Sepia, Underwood typewriter, CC-BY-SA Xander Lea Daren/Chop

Why are keyboards built the way they are?

Most of us use computers on a daily basis. We are so used to them we take almost everything around them for granted. Even the shape of the keyboard.

Damn, we are so familiar with this shape we even use this keyboard on smartphones! The younger ones do not even know where this shape comes from (some of them are curious enough to wonder).

How was the QWERTY layout (and all others) created? And why are the columns shifted from a row to the next?

Where does the shape of current keyboards come from?

As often, from history. The keyboards on our computer are descended from those the good old mechanical typewriters used. I supposed it was only logical to make this peripheral look like the old thing, in order to make it easy for typists to make the switch. Plus, it had proved efficient. Well, for one tool at least.

How did the first commercial typewriters worked?

If you’ve never seen one, it’s time to search in your attic. Yes, it’s old. Yes, some may tell it’s obsolete. And yet, it’s always interesting!

Basically, each key was linked to a bar. When pressing it, you moved another stem with two characters on it. The character went and hit a band with ink, transferring the shape of the character to the paper. The Shift key did just what it is named after: it shifted the height of the main mechanism, this determining which of the top or the bottom character of the stem would hit the ink band.

Character heads, Underwood typewriter, CC-BY-SA Xander Lea Daren/Chop
Character heads, Underwood typewriter (CC-BY-SA Xander Lea Daren/Chop)

From this mechanism came the answer to our two other questions.

Why are the keys shifted from one row to the other?

We said each key is on a bar. If the keys were all aligned, well… Let a picture explain it, it will be faster.

Character linkages, Underwood typewriter, CC-BY-SA Xander Lea Daren/Chop
Character linkages, Underwood typewriter (CC-BY-SA Xander Lea Daren/Chop)

Why the QWERTY layout?

Due to the way they worked, typewriters’ keyboards were particularly sensible to ghosting. Even worse than this: typing too fast was a problem.

Since you relied on bars which went and came back, if you typed a character before the previous bar was back into place, the bars began colliding and quickly jammed. The legend has it that the original designer of the first commercially successful typewriter moved the frequently used keys to hard-to-reach places in order to slow the typists.

2015-08-29: Funny note from Jérémie: the first line of QWERTY is QWERTYUIOP. Everything you need to type typewriter is on that line.

I hope you were not hoping an answer explaining how that was more ergonomic…

Do we need this legacy?

Legacy is a keyword here. Why are keyboards the way they are today? Because they always were and no improvement tentative was successful. Because there were such tentatives.

Orthogonal keyboards

Why not use a straight matrix for our keyboards? TypeMatrix does it. To my knowledge, they are the only ones. Loup Vaillant explained why this layout is much more natural to use (or rather why the standard disposition is not natural).

TypeMatrix 2030 QWERTY keyboard
TypeMatrix 2030 QWERTY keyboard

As a consequence, TypeMatrix aligned all the keys on a perfect grid, moved the Enter and Backspace keys to the middle of the keyboard so that both hands can easily access them. It is another approach.

Dvorak layout

We’ve seen the QWERTY layout was not designed for speed but rather for the contrary. August Dvořák saw that and, with his brother-in-law, designed a new layout to replace QWERTY.

The core ideas are:

  • the typing hand should ideally alternate between each character (more speed, less strain and mistakes);
  • the most commonly used characters must be the easiest to type (on a Dvorak Simplified Keyboard, 70% of the strokes are done on the home row, while it is down to 32% on a QWERTY).

Consequently: your fingers move less, you alternate hands (thus moving a finger while the other is striking a key), … You’re just better at it.

The Dvorak keyboard has known several variants. One was designed especially for programmers, while the French Dvorak keyboard is less commonly used than its BÉPO alternative (named for the four first letters on the keyboard).

Smartphones and tactile interfaces

The keyboard form-factor is used everywhere nowadays. Even on smartphones, the keyboards keep the key disposition, up to the shift between rows (except when space saving becomes obvious).

Is the typewriter keyboard the most adapted input interface for tactile screens, though? Is there not a better (or at least different) way? There might be. We already saw some alternative takes on the physical keyboards and the already popular gesture typing is but the first step for the renewal of tactile interfaces.

Break away from the legacy

In the future, I will try to write (or pick in my archive and write it anew) about some solutions who try to forget the legacy of keyboards or make typing easier, both for touch screens and physical keyboards. Follow the tag #BreakTheLegacy if you want to keep track of my posts on the subject.


Credits:


Edits:

  • 2015-08-29: QWERTY fun fact, distinguish Dvorak-fr from BÉPO (credit for these notes go to Jérémie).

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Cyrille Chopelet

Programming addict, UX philosopher, casual gamer, sci-fi enthusiast, hi-tech dilettante, ... Some people even call me a geek.

One thought on “Why are keyboards built the way they are?”

  1. Note that dvorak-fr and bépo are different layouts. IIRC bépo was started because the license of dvorak-fr did not allow the bépo people to modify what they wanted.

    Fun note: why is the top line of a qwerty keyboard composed of the letters qwertyuiop? Well, it allows to type typewriter just on this line. Yep, that’s completely random. ergonomics was not really the center of attention at this time 🙂

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