What's the Most Efficient Keyboard Layout? Dvorak vs Colemak?

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There are many keyboard layouts. Some claim to be better than Dvorak layout. 〔☛ Keyboard Layouts Fight! Dvorak, Colemak, Workman, NEO, Bépo, …〕 For languages other than English, then improving on Dvorak is significant. However, for English languages, even for programers, improving on Dvorak seems to be a lost cause. This page tells you why.

Which Layout is the Most Efficient? Really?

PAT's Keyboard Layout Analyzer

Patrick Gillespie wrote a web app at http://patorjk.com/keyboard-layout-analyzer/. The app is very simple and visual oriented. It takes a input text, and computes simple distances and finger frequency among 5 layouts: {QWERTY, Dvorak, Colemak, Capewell, Arensito}. Plus, it also generates a new layout that is optimal for the input text you used.

MAJOR FLAW: The site only compare simple measures such as distances, row positions, and finger ease. It does not take consideration of ease of digraph, hand alternation, etc. (⁖ try to type “mommy you ok” in QWERTY.)

Michael Capewell's Keyboard Evolve

Michael Capewell, author of the Capewell layout, wrote a software Keyboard Evolve, that uses evolutionary algorithms to arrive at a optimal layout. http://www.michaelcapewell.com/programming/keyboardevolve.htm. Here's a quote:

Unfortunately, I have yet to find the holy grail of keyboard layout evolution parameters! Things are complicated by there being a fundamental difference in how curved, ergonomic keyboards and plain, rectangular keyboards are used — the way I see things, they have different home “rows.” This program works best for ergonomic keyboards. I'm in the process of finding the right balance between the two…

The moral here is: What keyboard hardware you use has more impact to hand health than layout.

Physical Keyboard Differences Matter Significantly on Ergonomics of Key Position

• The quality of the key, MATTERS significantly. Is it shallow as in laptop? is it deep like IBM model M Buckling Spring? is it mechanical key switch? 〔☛ Keyboard: Effect of Mechanical Key Switch on You〕 Even on laptop, all using shallow keys with scissor-switch, different brand has significant difference on how the typing feels.

• The physical key positions matters significantly. You might think that all PC keyboard are pretty much the same. Not so. The exact position of Alt key actually differs depending on the keyboard. On some, it's to the lower left of x, while on others, it's lower right of x. On laptop, it varies more. Different ergonomic keyboard's various curves and alignment also has major impact.

carPalx Study

carPalx, at http://mkweb.bcgsc.ca/carpalx/ , is a site dedicated to studying efficiency of keyboard layouts. The site is created by a Martin Krzywinski, a bioinformatics scientist.

The study assumes English language, and assumes the standard PC keyboard physical key layout. It uses statistics to find a best model of efficiency measurements, then evaluate the different layouts. carPalx is the most thorough study on keyboard layout efficiency and quite technical. You can spend several days studying the site.

When you study keyboard layout as carPalx did, one thing quickly becomes obvious. The difficulty in creating the “most efficient” isn't about computing distances or gathering statistics, but finding the proper metrics. For example, what weight should you give to minimizing distance of finger travel, ease of digraph, alternating hands, avoiding single-finger repetition? Should the key J and K have a ease-of-press score difference of 0.1 or 0.2?

According to him, the layouts from best to worst are: QFMLWY, QGMLWB, QGMLWY, Colemak, Dvorak, Capewell, Arensito, QWERTY. See: 〔Full Optimization - Q*MLW* Layouts By Martin Krzywinski. @ mkweb.bcgsc.ca…〕.

MAJOR FLAW of carPalx study:

No Consideration of Hardware Key Layout Problems

Keyboard layout studies on the web always assume the common PC keyboard's physical key layout.

pc keyboard physical key layout
PC keyboard physical key layout

It's easy to write computer program to compute the various frequencies and distances of the PC keyboard's keys. It is also easy to create a keyboard layout. But it is difficult to invent a different physical key layout that fixes some serious PC keyboard problems. Thus, all online layout studies simply focus on shuffling of the keys of the IBM PC Keyboard shape.

{Tab Enter Shift} Break Ya Fingers

The PC keyboard's physical-key layout has several major flaw with respect to ergonomics. For example, the {Enter ↵, Tab ↹, ⌫ Backspace}, are most frequently used keys but requires the pinky to press. In particular, the {Enter ↵, ⇧ RShift, ⌫ Backspace} keys require the pinky to stretch over 1 column of keys. If you are using a European keyboard 〔☛ QWERTZ, AZERTY〕, then there's 2 extra columns of keys for your pinky to stretch over to reach Enter ↵.

〔☛ Keyboard Hardware Design Flaws

You might think that these keys are not used that often. But most keyboarding activities are not input of letter characters, especially in computer programing. Most of the time you are editing. You use editing keys such as {, , , , ⌫ Backspace, Enter ↵, Tab ↹} or emacs/vi keybinding, more often than some of the letter keys.

From statistical study of emacs commands, the percentage of editing related key presses is 48% of all key presses! 〔☛ Emacs's Command Frequency

From my recent experience, if you just type the Enter ↵ key and Tab ↹ key all day, just these two keys and nothing else, on a standard PC keyboard with rubber dome key switch, with hands at touch-typing positions, do it once every second, for 8 hours, you'll get RSI fast. 〔☛ Programer Hand Health: vi Esc Key Syndrome

The Load of the Pinky

  ` 12345 67890 -=
    qwert yuiop []\
    asdfg hjkl; '
    zxcvb nm,./
Standard US layout without slant. Note the 5 extra keys for you right pinky.

Another problem of PC keyboard's physical-keys layout is that the right hand has 5 more letter/symbol keys than the left, and all of them are pressed by stretched pinky. Especially important for programers, some of these keys are: {[, ], {, }, =, +}. These keys are used more often than z, for example. 〔☛ Computer Languages Character Distribution

Just How Much Do You Type?

If layout X is better than layout Y by 1% when using Shakespeare's work as input, but will your life time's typing get that 1% benefit?

If your typing doesn't come anywhere close to a data-entry clerk, then any layout “more efficient” than Dvorak is practically meaningless.

Many programers claim they type all day. If you log your keystrokes, you may find that you actually just type less than 30 minutes per day if typed continuously. For detail, see: How Many Keystrokes Programers Type a Day?.

Keyboard Shortcut (Keybinding) Layout is More Important!

vi users often develop RSI due to vi Esc key Syndrome. Emacs users may develop the Emacs Pinky Syndrome due to key combinations.

From a study of Emacs's Command Usage Frequency, statistically, 50% keystrokes are for editing commands (⁖ moving cursor, deleting words). For most programers, less than 50% of keystrokes are entering letters.

So, if you are a programer, the layout for command keybinding are equal or more important than the layout of the letter keys.

Ergonomics of Keyboard is More Important!

If you are using standard straight PC keyboard or laptop keyboard, it would be far more significant in efficiency and hand health to switch to a ergonomic keyboard than using some improved Dvorak layout.

For some choices of keyboard that improve the PC keyboard physical key layout, see: Ergonomic Keyboards Gallery.

Problems with Cut Copy Paste Keys?

Many people think that the shortcut keys for {undo z, cut x, copy c, paste v} is perfect as is, and many layouts, including {Colemak, Asset, Norman, qwpr} are designed specifically to retain these key positions.

Actually, the {z, x} key positions on QWERTY induces RSI. For detail, see: Keyboard: Why Undo Cut Keys Wreck Your Hand.

Painful Transition from QWERTY?

As for the painful transition for those already touch-type QWERTY, i don't think there's a way out. I was QWERTY typist employed as a data-entry clerk in 1992. It took me 2 months to relearn touch typing on Dvorak, and i remember the process is extremely painful. (See: Dvorak Keyboard Layout and My Experiences) If you are going to retrain your muscle memory, you might as well go with the more universal Dvorak. It is a ANSI Standard; builtin in Windows and Mac OS X, with wide support from all keyboard related devices today. I think it's silly to save one month of relearning for something you use for the rest of your life.

Designing a keyboard layout is one of those things nerdy engineers or hobbyists love to do. It's like a purity trap. They smell “design” and “efficiency” and they fell into the hole. They spend months, years, on something that has little practical implication. See also: Colemak vs Workman.

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