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Saturday, February 19, 2011

Most Ergonomic Keyboard ; Most Efficient Keyboard; Best Ergonomic Keyboard

Which is the Most Ergonomic and Efficient Keyboard?

In the past decade or so there has been a proliferation of computer keyboards being touted by their makers as "revolutionary", "innovative", "efficient", "original", "novel", but worst of all ... "ergonomic"!!

These make me SO irritable!!!

(One particularly teeth-crackingly galling manufacturer tried to claim that their purely alphabetical keyboard was revolutionary ...)

According to the Macquarie Dictionary, "ergonomic" means designed so as to take into account the bodily needs of a worker in a given working environment.

I won't go into the boring detail of work station seating position, height of screen, having a break, lighting, glare reduction, as, although they ARE important, nevertheless they are factors which can be easily adjusted or compensated for by any operator of average intelligence. eg if the seat height is not comfortable, usually one finger pressing a lever under the seat can make the necessary change.

However, the keyboard is NOT something which can be "adjusted" easily. To some people it is such a huge change that they shrink away from it and continue working under conditions which, at the least, may be uncomfortable, and at worst, extremely debilitating, resulting in loss of employment capacity.

What is the real problem? To me, it can be summed up in six letters - Q, W, E, R, T and Y. Of all the instruments of torture ever devised by the human mind the QWERTY keyboard would have to be one of the most ubiquitous, and yet most subtle.

This is the basic QWERTY/AZERTY layout:


At a conference of the Printing Industry Research Association in 1977, Lillian Malt presented a paper in which she stated:

It has been said of the Scholes letter layout that it would probably have been chosen if the objective was to find the least efficient - in terms of learning time and speed achievable - and the most error producing character arrangement. This is not surprising when one considers that a team of people spent one year developing this layout so that it should provide the greatest inhibition to fast keying.

In other words, QWERTY was specifically designed to slow the typist down.

And this design works. It slows down work speed, increases fatigue and causes symptoms which can indicate the onset of what is known generically as an "overuse syndrome", more commonly RSI.

I learned to type on a manual QWERTY keyboard in 1967. In 1979 I bought my first computer, and never questioned the fact it came with a QWERTY keyboard. I had heard however, of an alternative, called Dvorak, which was claimed to be more efficient than QWERTY. However, this is not something which one could take any pride in claiming. That's EASILY done.

The Dvorak layout (or one of them).


However, at that time it was not an easy thing to purchase a Dvorak keyboard. (My computer, an Apple II, had the keyboard actually built into the case, not on a cable as we have today.)

In brief, it was claimed that QWERTY suffers from the following deficiencies, some of which Dvorak would (supposedly) remedy:

Awkward finger moves for some digraphs and trigraphs (letter combinations), many combinations are typed with the same finger, one hand can sit idle while the other is working its butt off, the left hand is used more than the right, and in particular, "hurdling" the fingers from the top row to the bottom, back to home row, then jumping the other way, all of which requires the use of major muscle groups to either move the hands or suspend them over the keys, which in turn gives rise to cramp etc.

Another major problem with QWERTY is that there is this hangover from the Dark Ages, when manual typewriters ruled the Earth. Because of the mechanical linkages from the keys to the slugs with typeface on them, the keys had to be off-set to left or right, which prevented them from being in a convenient straight column from the bottom of the keyboard to the top. The result? Today, thousands of "microshifts" of the fingers and hands daily to compensate for this archaism. Extra energy, needlessly expended, as well as wear and tear on the body.

Thirdly, the keyboard is "flat" ie the keys in each row are all in the same plane, yet the briefest glance at one's fingers (or almost anybody else's) shows that they are all of different lengths, which means that each digit must be bent at a different angle to enable the tip to strike the key(s) cleanly.

A little known nugget of knowledge is that the middle and ring fingers (and to a lesser extent the little finger or pinky) partially share a tendon. Try for yourself. The index finger has a greater degree of freedom of movement than the next two, and it is more difficult to move one or other of these without affecting its neighbour. Place your hand flat on the desktop with your fingers splayed. Then move your fingers and thumb in until they are vertical, with the back of the hand uppermost, like making a horse or dog. One after the other, starting with the thumb, raise each digit from the desktop and move it up and down, then put it back down. You'll find that the thumb, index finger and pinky can be moved with very little difficulty. However the middle and ring fingers are much harder to move easily. THEN curl your middle finger so that the tip touches the palm of the hand and try to move all the other fingers. Again, thumb, index and ring are free, but it's almost impossible to move the ring finger at all, because the tendon is already extended.

The thumb has a large degree of movement, being opposable, which helps we humans develop a strong, yet flexible grip. And yet surprisingly, these marvelously agile digit(s) are allocated the space bar to operate. This is a VERY important (and common) key, but surely it doesn't need two hands to operate it ... unless it's because the hands are away from the home rows unnecessarily often.

The last two items, the differing digit lengths and degrees of movement seem not to have been given ANY thought whatsoever in the design of the typewriter, and hence, computer, keyboard. The staggering of the keys is seldom taken into account.

Sitting at your QWERTY keyboard with your hands on the home keys, you'll see that your wrists are bent in such a way that the fingers are turned "outwards" (abducted) in a very unnatural fashion. If you straighten your wrists and spread your arms away from each other until the fingers are pointed straight ahead (ie in a straight line with the forearms) you'll see that your hands are quite a distance apart, even with your elbows tucked in, and your fingers are not touching many, if any, keys on the QWERTY keyboard. So, how does the QWERTY keyboard address this issue? Very poorly I'm afraid. In fact, to be blunt, it doesn't. It forces the operator to conform to this unnatural position. How very user unfriendly!

And just as a final irritant, on the QWERTY layout the semi-colon(;) is a home key; ie it's one of the keys which can be struck without moving the hand or arm, thus involving the absolute minimum of effort ... yet how often does one use a semi-colon these days? Surely there must be letters which are more frequently used! What a waste of a potentially useful key. However, since the space bar is the home key for BOTH thumbs, the QWERTY actually has TWO useful keys going to waste.

Are there any more difficulties with QWERTY? Well, none that I can think of, at least not major ones.

So to summarise:
Awkward key positions requiring useless and difficult finger/hand moves;
Keys not in a straight line (staggered);
Keys in a flat plane;
No compensation for different degrees of flexibility or length of fingers;
Unnatural position of wrists;
Hands need to be suspended over the keyboard, using major muscle groups in the arms and shoulders.
Under-utilised digits.

Thus if you are searching for a truly ergonomic and efficient keyboard, all of the above problems must be addressed.

It's interesting that in reading reviews/advertising copy of these new so-called "ergonomic" keyboards many of them still use QWERTY layout, but those that don't, for some strange reason usually say that the layout which they are touting is not too different from QWERTY, and hence is easy to learn. They don't seem to realise that (a) ease of learning does not necessarily equate to subsequent efficiency of operation and (b) ease of learning is only valid if the typist already knows QWERTY.

I get the impression that they are trying to convince the punters that, well, you purchase our product, because we can improve things, yet without changing them too much. A contradiction in terms methinks.

To achieve great improvement, there must be great change.

With the advent of word processing software in the late 1970s, I became employed in typing academic work, essays, theses, books, etc, and found that rather than the keyboarding being a minor part of my work, as it was when I was a clerk in the Australian Army, it was becoming the only part of my work, and after a couple of years I found myself beginning to get the first symptoms of over use syndrome (though this was not a widely recognised medical condition at this stage), and I decided to look for an alternative keyboard. In 1986, I was indeed fortunate that not only did I see an article about the Maltron keyboard in an Occupational Health and Safety Journal, but the local agent was not very far away from where I lived (Perth, Western Australia), so, after trying one out, I scraped up my pennies and purchased one. I had the option (through pressing a single key) of having access to either the QWERTY layout or the Malt layout (designed by Lillian Malt, and further worked on by Stephen Hobday in the UK). The keys had dual engraving for both layouts. Fortunately I chose the seemingly more difficult option of learning Malt, but time vindicated my choice.

The Maltron layout is as follows:


The actual layout varies depending upon which country (eg UK, USA etc) the keyboard is designed for.

A couple of interesting points.
Firstly: Keys are in a straight column, no staggering.
Secondly: The left thumb has the letter "E", the right thumb has the space bar. (Because of this, the "E" is considered a "home" key.) Further, each home key has a fairly common character (letter or space) assigned to it.
Thirdly: The layout is truly different from almost anything else and has little or no connection with QWERTY.

Fourth: And most obvious even from a distance, the keyboard is split into five distinct key groupings: one for each hand, one for each thumb and a central numeric keypad, to supplement the numeric keys in the "ordinary" part of the keyboard.

In the last 12 months I've come across another keyboard layout called Colemak which, like all the others, claims to be more efficient than QWERTY (not difficult) AND more efficient than Dvorak.



But again, the keyboard is "flat" and there is the devilish staggering of the columns of keys. And like the Dvorak layout, has BOTH thumbs using the space bar.

I did some research, and in the course of same, I found that there was a lot of "debate" about which was the most "ergonomic" keyboard. Sadly a lot of this was pretty ill-informed, mostly amounting to personal opinion, with little or no experience or research to back it up. In fact the debate, in my view at least, has been in entirely the wrong area. Instead of wasting time saying which keyboard was the "best", there should have been debate about creating a method to determine this factor.

Firstly, for me there are two areas which need to be addressed. One is the "form" or shape of the keyboard, and the other is the layout, or distribution of the keys within that form.

I'll tackle the distribution question, as in some respects it is easier to arrive at a simple answer. For any viable method of assessing the ergonomic value of a layout the following should be viewed as essential criteria:

Objective: It should exclude "personal" factors. Comfort of use, typing speed (which is really a function of expertise and practice, thus a result rather than a cause of ergonomics), strength/ dexterity of fingers (which will vary from person to person), distance fingers travel (a function of the size of the keyboard; using QWERTY on a laptop keyboard will give a different result to using a full sized "ergonomic" keyboard).

Definitive. There should be no ambivalence or looseness in expression to mislead the user. A single word or number is ideal.

Universal: It should be applicable to any keyboard (layout) which can be used for "touch typing". (This will ignore touch screens, stylus operated systems, smart phones, iPads, PDA's etc.)

Accessible: It should be practicable by a moderately skilled user. There should be no necessity to write complicated software, rewire a keyboard, swap key caps. Probably nothing needed more than a basic word processing package

Reproducible: Like any scientific test, it should be capable of being repeated any number of times, with similar results every time.

Inexpensive: Ideally, it should cost nothing.

So with these requirements in mind, I've found what I believe is a quick and very practical means of determining which layout is most efficient.

That is to see which keyboard has the highest count of "home row words" - ie words which can be typed without removing the hands from the home row. Obviously, the more words, the fewer movements generated and the less work done.  This is the inverse of the "distance fingers travel" measure.  Rather than seeing which keys cause the most work to be done, this method determines the LEAST amount of work done.

(Whilst this was not one of my required criteria, this method has the benefit of not even needing a physical keyboard. In theory, although perhaps somewhat laborious, it could be used by an experimenter putting the key distribution on a sheet of paper with a pencil.)

My work is based on that of the late S.W.Hobday LMIEEE. AMIEE. MIP&I., who, in conjunction with Lillian Malt, designed and built the Maltron keyboard, and researched  letter frequencies of use, comparing the Malt layout with the standard QWERTY layout.  I extended his work by using a slightly larger word sample and included QWERTY, Dvorak, Colemak and Malt layouts.  Hobday's tables can be seen here.

 (Below is an extract from this paper.)

"Frequency of Use" Comparison between Maltron and Qwerty Letter Layouts

A sample of modern prose work by various authors has been analysed and shows the following graphical comparison between the Maltron and the Qwerty (J91) layouts:

Maltron Frequency of Use Chart
 Chart 1: Modern Prose FoU - Maltron Layout
The above chart shows the even spread of workload on the fingers during writing. The tall columns in the bottom row correspond to the letter "E" (position 6) and "Space" (position 7).
Compare this with the much higher loading on the top row for the Qwerty layout show below:

 QWERTY Frequency of Use Chart
 Chart 2: Modern Prose FoU - Qwerty Layout

This paper also has links to various  word lists, for QWERTY and Malt key distributions, classed by hand, left and right, and word length.

My own figures are based upon an international Scrabble word list of 172,807 words. (The actual word lists are linked below.)

QWERTY - 198 different words can be typed without taking the fingers from the home row keys.

Dvorak - 3126 different words can be typed without taking the fingers from the home row keys.

Colemak - 5963 different words can be typed without taking the fingers from the home row keys.

Malt - 7639 different words can be typed without taking the fingers from the home row keys.

And glancing through the word lists, you can make your own assessment of how "useful" the words are.

I don't for one moment hold that this is the only desideratum for assessing if a key distribution is ergonomic or not, but in my view it's certainly a very good starting point. If a researcher is working on two different key distributions and one has 200 words which can be typed without moving the hands from the home row, and another has 8000, then it would seem to be pretty foolish to consider further work on the keyboard with only 200 words at the expense of the other. However, if both key distributions have the same number of words (ie the same letters on the home rows, but distributed differently within that row) then other factors would take come into play.

In terms of ergonomics, however, there is more than just the keyboard layout.

There are (as I mentioned above) the separation of the hands to keep the wrists "straight", the compensation for different finger lengths, "hovering" of the hands and arms over the keyboard, and the differing degrees of mobility and flex of each finger. But there are also things more subtle still.

A test if you will.

Place your hands on the desk as if you were pressing computer keys, ready to start typing. Keep your fingertips in a straight line as if you were on a QWERTY keyboard. Note how your hands have to arch and that your fingers are flexed to different degrees. Now relax your hands so they roll outwards and rest on the outside edge of the palm, or more accurately on the pad at the base of your hand, on the side of your little fingers. Your fingers should now be pointing inwards, but sloping, and there should be little or no stress on the major muscle groups which would otherwise be supporting your hands.

This is not something addressed by any keyboard that I'm aware of ... except Maltron.

Extracts from


 The overall design, evolved from a careful study of minimum strain hand movement, is shown in the line diagram Fig.l. Figs. 2 & 3 show the arc of comfortable finger movement and the outward tilting of keys to reduce pronation (2). Figs. 4 & 5 show the fall in myoelectric activity needed to sustain the operating position, resulting from the reduction in the pronation and abduction operating angles (2&3)

Sketch of Maltron keyboard 3D design

 Chart showing the fall in myoelectric activity needed to sustain the operating position

A brief description of the Maltron keyboard itself.

Well, for a start, here's a photograph of the Maltron 3D dual keyboard (they also make single hand keyboards). There is also the optional trackball operable by the thumbs.

As you can see this keyboard is definitely NOT flat, but rather looks like it's been left out in the sun and started to melt. But there is method in seeming oddity. The keys are in straight columns, top to bottom. Each keytop has its own position in a 3D curve, which takes account of the differing length of individual fingers. Individual keys are tilted so as to move as closely as possible in the direction each digit strikes. On either side, beneath bottom row of keys, there are "beds" for the hands to rest on while not actively moving. This takes the strain off the muscles of the upper arms and shoulders, as there is no necessity for the hands to "hover" above the keys.

Thus to move a finger into position and strike a key, it is simply a matter of extending or contracting the fingers in exactly the way they are meant to work ... in a straight line, with no deviation to the side.

The keen observer will note that this keyboard pictured above has the Malt layout. When buying a Maltron, different key layouts can be ordered. (Each keyboard is literally hand made in the United Kingdom, which is why it sometimes takes so long to arrive.) As well as Maltron, the keyboard can come with QWERTY, AZERTY and Dvorak layouts as alternatives, selectable at the push of a key or setting a DIP switch.

So looking at the criteria listed above, which a truly ergonomic keyboard must meet, the Maltron ticks all boxes.

To illustrate just how much difference just the Malt layout differs to the QWERTY, here is a link to a youtube video showing me transcribing audio in shorthand using the Malt layout

and a typist using a Maltron keyboard, but with the QWERTY option. watch?v=o4H931A3BDE>

Note the difference in size and frequency of hand movements.

Obviously, she has found great relief just changing from the flat keyboard to the 3D Maltron, but she's still doing a lot of work.

And as a further comparison, a video showing a typist use a Kinesis keyboard (Based on the Maltron keyboard) but using Dvorak key layout.

How easy was it to learn the Maltron layout? 

Extract from:

The single keyboards have a specially developed letter layout to reduce finger work as much as possible. The two handed unit offers an immediately selectable option of either the usual Qwerty letter layout or the new Maltron layout which, in combination with the improved shape, has demonstrated a 10:1 reduction in errors and up to 4:1 reduction in learning time

Whilst the Maltron layout was different to QWERTY (as it should be) it was so logical that it was only a few weeks before I found myself touch typing at 15 words a minute. However, I found that in working as a "temp" legal secretary, I was having to go from office to office where my keyboard was not always practical, since it was originally for an Apple II computer, and not the IBM clones which many offices were using then, so I was finding myself working on QWERTY during the day (and under great pressure to produce my best work) and coming home and getting back onto the Maltron. Obviously, had I been working solely with the Maltron, I probably would have been much faster after 6 weeks. However, with the totally dissimilar tactile feedback(s) there was no difficulty in swapping and there was never any "clashing of mental gears". (If you look at the symphony orchestra, you'll see many of the musicians (except perhaps the strings) play more than one instrument - a brass player may play trombone, tuba, French horn; a woodwind may play oboe, clarionet, flute, piccolo; percussion may play tympani, cymbals and xylophone; myself, I play guitar, flute, fiddle, button accordion, mandolin, autoharp and bones. It's no big deal changing instruments, even when playing the same tune.)

Examples of how (and why) it works.

The most frequently used keys are under the strongest and/or most agile fingers. Because of the aforementioned linking of tendons in the middle and ring fingers, there is actually a gap in the keys below the "bottom" row of text characters, which means that the ring finger doesn't have to curl so far.

A common suffix is "ation". All the letters are on the home row, and alternate between the hands. The least commonly used keys are the ones most difficult to reach, which, in my view is as it should be.

In the late '80s, I sent my Maltron keyboard back to the UK to have it converted to IBM clone compatibility, with a DIN plug. I was then able to take my keyboard in to the various offices where I was working. It obviously drew much attention, but since I soon found clients asking for me by name, I must have been doing a pretty good job. (These were some of the BIGGEST legal firms in the country, who don't accept second rate work.)

In 1990 I began training as a court reporter, a job which, in 2016 I'm still working at, although I'm semi-retired. This job requires me to transcribe in real time (although mostly from audio recording) at the normal rate of speech, which is 140-180 words per minute, for 6-8 hours per day. If ever there was a job which could lead to over use syndrome, this would HAVE to be it.

But 26 years later, I'm still going strong, with not a sign of any damage or injury to my hands.

I bought my first Maltron keyboard in 1986, "Old Faithful", which literally hasn't missed a beat or broken down in any way since that time. And I now have three others, for each of my computers, as well as two single hand keyboard, which I'm experimenting with.

During this time I've also worked on developing a system of keyboard "shorthand" using WordPerfect word processing software, a description of which can be found in a companion blog,

So if you're looking for a truly efficient, ergonomic way to type, forget about any keyboard which uses QWERTY, or claims to be similar to QWERTY so it's "easy to learn". Look for keys that are not in straight columns, and then hit ignore key. Look to see if the keyboard is split. If not, consign to reject bin. You don't need a spirit level to see if the rows of keys are flat. Typing flat out is very tiring.

I don't think you could go any better than Maltron.

If, like myself, you like to get down the nitty gritty of the matter, you may wish dig into this link.

Yes, it's advertising blurb, but pretty accurate.

Or for the real engineering types who like to get down to mental processes of evolving the keyboard layout, some academic papers presented to various institutions over the years, by Lillian Malt and Stephen Hobday.