Keyboard Choices: Reducing Wrist Pain, and QWERTY vs. Dvorak.

I used to experience wrist pain, and I thought that it was due to the large volume of typing that I do (ten hours on a bad day), coupled with playing the guitar (and trying to learn piano). However, I am happy to report that with some simple changes I have experienced no pain in many years.

The main things that I suggest, in increasing order of difficulty, are (a) adjusting your furniture and keyboard to be consistent with modern ergonomic standards, (b) resting and stretching per the latest ergonomic fads, (c) switching keyboards (to a Kinesis "contoured" keyboard, in particular), (d) using foot pedals, and (e) switching to the Dvorak keyboard layout. I suspect that even one or two of the above could help considerably; you need not do everything. (Of course you should consult a physician if your problems are becoming serious.)

General Considerations


Musical keyboard players have been "typing" for over 2000 years, so they have figured out ergonomics by now. (I read that the ancient Greeks invented the organ in 250B.C.!) You will note that modern piano and organ keyboards are placed at such a height as to keep your elbows bent, your wrists straight, etc. I note that most of the modern computer ergonomics "experts" basically seem to suggest the same position for typing on computer keyboards. Adjusting your furniture to be consistent with modern ergonomic guidelines is a very good idea, and easy to do. You will be able to find all kinds of guides about adjusting your furniture on the Internet.

Switching Keyboards

The Kinesis Keyboard

I used a Microsoft Natural keyboard for a while, and it is good. But my favorite (for the past three years) is the Kinesis "contoured" ergonomic keyboard.
Kinesis Contour Keyboard
This keyboard is excellent, since the "bowl" shapes are very natural for your fingers to sweep out, and even more importantly, the keys are arranged in columns, and not in diagonals. The diagonal (staggered) arrangement of the keys on "ordinary" keyboards makes every finger trace out a "\" motion, and this is both asymmetric and adds extra distance. (For example, look at a QWERTY keyboard [the following figure] and study at the path that your right ring finger sweeps out if you're typing ".LO9".) (More on the extra distance later.)

I've stayed with the Kinesis keyboard for many years now, and like it very much, although it makes it difficult to type on ordinary keyboards, since my brain is now used to moving my fingers like "|" and not "\", where the consequence is that I often hit pairs of keys on ordinary keyboards by accident. Note that every laptop seems to have the keys arranged in the "\" configuration. (However, I did buy an Apple Powerbook, and it forced me to learn how to type on diagonal keys, too, so it's not that hard to learn both.)

The Maltron Keyboard

The Maltron keyboard looks very similar to a Kinesis, but I'm not sure which one was the original, or which one is "better."

The Microsoft Natural Keyboard

The Microsoft Natural keyboard is an inexpensive high-volume "split" keyboard design, which makes sure that your wrists are not bent as you type. It's much better than an ordinary keyboard, but not nearly as nice as a Kinesis.

Foot Pedals

Anybody with hand pain must get foot pedals, since they can remove a tremendous load from your hands. I have two foot pedals, and use one for the SHIFT key, and the other for the CONTROL key. (I still type META by hand.) I have found that in the process of using the Emacs text editor to compose computer programs, I tend to use the SHIFT, CONTROL and META keys constantly, and it is easy to remove most of this load from one's hands.


Note that pedals can be used to click the mouse (if you're a graphic designer), control video games (i.e., make your character move forward in Quake), etc.---they are more flexible than most people realize.

While I use foot pedals that only work on Kinesis keyboards, Bilbo makes some generic systems that work with any keyboard, and I am sure that there are other numerous other vendors as well.

If you find that you forget to use your pedals, it is easy to use a screwdriver and pry various key covers from your keyboard! If you choose not to use foot pedals, at least make sure that you never press more than one key at a time per hand. In other words, if you're going to type "A", make sure that your left pinky presses the "a", while the right pinky holds down the SHIFT modifier. (Every touch-typist does this.) Note that the same should hold if you type Control-A.... If your keyboard does not have symmetrical CONTROL keys, throw it right into the trash.


QWERTY keyboard
The QWERTY keyboard layout (since 1873).

Dvorak keyboard
The Dvorak keyboard layout (since 1932).

The Dvorak keyboard layout was invented (by Dr Dvorak, of course) in the 1930s. He made extensive claims that his design is better than the older QWERTY keyboard layout, but to little effect. Even today only a tiny fraction of the population uses a Dvorak keyboard mapping, and most have never even heard of it. Many personal computers come with software drivers that let one switch back-and-forth between QWERTY and Dvorak mappings, so one does not have to buy any special hardware or spend any money. Could it be that the masses are stupid, as many Dvorak advocates claim, or is there really no practical difference?

How to Compare QWERTY vs. Dvorak

I looked in the literature a bit to learn about the reduced motion of the Dvorak keyboard, and I kept on encountering nebulous claims about "twenty times less motion" and "the Navy study." I decided while it is difficult to decide if Dvorak makes you type faster, or have less errors, it is easy to see if one's fingers move less, as one only has to write a simulator for two hands that are perfect touch-typists.

In order to compare the QWERTY vs. Dvorak layouts, one has to write a computer program that has two hands that move according to the rules of "touch typing," and then direct these hands to type in texts of interest. With this kind of analysis, it is possible to even compare the load on each finger.

I thought that I was so smart that nobody else would have thought of it, so I did not bother looking for prior art (like Jon Maxwell's clever applet which does exactly what I wanted!); instead, I just wrote a program and had it type some large pieces of text.

A Comparison of the QWERTY and Dvorak keyboard mappings.

I was trying to think of a good text to type, and somebody suggested (as a joke) the Unabomber's Manifesto. It seemed very entertaining to use something written on what is undoubtedly a QWERTY typewriter to compare keyboard mappings, so I tried that. If the program is correct, the results are as follows:

Comparison on a -30 degree skewed (i.e., typical) keyboard

I pasted the text into Maxwell's program, and he claims that the ratio in planar movement of Dvorak divided by QWERTY is 0.57, and I get 0.59, so these numbers are probably both correct. In other words, your fingers only move 58% of the distance that they do on a QWERTY keyboard. How much distance is this? Maxwell estimates 5.3km. I report about 318 thousand key lengths, and converting to meters given his standard of 1.8cm, this results in 5.7km. I think that the disparity in distances is due to the fact that what I pasted into his applet is not exactly what my program read when it opened the page (there is a disparity of many thousands of characters, probably due to HTML markup [that my program was seeing and typing]). But, in any regard, the conclusions are clear:

The Z distance is about 220k keystrokes, and if this distance is 0.5cm, that's about 1.1km, suggesting that planar (XY) motion dominates.

Comparison on a rectangular (Kinesis) keyboard

If a rectangular Kinesis-style keyboard is used, the motion on Dvorak and QWERTY keymaps is reduced by 6% and 3%, respectively.

Should you switch to Dvorak?

Your fingers might move half as much in the XY plane if you use a Dvorak mapping, and even less if you a Kinesis keyboard. The main reason not to switch is the initial pain of the learning Dvorak mapping; it can be extremely frustrating to spend ten minutes to hammer out one line of email. The second biggest problem is that you might become unable to type QWERTY, and this means that you'll have to hunt-and-peck when you are at other people's machines. (Of course, if you make them download a Dvorak keyboard driver, you're set!)

If you're using a keyboard at a kiosk of some kind, there will be no Dvorak driver, and you'll have to hunt-and-peck on QWERTY. I doubt that this will change any time soon, although when wireless personal information devices become the rage you'll carry your own input devices anyway, so ultimately this will not be an issue. (Or so I tell myself. :)

So, if you rarely need to use somebody else's keyboard (i.e., you don't work in a MIS department, for example), and you type a lot, then it might very well be worth learning Dvorak. If you type infrequently, I can hardly imagine that the change would be worthwhile.

Kleanthes Koniaris, email.