Keyboard Design Flaws

By Xah Lee. Date: . Last updated: .

The PC keyboard we use today, sucks big time. Let us count the ways.

generic PC keyboard
A Generic PC Keyboard.

PC keyboard we use is derived from the design of typewriters. The design of the typewriter itself, is largely concerned about getting the machine to actually work. Like most inventions, in the beginning the concern is just to get it to work. The concept of keyboarding ergonomics didn't come about or become popular after some 100 years.

Mechanical typewriter, the mother of all keyboard bane.

Typewriter Hermes-s
A mechanical typewriter made by Hermes, showing hammer jam. This model is dated in around 1920. 3264×2448

Watch this video. After, you'll understand lots problems with our computer keyboard today.

How to Use a Typewriter
Aug 20, 2014
Bryan Sherwood

Let's consider some examples.

Let's Use Pinky for Important Keys

The Backspace key, the Return key, are among the most frequently used special keys. However, they are placed in the most inconvenient spots, pressed by the weakest finger the pinky.

Note that originally, on a typewriter of 1800s, these keys are not that frequently used. The Return exist as a metal bar level for “carriage return”. It is used to move the “carriage” from right to left. The carriage is the tube-like thing that holds paper. Carriage return effectively means positioning the print head to the beginning of line. It is used once about every 80 chars (per line). The Backspace doesn't exist yet.

But with computers, these keys are two of the most frequently used special keys, more than, say, z or comma.

Let's Make a Beehive

mechanical typewriter keyboard
Keys are staggered so that the levers underneath can be evenly spaced.

The vertical key column positions are staggered irregularly. Look at Q A Z. For the left hand, going from key D to E, your middle finger moves upward and in the direction of your pinky. But for right hand, going from K to I, your middle finger moves up in the direction of your thumb.

Let's Burden Right Pinky

The number of keys for the left/right hands are not symmetric.

`12345 67890 -=⌫
 qwert yuiop []\
 asdfg hjkl; '
 zxcvb nm,./

~12345 67890 _+⌫
Standard US layout without slant

In the above diagram, notice how the right side has 6 extra keys, operated by your stretched pinky. Especially bad for programers because we need to type the [ ] { } = + often.

Let's Slow Down Typists

Ever wonder why the letters are arranged that way? Look at the top row of your keyboard, you see: Q W E R T Y. It's arranged that way so that frequent letter combinations are hard to type fast so that the hammers won't jam!

Solution: Dvorak Keyboard Layout .

! @ # $ % ^ & * ( ) 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 0 a b c d e f g h i j k l m n o p q r s t u v w x y z , . ' \ | / + = _ - { } [ ] ; ` ~ Dvorak Layout
Dvorak layout

Let's Space Out Spacebar

keyboard spacy spacebar 2-s250
Space Bar

Hand Angle Problems

There are also problems of various hand angles, and hand separation.

Ulnar Deviation

keyboarding RSI ulnar deviation
Ulnar Deviation. [image source]

Ulnar deviation is solved by split keyboards where the keys are separated into 2 groups.

Forearm Pronation

keyboarding RSI forearm Pronation
Forearm Pronation. [image source]

Forearm Pronation is solved by split/ergonomic keyboards that are curved/tilted.

[see Is Keyboard Tenting Important]

Wrist Dorsiflexion

MS sculpt kbd 20201129 XwxHB-s250
Microsoft Sculpt

Microsoft Sculpt Ergonomic Keyboard, solving the wrist dorsiflexion problem by raising the palm rest.

and there's also wrist dorsiflexion, meaning bending up the palm. This happens when you use a thick keyboard that sits on a flat desk and your forearm rests on the desk surface. Especially bad when the keyboard's back legs are propped up.

This is solved in several ways:

Research on Keyboard Ergonomics

Scientific Research on Keyboard Ergonomics

If you have a question, put $5 at patreon and message me.