New Keyboard Layout Project: Have We Been Mistaken All Along?
Everyone who has designed a prominent keyboard layout, and I mean everyone, assumes that finger travel distance is by far the most important factor. It makes sense on an intuitive level: we should move our fingers around as little as possible. Colemak places the eight most common keys on the home row, as does Arensito, Michael Capewell’s layout, and others. I used to agree.
But have we been mistaken all along?
Enormous benefits can be gained if we are willing to sacrifice a little finger travel distance. I was running my keyboard generator program and it came up with this layout:
b l o u ; j d c p y
h r e a , m t s n i
k x ‘ . z w g f v q
This surprised me at first. I thought, I must have something wrong. The ‘o’ isn’t on the home row. That can’t be right. But then I considered further. Maybe it’s worth it to sacrifice some finger travel distance in order to gain other benefits. This layout boasts great inward rolls (notice ‘he’, ‘in’, ‘is’, ‘re’, ‘it’) and very few outward rolls. With four vowels on one hand and only one on the other, it also has pretty good hand alternation, thus pleasing both the “rolls” crowd and the “alternation” crowd. Same finger usage is amazingly low — lower than any other major keyboard layout.
The trouble is, I’ve never tried a layout like this, nor do I have the time to. I want to stick with the layout I have and try to get faster using that one layout; remembering both it and QWERTY is not too hard, but remembering three layouts is far more difficult. It would be really nice if I had a research grant and could hire a group of 50 or so college students to learn this layout, and compare it to one where finger travel distance is valued more highly.
Perhaps a different sort of layout is better than the conventional type. The trouble is, we don’t really know. But there’s still the possibility that we’ve been mistaken all along.