What's the Most Efficient Keyboard Layout?

By Xah Lee. Date: . Last updated: .

There are many alternative keyboard layouts, such as Dvorak, Colemak, etc. Which is best? 〔►see Alternative Keyboard Layouts

Let's find out!

Flaws in Popular Keyboard Layout Studies

Here's 3 of the most popular sites that study keyboard layouts.

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 bigram, hand alternation, etc. (For example, try to type “mommy you ok” in QWERTY.)

English bigram frequency norvig 2013 01 06
English bigram frequency. 〔 English Letter Frequency Counts: Mayzner Revisited By Peter Norvig. At http://norvig.com/mayzner.html

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 you use has more impact to hand health than layout.

Physical Keyboard Differences Matter Significantly on Ergonomics of Keys

For example, suppose, there's a command you need to call 2 hundred times a day (e.g. move cursor forward by word). You are wondering, if Ctrl+k is better or Alt+8. Which one of these is more comfortable, ergonomic?

The difference between keyboards will significantly effect decisions like this, even if you have 2 almost identical PC form/shaped keyboards just different brand name.

〔►see Function Key vs Key Chord, Which is Healthier, Which is Faster?

• 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? Even on laptop, all using shallow keys with scissor-switch, different brand has significant difference on how the typing feels.

〔►see Does Mechanical Keyboard Reduce Risk of Repetitive Strain Injury?

• The physical key positions matters significantly. You might think that all PC keyboard are about 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. The precise position of a key has effect on how you press it, which in turn, has long-term effect on your hand health.

carPalx Study

carPalx, at http://mkweb.bcgsc.ca/carpalx/ , is a site dedicated to studying efficiency of keyboard layouts. The site is created by 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 making subtle judgement on what's considered more efficient. For example, is minimizing distance of finger travel more important than alternating hands? How important do we assign to ease of bigram? What weight should we attach to 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. At http://mkweb.bcgsc.ca/carpalx/?full_optimization〕.

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 a 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.

(since 2013, there's a explosion of modern ergonomics keyboards that do explore the ergonomics of hardware layout. e.g. ergodox, keyboard.io, Microsoft sculpt, truely ergo, Esrille, uTRON, etc. See Ergonomic Keyboard Reviews)

Tab Enter Shift Break Ya Fingers

The PC keyboard's physical-key layout has several major flaws with respect to ergonomics. For example, the {Enter ↵, Tab}, are frequently used keys but requires the pinky to press.

The ⌫ Backspace is most frequently used, but it's in a awkward position, you press it with stretched pinky or ring finger, or twist wrist to press with middle finger.

The {Enter ↵, ⇧ RShift, ⌫ Backspace} keys require the pinky to stretch over 1 column of keys. If you are using a European keyboard 〔►see QWERTZ, AZERTY〕, then there's 2 extra columns of keys for your pinky to stretch over to reach Enter ↵.

〔►see Computer Keyboard Design Flaws

From statistics of emacs commands, the percentage of editing related keystroke (such as Tab, Return ↩, ⌫ Backspace) is 48% of all keystrokes! 〔►see 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. 〔►see 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. 〔►see Computer Languages Characters Frequency

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 may not mean much.

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?.

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 (For example, 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 improved letter layout.

For some choices of keyboard that improve the PC keyboard physical key layout, see: Best Ergonomic Keyboards 2017.