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Monday, July 5, 2010

Keyboard Layouts

This page has moved!  Access the updated post by clicking above.  In the interest in preserving the information integrity of the Internet (1), the original post is still available below.

(1) Tim Berners-Lee would be proud.


QWERTY is not the final word on keyboard layouts!

The standard English QWERTY layout is very poorly designed.  When one looks at the letters in the 'Home Row' (A-S-D-F-J-K-L-;), it's probably not too hard to believe that less than one-third of your typing is going to take place on these keys.  This is significant, because these are the key that do not require you to move your fingers to strike them!  The result is that the English typing speed is significantly slower than it could be, if the keyboard had been organized to put the most-used keys on the Home Row.  This layout is purely an historical artifact, and was designed to conform to the needs of 1890's typewriter technology, which would often jam if two adjacent keys were struck rapidly in succession.

The best example of a keyboard that actually makes sense is probably the Turkish layout:

The language uses the Turkish Latin alphabet, and therefore requires its own dedicated keyboard.  The layout was developed in collaboration with the Turkish Language Institute with the goals of maximizing use of the Home Row, locating the other often-used keys in places that are anatomically easiest and fastest to strike, and evenly distributing the typing load between the left and right hands.  These design criteria have resulted in the most efficient keyboard layout to-date; the fastest Turkish typists regularly outpace the fastest typists in the rest of the world.

The English-language user has not been left out!  The Dvorak layout, named after inventor August Dvorak and commonly known as the American Simplified Layout (ASK), has sought to correct some of the issues with the standard English QWERTY layout.  The Home Row (A-O-E-U-H-T-N-S) actually makes sense, and maximum typing speed is increased.  The Dvorak layout is standard enough that it comes installed with most modern operating systems, so making the layout switch is fairly straightforward.  The downside?  You have to learn it, which takes time.  Websites like Dvorak Keyboard Training provide interactive practice to get you moving in the right direction.

What if you're learning another language?  You have several options: learning the obnoxious Unicode input codes, settling for 'ss' and 'ae' when you really mean ß and ä, or... changing your keyboard layout.  There are very many keyboard layouts currently available, so it's just a matter of figuring out exactly what you're looking for and changing some operating system settings (you do NOT need to buy a new keyboard!).

Take the standard German layout, for instance: it is based on the English QWERTY, but with Y and Z switched and quite a few changes to the locations of the symbols and other miscellaneous things.  It includes the German-specific characters (Ö-Ä-Ü-ß) and an increased number of dead keys (keys that change the function of the other keys, like SHIFT).  There are two dead keys for accented characters (á, ê, í); while these characters aren't actually used in Germany, a European German user is very likely to deal with Spanish, French, and other languages that do.  Not surprisingly, this layout comes standard with all operating systems, and making the layout switch to German is very straightforward.

...but I just said that QWERTY (or QWERTZ in this case) is slow!  Never fear; the Neo Users Group has created the German equivalent to the Dvorak layout.  This doesn't ship with most operating systems, but installation is pretty straightforward if you follow the directions on their website.  Can't read the website?  If you don't know German, why are you trying to install a modified German layout?!

Most modern operating systems allow for rapid switching between the different keyboard layouts that you have installed.  In Windows 7, for instance, you can rapidly switch between multiple input languages and keyboard layouts by clicking on the little icons that appear in the system taskbar:
Do you have any experience with alternative keyboard layouts?  Do you think keyboard layout makes a difference to typing speed?  Would you be willing to try a new layout?  Comment!


  1. There are also some attempts to design layouts better than Dvorak using evolutionary algorithms -- Arensito and Capewell are two I remember. The problem is that nobody really knows what fitness function should be used to compare them...

  2. 1) Round up an infinite number of people who have never typed before.
    2) Distribute to them the set of every possible keyboard configuration.
    3) Every five minutes, feed the slowest typist to a lion.