Switching to an Ergonomic Colemak Keyboard
I have been programming for over a decade. I have worked with many people who used all sorts of keyboards, from the nerdiest to the normal-est. Never did I think I would become a keyboard nerd. It isn't something that ever really interested me. I mean it’s like any other keyboard, right?
But then I began to struggle with wrist pain. I’ve probably averaged 6+ hours typing every day for over a decade now, and it turns out that all of that typing has taken its toll.
I documented much of the history of my wrist pain in a previous post, which you can read here. Now that I’ve been typing both on a mechanical and Colemak keyboard for a few months now, I am prepared to answer a few of the questions I had back when I was thinking of making this switch. If you are considering switching keyboard layouts or switching to a more ergonomic keyboard, perhaps some of your questions will be answered here.
What is an alternate keyboard layout?
Qwerty is the standard keyboard layout that most U.S. computers come with. It’s called Qwerty because the top row of keys spells out "qwertyuiop", and Qwerty is easier to say than that.
Qwerty was originally designed for typewriters. Typewriters were mechanical machines that occasionally got jammed if you typed letters that were too close together, so the inventors came up with a clever solution: place the most commonly used keys as far apart as usual.
This was a good design for a typewriter, but a poor one for computers. Qwerty wasn't designed for the work we do today, and many alternate layouts have been devised by clever people. One of the best known is called Dvorak. The one I chose to learn is called Colemak.
Why learn Colemak?
As mentioned above, I have been struggling with wrist pain for a few years now. Part of that is the sheer number of words I type each week.
Dvorak was invented in order to help people type more efficiently. It was designed to divide the stain of typing between both hands equally, and to avoid stretching where possible. It is more efficient for your hands, and helps you work less.
Colemak was created for the same reasons, to reduce strain and give people a more comfortable typing experience for the modern age. But it was also designed to be as similar to Qwerty as possible, so it’s easier for long-time Qwerty users (like me) to learn. It’s still far more efficient than Qwerty, and possibly more efficient than Dvorak (although they're very similar), but easier to learn. Also, the most commonly used keyboard shortcuts stay the same, which is a big win for a keyboard shortcut junkie like me. All of this is why I decided to go with Colemak.
Can you still type Qwerty after switching to another layout?
The short answer is: yes! The longer answer:
It has now been over two months since I switched to typing a Colemak keyboard layout. To be honest, at the moment I’m not as proficient with either keyboard layout as I was with Qwerty. I used to type about 90-110 WPM, now I can type about 60 WPM with either Qwerty or Colemak.
It’s a very strange experience, learning a new keyboard layout after typing your whole life on Qwerty. At first your brain will rebel, and it will feel like you're trying to write with your off hand. You'll feel clumsy and awkward, and you'll be lucky if you type the right keys, never mind typing with any speed.
But as you retrain your brain, it will learn to accept its new role. For me it took about three weeks of conscious effort for the pain to subside. After the third week, my brain accepted its new role more readily, and I was able to type again. Very slowly, but I could at least type on Colemak. It took another month before I could type with a consistent speed.
As for my Qwerty skills, they went through a metamorphosis as well. In the first three weeks I was forced to type Qwerty at times in order to keep doing my work, but after the third week I switched over to Colemak full-time. It was at this point that I realized I couldn't type Qwerty anymore. If I tried, my brain tried to use Colemak, and only gibberish came out. Once I was able to type Colemak without as much conscious effort, my Qwerty skills came back, but slower than before. I can now type Qwerty about as quickly as I can type Colemak, but since it isn't my main driver I have lost some speed. Oh well. I’ll get it back one way or another.
Advocates of Colemak also say it allows you to type faster in the long term. I have yet to see evidence of that, but that wasn't the reason I switched, so I’m not that worried about it. I think my speed will come back with time.
Has Colemak helped your wrist pain?
Yes, I’m happy to report that it has. But I made many changes in addition to changing my keyboard layout, so I can't say that this is necessarily what "cured me". I have less pain now due to many different life and work factors outlined in a previous article, and Colemak was one part of that.
What's the deal with mechanical keyboards?
While I was frustratedly learning Colemak, I was also learning to use a new ergonomic keyboard, called a Keyboardio. This was a very difficult transition for my poor brain to make, but after putting in the effort, I love where I ended up.
The Keyboardio has helped me in many ways:
- It’s super customizable. It has numerous plugins, some of which have been invaluable in my journey to heal my wrists. In particular, they have a one-shot plugin that is magical: instead of holding down keys and modifiers to do keyboard shortcuts, you can type them consecutively, allowing you to type ⌘, C, instead of ⌘+C. This is strictly better for your hands. No more twister for your fingers.
- It is a split keyboard. I have fairly wide shoulders, and I keep the two halves of my keyboard at shoulder width, with a trackball mouse in the middle. I think this has been a big factor allowing my wrists to heal. Typing on a regular keyboard forced my wrists to bend outward, which in the long run wasn't good for them.
- You can also "tent" the keyboard up, so your hands can sit in a more natural position. I have mine tented up as high as it will go.
- Due to the customizability, it’s much easier to add and remove keyboard shortcuts. I use far more shortcuts than I ever have before, which helps me resort to the mouse less, which helps my wrists.
The Keyboardio is quite an investment at $329 (I got mine on sale for $280, and you can often get them used on the forum), and there are definitely cheaper options that give you many of the same results. But now that I’ve switched, I wouldn't go back for anything. I think the Keyboardio, and the improvements it has allowed me to make, took me 75% of the way to healing my wrists, and for that I am grateful.
So... What's the deal with mechanical keyboards?
I honestly don’t know. 😂 I like mine for the ergonomic comforts. I know some like them for the hardware, and get super nerdy about switches and hardware mods and such. I know nothing about that, although I respect those who do. I like mine because it’s comfortable, and helps with my wrist pain.
Are mechanical keyboards better than normal ones?
I would say, generally speaking, no. Mechanical keyboards are not inherently better as far as I can tell, they're different. Mechanical keyboards are more customizable in general, they give you better feedback which can make touch typing easier (think how hard it is to touch type on an iPad screen. Regular keyboards feel like that after typing on a mechanical for a while).
But there are perks to regular keyboards as well. They're usually thinner, more portable, often times cordless, and ubiquitous. If you're happy with a regular keyboard, there’s really little reason to go mechanical, in my view.
If you weren't typing 6+ hours a day, would you learn a new keyboard layout?
Probably not. I learned it because my wrists hurt and I was desperate for a change. If I didn't type so much, typed a lot on other people's computers, or didn't experience pain from typing, I probably wouldn't switch. I happen to be in a position where I mainly use my own computer, I use it a lot, and my wrists hurt because of that. In this situation, I believe a few weeks of frustrated typing was worth less wear and tear on my arms.
Knowing Qwerty is important though, because you need to be able to use computers that aren't your own. This is why I never switched before, and why I thought about it very seriously before I did. It’s a pretty big inconvenience to not be able to use other keyboards, and it requires more time to maintain the skills to type with two keyboard layouts. This is a downside, but one I’m willing to live with at this point in my career. For now, I’ll make sure to use both layouts every week, so that I can maintain my skills with both.
What's the best ergonomic keyboard?
I don’t know. I really like my Keyboardio, but it is the only mechanical keyboard I have ever used, I am no expert.
If you're like me and need one to help with wrist pain, there are a few must-haves:
- The keys should be in columns, not staggered. This takes more work to get used to, but it’s far easier on the fingers.
- The keyboard should have split capability. The ability to type with your hands at shoulder width is a game changer.
- Related, you should be able to "tent" the two halves. Some ergo keyboards are built like this, others are adjustable. Adjustable is better, because everyone's hands are unique.
- 100% customizable keys is also very useful, if you want to use your mouse less. This way you can customize your board to work smarter instead of harder.
The keyboardio checks all of these boxes, but so does the ErgoDox, and many others check most of these boxes. Many ergo keyboards have staggered keys, which I think is unfortunate.
If you struggle with wrist or arm pain, and your career depends on typing, ergonomic keyboards and alternate keyboard layouts are definitely worth investigating. I’ve had good results using them, and I hope they will keep my arms in good shape for many years to come.
Any questions you have that I didn't answer here? Write a comment or hit me up on Twitter, always happy to share what I know.