My partner, Ash, likes to do things the hard way. When I heard he was going to break away from the QWERTY keyboard layout for the supposedly more efficient Colemak keyboard layoutI was not surprised.
If Ash had to choose between climbing a mountain or taking a longer sideways jaunt, he would undoubtedly take the path of greater resistance, just to see how things pan out. This manifests in every aspect of his life, and while watching him painstakingly train using the Colemak Disposition for several months felt too Sisyphean to me, I gained a new respect for his determination.
Learning a new keyboard layout is hard. Do you remember the first time someone introduced you to a keyboard? It takes years of practice to master one, not to mention harnessing the ability to hit type like I am now. And never mind relearning everything, with your native layout still swirling around in your head.
My multilingual friends tell me that they sometimes think in English but speak in German or Bulgarian, and vice versa. Thinking in English and trying to ignore QWERTY muscle memory is a whole other spatial problem that my synapses would struggle to cope with.
Colemak’s goal, the official site says, is to offer a “faster and painless” alternative to QWERTY and Dvorak keyboard layouts. With around 100,000 people taking the challenge to change, it is currently the third most popular layout for typing in English.
The site claims that your hands move more than double with QWERTY than with Colemak, with “16 times more row jumps from the same hand”. For more efficient layout, Colemak puts the most used letters in the home row, meaning 35 times more words can be typed just by leaving your hands in their default position.
All of this propaganda really pissed my partner off. He was ready to drop his beloved QWERTY and try something new and exciting. And everything went surprisingly well for the first few months.
First he changed his home keyboard layout to reflect Colemak, or at least he tried.
The Logitech G513 that my determined other half was using made swapping keys quite awkward, with each row of keys having different heights – something to consider if you’re thinking about the switch – but it wasn’t deterred.
He only resorted to switching certain keys and continued to devote his heart to learning to type with this alien layout. What he found was that his typing speed increased over a period of about 5 months, but it took a while to increase in accuracy. It is now rounded to 95% accuracy, a more than acceptable level.
“I stopped thinking about where my fingers are like 2-3 months ago,” Ash says. So he managed to get good enough to touch typing within a few months.
Right now, as someone who types daily on QWERTY for my job, I’m on 32-45WPM with about 91% accuracy, and it’s a good day (don’t tell my boss). So Ash managed to bring his stats up to my level in just 140 odd sessions on keyhero.com. Awesome stuff.
However, all of this success is the result of full immersion in the Colemak lifestyle. He swapped his cellphone layout and his work keyboard layout as well. While changing phones helped him a bit, he says changing at work was a revelation. “Of course, typing emails was a drag for the first few weeks, but at least no one could prank me when I walked away, leaving my PC unlocked.”
Ash has been talking about Colemak’s superiority over QWERTY for months, but after a while he started encountering even more obstacles. The fact that no one could type on his keyboard meant I couldn’t enter my passwords on his PC, or change music when we were listening through his setup. So, while great for thwarting would-be pranksters, Colemak is definitely not for anyone who has to share a keyboard.
Also regarding games, there was the issue of some games not registering the Colemak keyboard layout. Trying to make playing games a non-issue wasn’t an easy task, especially ones with control schemes he’d already spent ages tinkering with. Many, however, have automatically updated to accommodate Colemak.
After months of swooning over Colemak, poor Ash has finally returned, at least to his personal keyboard, mostly for the convenience he brings to the game. He’s still swooning over the layout, though. He not only went to Colemak Mod-DH at work, but he is also looking to get a WASD custom keyboard for future experiments.
He is completely convinced that his posture has also improved by using Colemak, and says that his hands are also much less tired from typing all day. But despite its many health and efficiency benefits, in this world of QWERTY dominance, it’s still hard to see Colemak being widely adopted.
Convincing people to change when others around them are mired in the old ways is difficult, because this positive Colemak BBC article on working life points out. It’s also unlikely that top keyboard manufacturers will offer it as an alternative when it’s still a niche market.
The Colemak layout comes pre-installed on Mac (surprisingly) and Linux (less), and more people are moving around every day, so there’s room for change. But if it does, it will be a slow and probably very painful change.