Re-Learning Touch Typing with the Workman Layout

I learned touch typing when I was in my mid-teens and WordPerfect was the new hotness on DOS. It got me into a fair amount of trouble more than a decade later when I was writing up my PhD thesis and I developed my first proper RSI symptoms. As I mentioned in the previous post, it was the combination of two main ingredients, switching to my beloved Kinesis Advantage keyboard and the Dvorak keyboard layout that saved my hands and career.

I have used that combo to write and code for two decades now.. and yet I’m writing these words on a laptop keyboard using the Workman layout.

First things first. I’m not an über-typist. I think at the peak of my Dvorak typing I got to 80-90 words per minute, which is fast but not exceptional. I measured myself at 75wpm before starting my new adventures in touch-typing, which is just fine, because I can’t think at more than perhaps 60 wpm anyway.

Something I have realised over time is that maximum performance is not nearly as important than comfort when typing. My main success criteria for a keyboard arrangement are:

  • must feel comfortable
  • must minimise strain on my body, thus preventing injury
  • must let me concentrate on what I’m writing, not how I’m writing
    • for me that means that I need to be able to keep my eyes on the screen at all times and my fingers need to be able to find the keys without distracting me
  • must be able to keep up with my thoughts
  • must be easy to navigate and edit text
  • must enable me to use keyboard shortcuts easily

My current quest for a new keyboard layout was triggered by the fact that I want to be less dependant on my desktop setup and be able to work effectively in coffee shops and similar settings.

Unfortunately laptops come with the standard crappy staggered key arrangements and there is precisely zero hope that Apple is ever going to come out with a matrix keyboard on a laptop. So you’ve got to make do with what they give you..

I have at various times tried to use Dvorak on a MacBook keyboard, but never with any real success. My fingers have memorised the key positions on the Kinesis’ straight rows of keys and I mishit the keys on the bottom row almost constantly. All this is made worse by the fact that I’m subconsciously peeking at the QWERTY labels on the keys because the screen is right above the keyboard. The actual labels on the keyboard become especially irresistible when I reach for a keyboard shortcut when my fingers have not been resting on their home row positions.

Eventually I settled on using hunt and peck on the laptop and just live with QWERTY. It wasn’t a huge deal because I was a very occasional laptop user.

A year ago, however, all that changed because I fell in love with the 12″ MacBook. It quickly pushed my iPad out of my day bag and I found myself writing code and answering email on the go.. and with that came my dissatisfaction with not being able to touch type on it. On my desktop my thoughts just magically flow through my fingers onto the virtual paper while on the laptop I’m plodding along at quarter speed..

So I decided to bite the bullet and re-learn QWERTY touch typing. I got to 45 wpm after about a week and I felt that this would be perfectly fine. While it still felt slow I felt certain that by just sticking with it I was surely going to get faster with time. Six weeks later, however, I was still no faster and more importantly it still felt awful. All those finger contortions; the fact that the most frequently used keys are in the least accessible places and most importantly: the God awful rhythm.

One thing that most Dvorak users note is the nicely flowing rhythm of the layout. Most of the time when you type in Dvorak, successive keys are on alternating hands. One hand presses a key while the other is getting in position. The very fastest typists tend to be Dvorak users (sustained 150 wpm for 50 minutes, peaking at 212wpm) and I think that the fact that the hands alternate so often might be a key factor in that. Dvorak is to QWERTY in that respect as the Brandenburg Concertos are to slowly scratching chalk over a blackboard.

The Colemak partially optimized keyboard layout

The Colemak partially optimized keyboard layout

This got me started on learning the Colemak layout. This is a “modern” optimized keyboard layout and claims to be faster and “more optimal” than Dvorak. It scores over Dvorak in a number of ways, but most significantly it is much easier for QWERTY users to learn. Known as a “partial optimization”, it relocates only some keys, concentrating on getting the most frequently used keys under your finger tips on the home row. Particularly on the bottom row, keys stay pretty much where they were. This also means that the most common shortcuts stay in the same positions. So copy, cut, paste and undo problems as I experienced previously, simply do not arise. As far as possible all keys are also typed with the same hand as in QWERTY. This is especially significant for using the Shift key properly, as this requires coordination with the opposite hand.

I found Colemak much more difficult to learn than QWERTY because everyone has that layout stored somewhere in their brain. Still Colemak was an immediate and significant improvement, even though my typing speed went way down into the 10-15wpm initially. There are a lot fewer contorsions and you can type many words with home row keys only.

I persevered for 3 weeks, but even then I was struggling to get above 20 wpm. While feeling better than QWERTY, Colemak did not actually feel all that great. One particular annoyance was typing the “TH” combo. The T is just under the left index finger, which is just fine, but the H is reached by sliding the right index finger to the next key on the left. This is a very awkward manoeuvre in and of itself, but combining it with hitting the T key at speed is hard and just feels wrong. So every word containing a “th” becomes a little hiccup. I also found that in general the rhythm of the layout was an improvement only when compared to the low bar set by QWERTY.

I decided that perhaps I was barking up the wrong tree. Colemak might be easier to learn for QWERTY folk, but that actually worked against me: My beloved Dvorak has zero communality with either layout. Keeping the key under the same hand as in QWERTY actually slowed my progress for that very reason. What I really wanted was a “new improved” Dvorak version, not a better QWERTY, but I couldn’t find anything and wasn’t about to develop my own layout.

What I did find was a coherent criticism of Colemak that was insightful enough to clarify what I actually disliked about it, but hadn’t been able to put my finger on. The author of that criticism had also developed his own layout based on this analysis and that’s how I found Workman.

The Workman fully optimized keyboard layout

The Workman fully optimized keyboard layout

Apparently a lot of keyboard layout optimizers (yes, such things exist) consider all 4 fingers to have the same natural range of motion, mobility and strength. This explains why Colemak considers the H key to be in a prime position despite the fact that it is clearly much harder to reach sideway than upwards with your fingers. Colemak also does not consider the length of the fingers.

Workman gives each key a score based on how easy it is for an actual finger to hit it. I’m not certain that I would necessary have chosen the exact same scores, but it’s clearly an improvement over Colemak and the most common combos are easier to type. Workman keeps the Z and X keys in the same spot, but moves the CV keys one position to the right. With a sticker over the keys I find that I can live with that. There are also Mac implementations freely available, including “Programmer’s” versions, which I’ll probably be using as they are similar to the “Programmer’s Dvorak” that I use on my desktop machines.

I have used the Xmas holidays to practise my Workman layout and about a month in, I’m getting towards the usable stage and this is the first lengthy document that I have written in it. I’m optimistic about this remaining my laptop layout for good.

There are, however, a few things I’m not so keen on. The first is minor and concerns the “ch” bigram, which is fairly awkward to type. It’s not nearly as bad or common as the TH issue on Colemak or the “ls -l” plaguing Dvorak Unix users.. but still..

The other is a potential deal breaker and concerns the design decision to favour “single hand utilisation“. Workman’s designer, OJ Bucao, claims that it is easier, faster and more comfortable to type multiple letters with the same hand rather than by alternating hands.

This is the reverse of my own experience with Dvorak. When typing in Workman I’m constantly performing two, three or even four letter runs with one hand. For Bucao this is a good thing. He claims that after a while those patterns become ingrained and you end up typing them as a single action. He is certainly correct that it minimizes hand movement, as the un-used hand can find its way back to the home row and take a breather. The most common bigrams and trigrams are also easy to type with very little reaching.

Still the jury is out on that particular feature. I have noticed that I’ve started typing with those semi-automatic finger rolls, but I find it fatiguing and I don’t (yet?) like the rhythm much.. but it’s early days yet and generally I’m much happier with Workman than with either QWERTY or Colemak.

If you are interested in learning a new layout, I would recommend giving Workman a try above Colemak. Colemak and Dvorak both come pre-installed on macOS, but installing Workman is very easy. If you are a developer, the programmer’s versions makes typing codes much simpler.