My Keyboard Layout Is Better Than Yours

Vojta Jína
6 min readMar 26, 2015

This is a story about my switch to Colemak keyboard layout, without any significant interruption of my daily work as a programmer, and how you can do it too.

QWERTY keyboard layout was designed to be slow so that old typewriters didn’t get jammed. Everyone knows that, right? Others claim its design originates from telegraphists who typed Morse code. I don’t know what the motivation was, but one thing is pretty clear to me: it is very inefficient compared to other layouts.

This chart is from Martin Krzywinski’s website where you can read more about quantitative analyzing of keyboard layouts. The chart basically says that when typing English with a QWERTY keyboard layout, compared to other analyzed layouts, your fingers have to move more and you use your weak fingers and awkward combinations more. This has a negative impact on the speed and accuracy of your typing as well as the health of your wrists.

I think the reason why most people type QWERTY is the same as why some people still use imperial units (feet, inches, ounces, and all that fancy stuff that I never know how much it really is). It’s an old habit and old habits die hard. I still have many old habits myself but let me tell you how I got rid off QWERTY…

About four years ago I started working with a great engineer that I truly admired. For the purpose of this story, let’s call him Bob. Bob typed Dvorak and his explanation of how QWERTY was designed to be slow totally made sense to me and so I decided to switch to Dvorak. Well, maybe the true reason was to be cool and different — it wouldn’t be the first time I did something just to be different.

I installed the Dvorak keyboard layout and practiced for a few days. It was a disaster. I couldn’t type! For a person who spends a significant amount of time typing code, this was not ideal. In addition, it was a common joke in the office that whoever tries to type Dvorak gets fired. I assume that was because when Bob decided to switch to Dvorak he was completely useless for at least a year. Yes, I gave up.

The idea of typing Dvorak was however still hidden somewhere back in my mind and so I tried to switch again and again. Always with the same results. Then I realized that Bob was probably the worst typist I’ve ever seen. That only increased my doubts. Isn’t it crazy how most of us programmers are terrible typists? We press backspace more often than any other key. I think that was the moment when I uninstalled the Dvorak keyboard layout, with a broken heart that I will never be cool enough to use an alternative keyboard layout.

A couple of years later, I was drinking a coffee while having one of our morning conversations with Dave, my father-in-law. We always talk about the latest inventions and their possibilities, how things work and stuff like that. This time, he told me about a new keyboard layout. A layout that was suppose to be even more efficient than Dvorak! My inner voice started lecturing me: “hey, you tried this stuff before, ok? so calm down and do something useful!” but there was another me who couldn’t resist. I had to learn more about it.

Colemak has similar advantages to Dvorak, such as better ergonomics (your wrists will hurt less), speed and accuracy. There are many people arguing that Colemak is even better than Dvorak. You can spend days reading about it but I don’t think it matters much.

What does matter is that Colemak is based on QWERTY so the switch is much easier. For instance the X and Q keys are in the same place and so you won’t accidentally quit an app while trying to cut and paste text (this happened to me with Dvorak all the time).

Here is the best part, are you ready? Some genius figured out that you can make a smooth transition from QWERTY to Colemak in five small steps! Each step is just swapping a couple of keys and thus you don’t have to be useless.

This idea of switching one step at a time got me again excited about leaving the insane layout called QWERTY. Last Christmas was when I installed all the Tarmak keyboard layouts and started using Tarmak1 which was basically regular QWERTY with only four keys swapped (E->K->N->J). You have to focus a bit, but because you are only focusing on these four keys it’s not as hard. I practiced using Tipp10 with custom texts. I would generate random strings with significantly higher probability of these four changed characters. I practiced this for about ten minutes a day and after a week I was confident enough to switch to the next step. Yes, after five weeks, I had switched to Colemak! At that point I typed slower than before but with better precision. What was even more exciting is that I felt there was suddenly a potential to type much faster.

You are still reading? You are going to try this, right? Ok, the switch will require some practice. There is no way around that, but at least you can take advantage of this practice. You can fix your old bad habits of using backspace as every second stroke. So if I can give you just one advice, it is to: “type slowly with no mistakes.” This also means always using the correct finger. Not 90% accuracy or anything like that. I’m talking about steady slow rhythm and no mistakes at all. I learned this when practicing musical instruments and it is well worthy: your progress will be much faster.

It’s been over a year since I switched and I can honestly say I’m very happy I did. The only downside is that typing on somebody else’s keyboard sucks. I sort of solved this by looking at the labels when typing QWERTY which is also what I do on my phone. The main advantage for me is better precision — I almost don’t use the popular backspace key. To be fair, this was caused by the practice more than the layout itself. However, I did try to master QWERTY and practiced it but never got to the precision I have now with Colemak. The same applies to speed. I got stuck with QWERTY and couldn’t get much faster. With Colemak I haven’t even reached that point and therefore I believe the potential is much greater. Another advantage is that you don’t have to lock your keyboard — Colemak saved me from many pranks as most people don’t know how to switch keyboard layouts;-)

And of course, it is cool to be different, right?

Good luck!

Here are some links of stuff that helped me along the way.

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