What I learnt from the Colemak keyboard layout

As part of the research I did on ways to alleviate my keyboard-induced repetitive stress injury, I read about alternatives to the de facto standard Qwerty layout. I was not deeply invested in Qwerty at the time, as I did not know how to touch type properly. Switching to another layout would inevitably cost an immediate reduction in my words-per-minute output but would not be too bad. So I tried Colemak, specifically the Colemak-DH variant, for almost 3 weeks (hereinafter “Colemak” covers Colemak-DH). It was well worth my time for all the things I discovered in the process, but I ultimately switched back to Qwerty.

Colemak helped me use all fingers for touch typing

The time I spent with Colemak-DH was fruitful, as I forced myself to not rely on bad habits I had developed over time on standard, row stagger keyboards. I started using all fingers to actuate keys and learnt to move the right finger for the given column. What I got from this exercise is the practice of resting my fingers on the home row, something that I did not do before: I would curl the right hand to be somewhat diagonally on the board, with index where Qwerty N is and the pinky on P.

Another factor in this change is the column stagger of the Iris keyboard I have been using. It makes so much more sense to me, as I have an easier time predicting where my finger needs to move to input a character. On a row stagger, such as what I have on the laptop’s keyboard, I still make a ton of mistakes in terms of which fingers activates what character.

I do not get the home-row emphasis

One of the much-touted advantages of Colemak over Qwerty is the frequency of home row keys to type text in English. The argument is that this results in a more comfortable typing session, as overall finger movement is reduced. I was curious to try that for myself, only to realise that finger movement is actually a good thing for me, at least on the Iris.

Finger movement sounds more difficult because you are forced to cover more space. Though in my experience it is more relaxing to have a little bit of extra travel as fingers do not remain fixed in one position for too long: they stretch out more frequently. I liken this to any kind of stretching we do, which is better for us than remaining still for too long.

If less finger travel is good, then so are fewer keys

If you browse fora of keyboard enthusiasts who are into split ergonomic builds, you get the feeling that the fewer the keys, the greater the comfort. As with the premise of Colemak, the idea is plausible: keep everything close to the home row and take it one step further by limiting all motions to 1 key unit at most (“1 key unit” is the space occupied by an alphanumeric key and is often expressed as “1u”).

This contradicts my experience. Fewer keys make the keyboard less comfortable to me. Fingers travel less, i.e. they do not flex as much, and the firmware-level modifications to add more layers become increasingly complex.

I do use layers and do enjoy the QMK feature for one-shot modifiers. But there is a clear trade-off between compactness and simplicity: the more compact a design, the more complex and idiosyncratic it gets.

A few extra keys are fine

To this end, I reaffirmed my preference for a number row on my keyboard. Because numbers and their corresponding symbols are readily available, the layer 1 I use can combine special characters and movement keys while still being accessible from both halves of the keyboard. Whereas having many layers leads to other compromises with the layout of the thumb cluster, such as a key on the left hand activating layer 1 and a key on the right doing the same for layer 2. Then a third layer can be accessed by holding down both thumb keys… Just thinking about this triggers my RSI. The knock-on effect of more layers is the removal of one or more modifiers from the thumbs and the reliance on other techniques such as key combinations or home-row tap/hold configurations.

For me, home-row modifiers are not comfortable. They depend on precise timing to register a tap versus a hold and feel cognitively heavy as a result. I mistrigger them frequently and end up making a lot of mistakes which inevitably break my flow. This is especially problematic for the way I type prose, as I write words non-stop and only do a final spellcheck at the end. Every misfired home-row sequence adds considerable friction and engenders frustration.

A dedicated placement for modifiers, combined with the one-shot functionality, is the most comfortable setup I have ever used. The Iris has four keys on the thumb, which is the optimal number for me. More would be hard to reach, while fewer would lead to compromises along the lines of the aforementioned.

A lateral step at best

I ultimately switched back to Qwerty because I could not convince myself that Colemak was actually making my experience more comfortable. I suspect that the apparent comfort reported by many comes from a combination of factors not limited to the keyboard layout, such as being more mindful of one’s typing technique, fixing their posture, getting a split keyboard with a column stagger, finding the best key switches and the right keycap profile for them, and so on.

Is Colemak bad? No. Though I cannot consider it a clear improvement over the status quo either. It is a side step with, perhaps, some marginal gains. This is a subjective matter, anyway, as one size does not fit all. The gist is that any person who feels discomfort while typing needs to identify the source of their woes, learn from the community, though do not hesitate to think critically and apply judgement about the specifics of their case.

I realised that my problem was not with Qwerty per se but with the ulnar deviation imposed by the overall design of standard keyboards. The split of the Iris keyboard combined with its column stagger are a clear upgrade, as I can type for much longer without feeling any pain whatsoever (whereas before I would write for 5 minutes, feel numbness, and then pain shortly thereafter). In fact, I am gaining strength and suspect that I will eventually need to change to switches that require greater force to be actuated. This is fine, as comfort is relative to our current state.

The experience with Colemak was insightful. I learnt a lot about myself and am happy with the outcome.