Fast typing: keyboard layouts

I thought wpm would be the metric to determine the fastest keyboard layout. It’s not. What matters? RSI, Repetitive Stress Injury.

RSI, the silent crippler

Almost every serious programmer I interviewed painfully developed RSI in their 20s. I didn’t even know until I asked them! Me? I was 24 when it struck. No warning. Just pain. I took breaks, watching the clock until I could to get back to coding. I stretched. I went to physical therapy. I paced my typing, even if my ideas claimored to get into the code. All of this helped, a little. Only when I found the right keyboard layout (seriously) could I type somewhat normally. Following the advice of this post, we’ll see how to delay and mitigate this. Maybe you can’t put off RSI forever, but every day you’re not in pain is a faster day than one in pain.

RSI dominates typing speed in the long term

In the long term, the severity of your RSI dominates your typing speed. Severe RSI means no typing. Mild RSI can decrease your speed by 50%.

Layout changes that may reduce RSI

Split and tent

If you make one change to your keyboard layout, make it split (there’s a gap in the middle) and tented (the middle is elevated higher than the ends). This change alone almost fixed my RSI and it’s fixed others. Even if you don’t have RSI, it will delay the onset. If you’re worried about a dorky looking keyboard at work, don’t, people take RSI seriously. If you’re worried about it when friends are over, then save the keyboard for when nobody’s looking. There’s two off the shelf keyboards I recommend that have a split, tented, layout.

$60 - Microsoft Natural Ergonomic 4000

https://www.amazon.com/Microsoft-Natural-Ergonomic-Keyboard-4000/dp/B000A6PPOK

When I had pain, and I tried this keyboard, it went away on the spot.

If money is tight or you’re not sure if a split tent layout works for you, Microsoft makes an entry level version. Although Microsoft is mostly a software company, they did serious ergonomics research back in the day and came out with this.

$320 - Kinesis Advantage2

https://www.amazon.com/Kinesis-Advantage2-Ergonomic-Keyboard-KB600/dp/B01KR1C5PY/

The gold standard for ergonomic keyboards. I have 2. One for home. One for the office. Kinesis pulls out all of the stops on this keyboard. Sure it’s more expensive than most keyboards, but you’ll type faster and pay fewer medical bills, so it’s a fantastic investment.

Negative tilt

I also found raising the front of the keyboard so the keyboard points downwards helps with my RSI. This is called “negative tilt”. The Microsoft Natural Ergonomic 4000 has a built in stand for negative tilt. The kinesis advantage2, however, does not. I solved this by going to a nearby plastics shop and had them build a custom stand for me which worked well. You will likely have similar luck. Similarly if you have a normal keyboard which has little feet in the back, these create positive tilt which is very stressful on your wrists. Flip them down.

Remap CapsLock to Ctrl (or Escape)

CapsLock is useless, unless you’re Khassaki. If you’re a programmer, and especially if you use emacs, you use the Ctrl key all of the time. Save your left pinky some stress and bring Ctrl closer by remapping caps lock to ctrl. Alternatively if you use vim a lot or you’re using a Kinesis which has ctrl under the thumbs but strangely not escape, you can save your hand from stretching (stressing) to reach escape and bring escape closer.

Remapping caps lock is quite easy, each OS has an easy to use tool for this.

Linux: It’s built in on Ubuntu, and for advanced users there is Xmodmap

Mac: It’s built in

Windows: SharpKeys

Advanced: Remap Arrow Keys and Home/End

Moving your hand and stretching is a big stress. I find the only keys I regularly stretch for are the arrow keys and home/end. To reduce the stress, I remapped them to Windows + HJKL for arrow keys (like vim) and Windows + A for home and Windows + E for end (like emacs). You should pick the modifier key that works for you (on linux the windows button doesn’t do much), but use standard conventions for the letters you remap to. You’ll need to use more advanced software however. The build in key remapper on mac and linux is not up to task.

Learn Dvorak…unless you use vim

The Dvorak keyboard layout is an overhaul of your entire keyboard layout. Your top row is not qwerty…but “<>pyf. Unlike qwerty which is an accident of history, Dvorak was designed for fast typing (but not RSI reduction). A few people I talked to mentioned using Dvorak also helped reduce RSI symptoms and increased their speed by ~10%. 10% is good, but nothing compared to RSI. Personally, I use vim for everything and dvorak ruins the home row of hjkl, so I haven’t learned dvorak. If I were to, I’d first learn emacs, use emacs for everything, and then learn Dvorak.

Mechanical keys don’t help

This blew my mind: not one person said mechanical keys helped them, and one person said they might’ve made it worse. The premise for mechanical keys helping with RSI is that their feedback helps you not press your keys so far down your fingers are effectively pressing against the table (called bottoming out). It’s supposed to be bad because if you push hard on the table…it pushes hard back which means a lot of stress. Here’s the thing, even on mushy silicon dome keys, people rarely bottom out. It’s just not a concern. Actuation force and travel probably matter more for RSI, but I was unable to find much evidence here. The Microsoft uses silicone, probably to keep the cost low, and the Kinesis uses Cherry MX Browns, which have a very light actuation force of 45g which given them the nickname “ergo soft”.

Conclusion

A fast keyboard layout is not one that gives you the highest wpm on a test. It’s the one that over 40 years prevents RSI from crippling you. These layouts involve funky looking, high end, keyboards, but they’ve worked for me and everyone I asked.

Seriously, if you’re using a flat keyboard and you’ve never tried a split, tent. Buy one right now (Microsoft, Kinesis. I make no money off these links and have no affiliation with Microsoft, Amazon, or Kinesis). If you don’t buy one now, when will you? And if you don’t, you never know when RSI will strike.

Next week, we’ll jump into the world of fast typing through text editors. If you don’t want to miss out, just click “Subscribe Now”

Important: Medical Disclaimer

I’m not a doctor and have no medical training. Nothing in this post is medical advice. Everything is for informational and educational purposes only and should not replace for professional medical advice.