As I have explained in my previous blog entry, I was recently playing around with alternative keyboard layouts for their perceived and scientific benefits over the good old fashioned qwerty layout. In fact, I have read quite a bit on the topic, including some scientific analysis on keyboard usage and finger reach/strain while touch typing on various layouts. In all the tests, the qwerty comes out as the worst layout and is universally decried as the most inefficient of them all. And I have no doubt that it is true; at one level.
But here's the interesting part. Most of the studies assume that the typist is using the standard and the formal method of typing that is usually taught by typwriting institutes, touch-typing. If you are not aware of what touch typing is, Wikipedia can help you out. And undoubtedly many tests show that qwerty puts maximum strain on the hands and fingers of touch typists who utilize all their fingers. I am not getting into the scientific part of the discussion. There are several websites that have studied the problem of keyboard usage and have come up with interesting solutions. Dvorak was probably the first popular alternative to the qwerty back in the days when computers weren't around. But since then, there have been many new layouts invented to eliminate stress related typing injuries by analyzing finger usage and finger travel.
And all those studies seem to base their results on touch typing techniques.
And that, I think is a mistake. I have no statistics to back me up, but I believe that most people who have started their typing on a computer (and not learned typing as a profession) probably haven't learnt to touch type at all and instead hunted-and-pecked and developed their style from there. And for those who haven't learnt to touch type at a young age, it can be quite awkward to learn, especially because of the usage of the little finger which is by far the weakest finger. Even on the best functional layout, if you touch-type, you do utilize your little finger and ring finger and you do have to curl and move your fingers both horizontally and vertically.
I am a good example of somebody who has adapted a three-finger typing technique that can achieve relatively fast speeds on qwerty without losing much comfort over the years and not glancing down at the keyboard at all. Undoubtedly the awkward key placements on qwerty forces people to make such unscientific and ad-hoc adjustments. Using three fingers (my index, middle and occasionaly the ring finger) to travel all over the keyboard and then hit the correct keys by making the right hand movements, I entirely avoid the little finger. A different kind of muscle memory to locate keys without looking down at the keyboard than that used by touch typists has developed for me, using which I can actually type at an average speed of around 80 words per minute (occasionally peaking at about 90 wpm) without much stress and certainly by making the adjustments to reach the requisite keys by moving my hand rather than reach out with my fingers. This means that although hand travel is an issue, fingers don't reach out awkwardly for keys and less strain is put on the ring finger and none on the little finger. I am not aware of how many people use this kind of method, but I am guessing that a lot of people have developed their own style of typing on a qwerty keyboard that reduces finger travel and stress, compensating instead with a slight hand movement. I am also not sure of what medical drawbacks or benefits this method may have. What I do know is that the fluid hand movement is far less stressful for me personally than learning touch typing and actually utilizing the little finger at all. For those who have tried to touch-type after years of free flowing hand movement, the style feels cramped and awkward. I am sure that it can be got used to, over time, but it is a skill that is entirely new and learning to touch type with a whole new layout can mean added stress on the brain-muscle coordination. Overall the two main problems are the usage of the little finger and the resting of the hand on the home row and reaching out to keys with all the fingers.
My point is this: I think many of the stated benefits of the alternate keyboard layouts make some big assumption about typing habits and the way the stresses/pressures are distributed across fingers and hands. I am not even sure how many of them are completely scientific and how many of them are based on anecdotal evidence. But I have yet to see an analysis of alternate keyboard layouts that take into account the various ways in which people type other than touch-typing. There also appears to be a universal assumption that touch-typing is the best way to type. I also would love to be pointed to studies that prove this scientifically. I certainly find using my strongest fingers to type a lot less stressful than touch-typing. It is not entirely error free, but occasional use of the backspace key won't bother most people using computers rather than typewriters.
The poor qwerty layout receives little love from most people who have analyzed functional keyboard layouts and typing enthusiasts who have embraced alternate layouts; but it may be pertinent to note that there are millions of people across the world for whom qwerty is branded into their muscle memory after years of typing and who have learnt to work around its inefficiencies and disadvantages in spite of so many strong contenders to replace it with something better and more efficient over the decades. I think unlearning something as fundamental as typing technique is a bigger deal than people make it out to be.
My belief is that typing stress is relieved more by using ergonomic keyboard designs combined with mechanical keyswitches for tactile feedback and less force per keypress rather than the functional layout itself. Of course a lot of touch typists will disagree and I actually think both viewpoints are right at different levels.
So if you are going to learn an alternate functional layout, I think it is important to consider whether you are a touch-typist or not. I think many of the stated issues of qwerty are not fully relevant to people who do not touch type and that learning to touch type is a separate and non-trivial skill in itself, which combined with learning an alternative layout (a layout that takes full advantage of touch typing techniques). can be a stressful, daunting task with a high learning curve. For non-touch typists alternate keyboard layouts may not be beneficial enough to make the switch.