Computer Keyboard Design Flaws

By Xah Lee. Date: . Last updated: .

The PC keyboard we use today, sucks big time. Let us count the ways.

generic PC keyboard
A Generic PC Keyboard.

PC keyboard we use is derived from the design of typewriters. The design of the typewriter itself, is largely concerned about getting the machine to actually work. Like most inventions, in the beginning the concern is just to get it to work. The concept of keyboarding ergonomics didn't come about or become popular after some 100 years.

Typewriter Hermes-s
A mechanical typewriter made by Hermes, showing hammer jam. This model is dated in around 1920. 3264×2448

Let's consider some examples.

Let's Use Pinky for Important Keys

The ⌫ Backspace key, the Return key, are among the most frequently used special keys. However, they are placed in the most inconvenient spots, pressed by the weakest finger the pinky.

Note that originally, on a typewriter of 1800s, these keys are not that frequently used. The Return exist as a metal bar level for “carriage return”. It is used to move the “carriage” from right to left. The carriage is the tube-like thing that holds paper. Carriage return effectively means positioning the print head to the beginning of line. It is used once about every 80 chars (per line). The ⌫ Backspace is doesn't exist yet.

But with computers, these keys are two of the most frequently used special keys, more than, say, z or comma.

Let's Make a Beehive

mechanical typewriter keyboard
Keys are staggered so that the levers underneath can be evenly spaced.
` 1 2 3 4 5   6 7 8 9 0 - =
   Q W E R T   Y U I O P [ ] \
    A S D F G   H J K L ; '
     Z X C V B   N M , . /

The vertical key column positions are jagged in irregularity. Look at 1 Q A Z. For the left hand, going from key D to E, your middle finger moves upward and in the direction of your pinky. But for right hand, going from K to I, your middle finger moves up in the direction of your thumb.

Let's Burden Right Pinky

The number of keys for the left/right hands are not symmetric.

` 1 2 3 4 5   6 7 8 9 0 - =
   Q W E R T   Y U I O P [ ] \
   A S D F G   H J K L ; '
   Z X C V B   N M , . /
Standard US layout without slant

In the above diagram, notice how the right side has 6 extra keys, operated by your stretched pinky. Especially bad for programers because we need to type the [ ] { } = + often.

Let's Slow Down Typists

Ever wonder why the letters are arranged that way? Look at the top row of your keyboard, you see: Q W E R T Y. It's arranged that way so that frequent letter combinations are hard to type fast so that the hammers won't jam!

Dvorak keyboard layout
Dvorak keyboard layout

Solution: Dvorak Keyboard Layout.

[see Myth of QWERTY vs Dvorak Layout]

Let's Space Out Spacebar

keyboard spacy spacebar 2-s
The Space Bar, spanning 5 keys on Apple laptop keyboard.
〔you can buy SPACEBAR sticker at https://www.etsy.com/uk/listing/191515491/spacebar-batch-number-10-the-original
[image source https://twitter.com/SimoneGiertz/status/708978187599007744 ]

The Space bar, is huge, typically spanning 5 to 6 keys. It's a waste of space! It's that way because it was a lever on mechanical type writers, and the habit stuck.

On older Keyboards up to 1990s, the space bar span 7 to 9 keys! See:

Better design is to have many thumb keys in place of the space bar.

Many modern keyboards now split the space into 2 or more keys. see Tiny Space Bar on Japanese Keyboards and a list at Best Ergonomic Keyboards 2018.

Hand Angle Issues

There are also issues of various hand angles, and hand separation.

Ulnar Deviation

keyboarding RSI ulnar deviation
Ulnar Deviation. [image source http://www.ergomart.com/COMPUTER_KEYBOARDS/Hand_Wrist_Posture.htm]

Ulnar deviation is solved by split keyboards where the keys are separated into 2 groups.

Forearm Pronation

keyboarding RSI forearm Pronation
Forearm Pronation. [image source http://www.ergomart.com/COMPUTER_KEYBOARDS/Hand_Wrist_Posture.htm]

Forearm Pronation is solved by split/ergonomic keyboards that are curved/tilted. [see Best Ergonomic Keyboards 2018]

Wrist Dorsiflexion

Microsoft sculpt ergonomic keyboard 90852
Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard, solving the wrist dorsiflexion problem by raising the palm rest. Microsoft Ergonomic Keyboard

and there's also wrist dorsiflexion, meaning bending up the palm. This happens when you use a thick keyboard that sits on a flat desk and your forearm rests on the desk surface. Especially bad when the keyboard's back legs are propped up.

This is solved in several ways:

Best Ergonomic Keyboards

Best Ergonomic Keyboards 2018

Research on Keyboard Ergonomics

Scientific Research on Keyboard Ergonomics

Key Switch Topic

  1. Computer Keyboard Design Flaws
  2. Guide to Keyboard Key Switch Mechanisms
  3. Mechanical Keyboard Noise Comparison
  4. What's NKRO, N-key Rollover?
  5. Blank Keycaps vs Labeled Keys
  6. Keyboard Keycaps: ABS, PBT
  7. Keyboard Key Label Tech
  8. List of Keyboards with Mechanical Switch
  9. List of Keyboards with Topre Switch
  10. XMIT Hall Effect Switch Keyboard
  11. Kailh Switch Keyboards
  12. Mechanical Keyboard and Repetitive Strain Injury
  13. List of Hardware Dvorak Layout Keyboards
  14. Programable Keyboards with Onboard Memory
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