The keyboard is an incredibly important computer peripheral for computer programmers. It’s the means by which the brain interacts with the computer most heavily on a nearly endless basis throughout the day.
Since the vast majority if your work will be done through your keyboard, it’s time to ask yourself – shouldn’t I optimize my keyboard as much as possible? We suggest taking a look at our guide to the best keyboard for programmers in addition to reading this post!
The Case for Ditching QWERTY
If you’re a computer programmer, you likely spend at least 2,000 hours at your keyboard at work every year. If you average an additional 3 hours a day at a computer when you’re at home, then you’re looking at over 3,000 hours every year spent behind a keyboard.
With so much time spent typing, the obvious answer is you absolutely should strive to make your keyboard as optimal as possible!
Optimizing your keyboard can be done across a few different means. It can be buying a better keyboard for programming or setting up your keyboard so it’s more ergonomic for your fingers wrists. Today, we’re going to talk about a lesser thought about means to optimize your keyboard – your keyboard layout.
A Brief History of the QWERTY Layout
If you aren’t exactly sure what the phrase “keyboard layout” refers to, or didn’t even know there are alternatives, you’re not alone. Most people have only ever known QWERTY, the default keyboard layout across every Western country.
QWERTY was invented in the early 1870’s and first used on a series of typewriters. By the late 1870’s, the Remmington Standard 2 became the first widely produced and purchased typewriter which features essentially the same exact QWERTY layout we use today across all our modern devices. In 1893, the five largest typewriter manufacturers agreed to make QWERTY the standard layout.
Simply because QWERTY was first to market and because learning a new keyboard layout is such a pain, a 130 year old typewriter layout remains the standard in our digital world.
There’s not a whole lot know for certain as to why the keys on a QWERTY layout are placed where they are. In fact, just about every theory is debated. The most popular theory is that frequently used keys were tried to not be placed next to one another, or else the typewriter could jam if typing quickly.
Another theory is that Morse-code operators played a large role in the design of the layout by requesting that certain letters that sound alike be placed next to one another.
Regardless of why QWERTY was made the way it was, what’s really important is that it is in no way optimized for the modern keyboards.
Before we jump into the alternatives to QWERTY, let’s take a moment to discuss what makes these layouts more efficient for typing.
Benefits of an Optimal Keyboard Layout
Switching to an alternative layout is going to take some serious effort in order to rewire years of muscle memory to get to the point where you can type just as quickly as you can today, so why bother?
The answer – for the longevity of your fingers and wrists. There are two main ways that alternative keyboard layouts make major enhancements over QWERTY.
Less Finger/Wrist Movement
The less you have to move your fingers off of the home row of your keyboard and the less you have to shuffle your hands around to press the correct key, the less fatigue and strain you’ll have in your hands.
The home row of your keyboard is where your fingers are by default, so it makes sense to have the most used keys on that row. Let’s take a look at the QWERTY layout…
Letters like “K”, “J”, “F”, and “G” along with the semi-colon and apostrophe are all seldom used in comparison to many other letters on the keyboard, so it doesn’t really make sense to have them on the home row.
Alternating Hands Means More Speed, Less Strain
When you’re typing out a word, the more frequently you alter between right and left hands, the better.
For example, if you’re starting to type “sorry” on a QWERTY keyboard, as you type the “S” with your left hand, your right hand has time to move to the “O” key in preparation. Once “S” has been pressed and you’re going to type the “O”, your left hand immediately moves into position to double-tap the “R” key.
It’s debated whether using an alternative keyboard layout to QWERTY actually increases typing speed, but at the very least the alternatives allow for better flow and less strain on one hand over the other. Maybe all things are more or less equal in a sprint, but in a marathon (which is what many of your days will feel like), you will notice a considerable difference.
QWERTY places way too many of the high-volume keys on the left side of the keyboard. The left side of the keyboard has just about all of the most used constonants including “S”, “R”, and “T” as well as “A” and “E”.
One way to illustrate how unbalanced this is is the fact that you can spell 750% more English words using only the left hand than you can by using only your right hand. Go ahead and type the word “sweaterdresses” on your QWERTY keyboard and see how much fun your left hand has!
Relearn Touch Typing, the Right Way
Do you look down at your keyboard when you type? If so, you need to stop! By watching your monitor as you type, you can catch typos much more efficiently and faster.
You’ll also be a faster typist when you don’t have to rely on sight.
Now for another important question – do you use all 8 of your fingers when you type, not counting your thumbs? If you neglect to use your pinkies, you’re not typing as quickly or efficiently as you should be.
When you’re relearning a new keyboard layout, it’s the perfect time to instill perfect touch typing habits that you didn’t know about when you were younger. Really commit to using those pinkies on the outside keys and you’ll be typing faster than you ever have before.
The Most Popular Alternative – Dvorak
Finally, it’s time to get into the alternative keyboard layouts! The first challanger to QWERTY is Dvorak, also known as the “Dvorak Simplified Keyboard“.
In the 1930’s Dr. August Dvorak had spent some time studying the QWERTY layout and found it to be extremely inefficient and didn’t seem to work well with the body’s physiology. After studying the movements of people’s hands and letter frequencies, he came up with some core principals for an improved typing layout –
- Alternating between typing hands should be maximized.
- Make the most common letters the easiest to type.
- Put the least typed letters in the corner of the bottom row.
- Let the right hand do the majority of the typing since most people are right-handed.
Here’s the resulting layout –
And here’s a chart of the improvements that Dvorak made in terms of where the typist spends the majority of their time.
[table id=1 /]
As you can see, Dvorak made huge improvements by letting the typist spend more than twice as much time staying on the home row, and half as much on the bottom row when compared to QWERTY.
Despite being so much more efficient and around fear 85 years, Dvorak has never really taken and gained mainstream appeal. One major upside of Dvorak though is that it does have enough popularity to be a standard keyboard layout installed on every major operating system including Windows, Mac OS, Linux, iOS, and Android.
So just about any computer you encounter, you should be able to switch the keyboard layout to Dvorak on the operating system.
Downsides to Dvorak
The biggest downside to Dvorak is having to essentially relearn an entirely new keyboard layout! A total of 33 keys have moved from where they were in QWERTY, so it’s going to take you many weeks to rebuild that muscle memory from scratch, and you may feel like giving up when you have to revert to hunt-and-peck.
Another big downside is that all of your useful keyboard shortcuts such as Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V, Ctrl+Z, etc have moved and can no longer comfortably be done with a single hand in many cases. Some programmers may believe that the placement of the semi-colon is unfortunate for C-based languages or any others that rely heavily on semi-colons.
Switching to Dvorak
Making the switch to Dvorak is relatively easy since it’s likely built into your current operating system. Do a quick web search on “how to change keyboard layout for [your OS]”, and you should be able to find Dvorak in your list of options once you find out how to get there.
To train your brain in Dvorak, we suggest you start with Learn.Dvorak.nl. It gently teaches you the new layout by introducing just the home row first, then you can slowly add in other keys until you’re doing the entire keyboard.
The Typing Cat is another great resource for learning both Dvorak and our other featured alternative layout, Colemak.
A Newer Alternative – Colemak
The third most popular keyboard layout for the English language is a newer layout created in 2006 – Colemak. Colemak looks to provide the same increased typing efficiency as Dvorak, but with a bit more sensitivity to the pain of relearning an entirely new keyboard layout and keyboard shortcuts.
Here’s a look at the layout –
As you can see, many keys remain in the same place as the QWERTY layout, including keys like “C”, “V”, and “Z” which are frequently used shortcuts. In total, only 17 keys move places compared to Dvorak’s 33.
Another interesting move is to get rid of the Caps Lock key altogether (how often did you really use it?) and make it a 2nd backspace key, allowing you to quickly delete without having to leave the home row. Programmers may also prefer the placement of the semi-colon and apostrophe compared to Dvorak.
It’s also worth mentioning that according to some (somewhat subjective) scientific analysis of keyboard layouts, Colemak is a bit more efficient than Dvorak.
Downsides of Colemak
Being such a new alternative, Colemak doesn’t have the same kind of traction that Dvorak does yet. In order to use Colemak, you’re going to have to download the software from colemak.com on every device you want to use it on.
While a one-time download on your home PC may not be a big deal, it might require special permissions for you to do at work. If you’ll be working at a different workstation frequently, then this may suddenly become a big problem.
You’ll also have to ask yourself if you feel comfortable asking your friends/family/colleagues to install 3rd party software on their devices in order to type on your preferred layout. At least with Dvorak it’s already part of the OS, no real risk involved or explanation required as to why you’re downloading a .zip file and running an executable from a website they’ve never heard of.
Switching to Colemak
Head over to the Downloads page on their website and follow the instructions for your operating system.
As far as learning Colemak goes, their site has a bunch of good lessons, tests, and games you can check out here.
The Growing Pains of Ditching QWERTY
We’ve preached and preached about the benefits of these new layouts and gave you plenty of good reasons to leave QWERTY back in the 1800’s where it came from, but there’s one thing we haven’t told you yet – learning a new keyboard layout is incredibly frustrating. Maybe now is a good time to read about the best programming music to help you keep your cool!
If you think about how much time in your life you’ve spent typing, it might just be the strongest action you have committed to muscle memory. You’ll have to completely destroy your current muscle memory and replace it with a new layout which is going to lead to countless typos, backspaces, and frustration.
Unfortunately, there’s no real magic bullet here or secret trick. There’s two basic ways to go about this.
The “All In” Approach
Day 1 of your new keyboard layout, completely ditch your QWERTY layout across your phone and computer. No more QWERTY, no matter how painful it might be.
The main author of this article went “all in” on Dvorak and he regained about 10 WPM in typing speed each week using QWERTY full-time (work, home, and phone). That’s right, about 6 weeks to get up to 60 WPM. To date, his fastest typing test was 101 WPM, so even though the learning process is long and difficult, you’ll get there eventually!
If you were to go “all in” on Colemak, you’d probably regain your typing speed faster since there’s a lot less keys moved around.
With the “all in” approach, you won’t be relying on typing tutorials entirely, so you’ll either need to print out the new layout as a reference or buy a new set of custom keycaps to replace your current set.
Some people don’t recommend getting new keycaps right away since it may encourage you to look down at your keyboard as you type instead of learning to touch type, but we found as long as you have self control to only look down when you’ve completely forgotten where a key is and didn’t figure it out after a few random keystrokes, it’s not a hindrance.
The “Part Time” Approach
If you have a job where you can’t sacrifice dropping down to 15 WPM hunting and pecking across your keyboard, you may need to go the slower part time approach. Using this method you can use QWERTY through your work day, then use your new layout at home and on your phone. You only need a few hours every day to start to make the switch, so this approach works well for many people.
The downside is you’ll be slower to pick up the new layout and it might feel like you’re struggle to make progress at times. Stick with it, and in a month or two you should be good enough to make the switch at your workplace as well.
If you take a deep dive into keyboard layouts, you can find many, many more than what’s mentioned here, but similarly to Colemak they won’t have native OS support and will be even further away from getting it.
The Workman Layout claims to improve on some deficiencies in the Colemak layout. Another layout called “QGMLWY” claims to be the most optimized of all the layouts. There’s a pretty crazy “Programmers Dvorak” layout designed with programming in mind!
You can even create your own custom layout if you feel you could do better.
Have thoughts or comments or keyboard layouts? Share with us below!