good to be true!
So, I've been giving it a go. A lot of people have a lot of advice about the best way to learn a new keyboard layout. For me, my continued productivity is key to my survival, so I can't really afford to produce less stuff while I learn. For this reason, I've been typing QWERTY for most of my day, but once I get to a point where muscle fatigue means that I'd be slowing down, I switch my keyboard over to Colemak. It works pretty well for me: as things stand, I can't type as fast in Colemak, which means I just naturally type fewer keys per minute, but it's also very easy to see that your hands do way less work when using Colemak, so I almost equate it with a typing break. And little by little, I've been getting better at it.
So far, I've found it far less frustrating than Dvorak, and after the hectic finger-moshing that QWERTY requires, it's honestly a bit of a relief to get to my Colemak sessions in the afternoon. But, I'm not there yet, and it's going to take a bit of time with my chosen method of learning. But, in less than a week of 0.5-1 hour per day, I've started doing basic "chords". I thought it would be easier for me to learn, having learnt Dvorak, but interestingly it doesn't seem to be. My brain seems figure that if I'm not typing QWERTY, I must be typing Dvorak, so there's a few keys which I always seem to reach for the Dvorak location on. But, I'm getting better way faster than Dvorak.
So yeah, I can't claim that it's a perfect solution yet; I can't yet do a whole day's work in it to be able to compare. But, if you're finding that typing is becoming a chore, I recommend that you check it out.
While learning, I made this layout diagram, which I found useful:
Which is based on the one on the Colemak site. The dark blue keys are the ones that are shared with QWERTY, light blue are a handful of keys I kept finding I needed for various commands I use a lot (mostly for bash and vim), and the purple keys are the vowels. The red line in the middle is where the split between sides of the keyboard are on the Kinesis keyboard. They've also got different colour coded images on their site, but they're more targeted at people who can't touch-type in QWERTY.
Before I leave you, I'll make just one more point. Touch-typing, in whatever layout, is a good move. If you do a lot of typing, you've probably already developed most of the skills you need (you remember where all the keys are). Again, speed isn't my focus here; I just found that learning to touch-type meant that I could devote more of my mind to processing what was on the screen, which ultimately meant that I could get more done. Learning Colemak might be a good opportunity to reform.
Anyway, if you do try it, I'd be interested to hear your experiences. Happy typing!