Finding the right type

Nigel Heaton, Director of Human Applications, spent time researching keyboards during the early stages of his career. After taking part in a recent CIEHF Workplace Sector Group debate which covered the topic, he sparked an interesting discussion on our Communities discussion forum about the evolution of the QWERTY layout which also highlighted the importance of touch typing.

In the 1870s, the arms manufacturer Remington and Sons decided to diversify and produced what became a typewriter. They had a design from Christopher Sholes and colleagues for an input device that was faster than any other. Uniquely, it allowed keyboard operators to select from 27 keys instead of 52, by the astonishing idea of putting the upper-case and lower-case letters on the same key and using a shift key to select the letter case required.

The keyboard was designed for speed and to be patented. You can’t patent an alphabetic layout, though if you look more deeply you will see that most of the QWERTY design is broadly alphabetic. Incidentally, Scholes decided to sell his patent to Remington while his colleague Densmore only licensed his half. A decision that allegedly cost Scholes one and a half million dollars (or $40 million in today's money).

Once the keyboard was produced, we had the advent of touch typists and the root of the myth that the QWERTY keyboard was designed to slow people down. This is supposedly because of the location of the most used E and R keys. The R key was pressed using the right hand, the E key using the left. The mechanical layout of the typewriter meant that the keys travelled from the extreme ends of the machine and as people got faster, the two keys were hit almost simultaneously, causing them to lock. Moving the R key to the left hand allowed the keys to be hit almost simultaneously but with no locking, allegedly slowing down typists.

From an ergonomics perspective, is QWERTY the be best layout? Not really. There’s an uneven loading of fingers and hands and the need for a constant pressure with all fingers and thumbs also means that the mechanical force on the little fingers when hitting the QAZ and PL, keys was not ideal. Is it the fastest keyboard design? No again. If you really want speed, use a chord keyboard and train yourself to type at 300 words per minute. 

However, for most users, the QWERTY keyboard is not a discernible hazard. At a comfortable 30 – 40 words per minute, you’re not at a huge disadvantage and if you can hit 60-80 words per minute, you can keep up with your own thoughts without exposing your body to excessive harm.

Things to think about when choosing a keyboard:

  • Split keyboards increase the search area for hunt and peck typists, and destroy touch typists’ feedback loops and the ability to touch type effectively.
  • Layouts other than QWERTY result in long learning curves and the benefits are very small. 
  • Keyboards that don’t give good haptic feedback make it difficult to be certain that keys have been pressed, resulting in errors and frustration.


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