Repetitive stress injuries to the hand and wrist, one of the most common being carpal tunnel syndrome as a result of pressure on the median nerve, are some of the biggest risks associated with heavy keyboard use.But there are ways to make keyboarding sessions shorter, more efficient, and less stressful on the hands and wrists. Keyboard layout plays a central role to each of these goals. This article will discuss layout options that can help to optimise typing, and minimize stress.
One of the easiest, most effective ways to reduce hand stress is to remap often-used keyboard shortcuts to simpler keypress combinations, particularly if the normal shortcut forces the hands to stray far from the home keys and cause the fingers to contort unnaturally.As an example, there was a repair technician who tested monitors and wrote up reports on defects. One of the most common keyboard shortcuts on Windows that aids this process is Ctrl-Windows-Shift-B, which dumps the video buffer for all screens and redraws them from scratch. He used this combination over a hundred times a day. By remapping that to a single keystroke, a key that his diagnostic and reporting software didn’t use, time was saved and manual stress minimised.As far as keyboard shortcuts for the Mac, some of the most painful executions that experienced document editors use are the Option-Shift-Arrow shortcuts that allow the user to extend the selected text by a word or a full paragraph. Writers, editors, and university students know the value of remapping these to something simpler and more natural.In short: Use the simplifications that make life easier, and that make typing more natural. Three and four key combinations that cause painful stretching and abandonment of the home key positions are primary candidates, but certainly not the only ones that make sense.
In a previous article, the importance of being able to replace keycaps on mechanical ergonomic keyboards was mentioned. One of the use cases for this functionality is being able to visually represent keyboard remapping.
There are companies out there that will print custom keycaps for mechanical keyboards. This will allow the remapped key to be represented by a letter combination or icon that shows its new function. So if the Copy and Paste keyboard shortcuts on the Mac have been remapped, actual printed ‘Copy’ and ‘Paste’ keys can be swapped in. This serves as a visual reminder for the primary user, and a remap-warning for anyone else using that keyboard.Another useful reason to have removable keycaps, particularly if they are the ‘flat’ type that can fit any row of the keyboard, is when a keyboard has been mapped away from standard QWERTY configurations. Dvorak layouts reduce awkward strokes (such as ‘hurdling’ motions), and have a better left-right hand balance due to the placement of the vowels. For those who enjoy using Dvorak, the ability to remap a keyboard layout quickly and swap to the appropriate keycaps is vital. For keyboards that have different key slants in each row (non-flat), some custom keycaps might need to be ordered to complete the transformation.Such dramatic keyboard layout changes don’t need to be executed key-by-key. A good configurator program can remember entire 104 key layouts and easily swap between them. The next section will go over the features of one innovative keyboard that has just such a configurator.
Hakkei’s Riven is a good example of a keyboard that has a configurator that allows for flexible layouts. The Riven’s configurator is reprogrammable via a simple web browser interface. This split mechanical ergonomic keyboard has the ability to store multiple profiles. So, as seen in the example above, switching to a Dvorak layout is as easy as switching one menu option. Swapping between the use of remapped shortcuts and the standard layout can be done with just a couple of clicks. The configurator is simple, intuitive, and powerful.
This means that it’s simple to switch between a ‘work mode’ that has a heavily remapped keyboard layout, and a ‘play mode’ that is more suitable to something like gaming. One such option involves setting aside half the keyboard, something that more and more gamers are finding advantageous.
As an example of a left-hand-only keyboard layout that can only be achieved with split keyboards, let’s look at Apex: Legends. There are only three remaps that need to be done (and two of them are situational) to fully fit every keypress on the left half of a split keyboard: Map, Shield Toggle, and Inspect Weapon. There’s plenty of real estate for remapping those hotkeys, and a side mouse button might be even more suitable for quickly checking the map.
One of the most complex shooters on the market today is ‘Escape from Tarkov’. And yet, 90% of the game’s functionality is already mapped to the left side of the keyboard. The main remaps will be for night vision, scope zeroing, check time and exits, and the higher numbered inventory slots. After a few games, these remaps become second nature.
What’s the benefit? Desk space. For shooters, the player generally wants a big mouse pad for better turning radius and more accurate flick shots. With more desk space to play with, low DPI full-arm mouse movements become possible, instead of the more stressful and less accurate (for most gamers) higher DPI wrist-only techniques.
Excellent keyboard layout, and the strength of the configurator used to remap that keyboard, should not be luxuries. It is important to both ergonomics and typing efficiency. If a few small layout tweaks save just five minutes a day at the keyboard, that’s 25 hours of saved time over the course of a typical computer user’s year. Or put another way: 25 hours less stress on the fingers and wrists.
Or perhaps 25 more hours to play some games, catch up with old friends, or write the next great novel. No matter the activity, there’s an optimal keyboard layout just waiting to be discovered.