Learning the Norman Layout, Week 0

Yesterday, I started on a new adventure in the way I use computers. I decided to learn to type using the Norman Layout.

My job requires frequent use of the keyboard and mouse, which has sometimes resulted in tingling sensations, numbness and sometimes even pain in my fingers and wrists–symptoms of Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI). It doesn’t help that oftentimes, I have to work on the cramped keyboard and trackpad of my laptop, for example, when I am away from my desk due to a meeting. This has led me to search for a more ergonomic way to type, to reduce the pain and discomfort.

Some History

Most computer keyboards today are based on the QWERTY keyboard layout, named after the first six keys on the top row. This layout was designed in the early 1870s by Christopher Latham Sholes. It was an optimised layout designed for typewriters of the day, where letters were mounted on metal arms that would jam up if characters were pressed in rapid succession. QWERTY was designed so that commonly occurring letter pairs in English, such as “th” and “sh” were not located adjacent to each other, to prevent jams. This however, resulted in a layout that was not ergonomic, in that the fingers had to travel quite a bit between keys.

Since then, several attempts have been made to develop keyboard layouts that were more ergonomic for our human hands. One of the most well known alternatives to QWERTY is the Dvorak keyboard, patented in 1936 by Dr August Dvorak, who studied letter frequencies and the movements of human hands to design his layout. The Dvorak layout aims to increase letters typed on the home row (the middle row where your fingers rest), reduce same-hand consecutive typing, and move more typing to the right hand, since most people are right-handed. But the Dvorak layout is notoriously difficult to learn.

Dvorak Layout

Dvorak keyboard layout

The Search

I wanted to find a keyboard layout that was ergonomic and easy to learn. I first stumbled on the Colemak layout developed by Shai Coleman, which is said to be the third most popular keyboard layout after QWERTY and Dvorak. It seemed to be a huge improvement over QWERTY and Dvorak, but some people found issues with it that made certain letter combinations difficult to type. One of them, OJ Bucao, made some modifications to Colemak to resolve these issues, and came up with the Workman layout.

Colemak Layout

Colemak keyboard layout

Workman Layout

Workman keyboard layout

Both Colemak and Workman presented compelling design arguments and statistics to demonstrate how they improved upon QWERTY. But the only way to find out if these would work for me was to try them out. To jump into them straightaway would be too daunting, so I started by trying to learn them using the Type-Fu Chrome plugin. After several hours of trying each of them, I found that I was struggling with getting past the exercises for the home row keys. One of the problems I realised was in keys that were switched from one hand to the other. For example, both Colemak and Workman placed e under the middle finger of the right hand, whereas it is usually typed with the middle finger of the left hand in QWERTY. Muscle memory severely prevented me from getting those keystrokes right, even with intense concentration.

So I looked for something that would be easier to learn, and came across the Norman layout. Its creator, David Norman, who found the same issues with alternative layouts like Colemak and Workman. While people learning to type from scratch could probably learn any of these just as easily as they would learn QWERTY, someone like me with a deep muscle memory of the QWERTY keyboard would struggle when keys are moved to different fingers. The Norman layout addresses this by minimising the number of keys moved to a different finger, or worse, to a different hand. This would make it much easier to learn.

Norman Layout

Norman keyboard layout

Now, the Norman layout may not be the absolute most ergonomic layout from a statistical perspective, but it seemed vastly easier to learn than the other alternatives I tried, which presented a compelling argument. I do not need to use the absolute best keyboard layout that anyone can develop. What I want is something that significantly improves from QWERTY, is easy to learn, and quick to regain my productivity. Norman seemed to fit the bill, so I jumped right in to try it out.

Jumping into Norman

So I started practising the Norman layout using Klavaro yesterday, and found it surprisingly easy to master the home row. The keys were on the same familiar fingers that they had been on QWERTY, just on a different row (except for the h which still felt strange).

Wanting to get more practise, I made the brave decision to take the full plunge into the Norman layout at work today for some simple typing, and to my surprise, my fingers picked it up quite easily, compared to my experience with Colemak and Workman. Now I am by no means fluent in Norman yet, and I have to consciously direct my fingers to the right row to get the letters that I want, but at least I could type some short paragraphs before getting tired, and by that I mean mentally tired, not physically. The letters were mostly on the same familiar fingers, except for h, kp and r. This is pretty impressive, compared to say Colemak, that moves 11 keys to a different finger.

Quantitatively, I am able to type about 90 wpm with QWERTY. Now, at the end of only my first day of using Norman, I can already type 26 wpm. That is testament to how easy it is to learn this layout. Qualitatively, I already feel that my fingers travel much less, with many of the common letters being located on the home row. It still takes a very conscious effort to type in Norman, but this should get easier as I get more practice with it.

I will share more of my experiences with this layout next week.

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