What’s wrong with common keyboards?
There are two major problems with common keyboards today: Firstly, the physical arrangement of the keys makes no sense. Secondly, the logical arrangement (what character is typed on what keypress) makes no sense. Other than that, they are perfect for the average user since they are cheap.
- Obsolete horizontal staggering
- Too many keys, too much finger travel
- Wasted thumbs
- A single size
- Not angled
If you take a look at the common ANSI/ISO layout, the keys are arranged in horizontal rows, slightly shifted left or right. This arrangement is called horizontal staggering.
Staggering had a crucial role in the time of mechanical typewriters, when metal levers had to hit the paper. But this makes no sense today.
Our fingers’ natural direction of movement is columnar: we should arrange the keys in columns, not in horizontal rows.
Too many keys
With way too many keys on a classic keyboard our hands have to move a lot. People using 40% boards, as well as Steve Jobs would agree that we don't need all those keys.
Just like we don’t have different keys for capital letters, we can move some symbols to logical layers accessed by pressing a function key (e.g. Shift in case of capital letters).
This way we could keep the distance of keys from the home row in 1 key unit (1u). Thus, our fingers have to move only to a neighbouring key.
Think of how far you have to reach to press Esc, Backspace or F-keys. Even the number row is 2u away. Moving all these distant keys to logical layers under our fingers we improve not just the efficiency of typing, but also ergonomy.
Not enough layers
While programmable mechanical keyboards, especially ones with smaller form factors (like a 40%) depend heavily on layer usage, a classic keyboard has logical layers too.
Pressing the Shift or AltGr keys takes you to a new layer of capital letters and symbols, respectively. Just like with pressing Ctrl you access a new set of functions (e.g. Ctrl+C, Ctrl+V).
Small ergonomic boards, making heavy use of layers, had demonstrated that remote keys (arrows, navigation cluster, number row and F-keys) can be brought under your fingertips.
Our two most powerful fingers, the thumbs, are wasted on a single key on traditional keyboards. While the space is the most used key in many languages, you most likely use only one of your thumbs to press it. (Check the shiny part on your Space key.)
A split space is an improvement, but each thumb should easily handle three keys arranged in a comfy angle: this is the thumb cluster or thumb fan.
Assymetry and lack of angle
Our body is symmetric, so our keyboards should be symmetric too.
On a non-split keyboard the lower arms are angled inwards (keyboard width smaller than shoulder width) while the hands are angled outwards, causing ulnar deviation.
The classical staggering creates an angle for your right hand (a lucky coincidence?), but it is a total disaster on the left side.
Arrows and numpad
Reaching over to the arrows or the num pad all the time can hurt our shoulder per se. Additionally, when reaching over to the mouse, both arrow cluster and num pad are in the way and cause a very long hand/arm travel.
Moving the num pad to the left side of the board or using a separete numpad (if needed) may help, but the solution is again: logical layers. Both arrows and numbers need to be accessible right below our fingertips, without any hand movement.
People are different
Think of how many sizes and types of footwear there are for our feet. Still, our hands have to cope practically with a single type and size of keyboard layout.
Designing your own custom keyboard according to your workplace, posture, length of fingers etc. should be just as natural as having more than one size of shoes offered by shops.
The logical layout optimization is a whole other topic on its own, still, we have to mention the issues with the QWERTY layout. What's wrong with QWERTY? It isn't a disaster, but there are a lot of layouts better than QWERTY/QWERTZ. I mean a LOT.
The exact number depends on the language of interest and the evaluation method, but according to my results, it is ca. 5*10^42 with QWERTZ for Hungarian. This number is probably similar with QWERTY and English.
Finding one sympathetic layout from the better ones results in less finger movement, less row changes and jumps, faster rolls etc.
The common keyboard design is obsolete. After a little contemplating, it should be quite clear that a good keyboard should be symmetrical, split/angled, vertically staggered according to the user’s fingers, with much less keys and thumb cluster.