tl;dr QWERTY rules.

A few years back, I heard about the ErgoDox: a split keyboard seemed so cool! I got a little bit obsessed with the idea that a Jedi should construct his own lightsaber. (In this tortured analogy, a programmer is a Jedi, and a keyboad is a lightsaber. Delusions of grandeur much?) I ordered the kit, got a soldering iron, and slowly assembled the thing. It was a fun project.

And let me tell you, a split keyboard is so cool! I can position my hands wherever they feel comfortable. There are other interesting properties of the hardware too, the most notable is that the keys are in columns instead of staggered. (The fancy word for this is ortholinear.) The folks who manufacture the ErgoDox EZ claim this results in “less finger travel and fatigue”.1 I mean … maybe? I’ve never noticed. My hands had no trouble acclimating to the ErgoDox, but they’ve also never been fatigued by normal keyboards.2 Anyway, it’s good hardware and I recommend it.

There was another decision I made when assembling the ErgoDox that I’m less enthusiastic about in hindsight. I figured that as long as I was involving myself in a keyboard revolution, I’d go all the way and learn a new keyboard layout too.

For those of you with better things to do with your time, a keyboard layout is just a different way of configuring the keys on a keyboard. For example, when pressing the Y key, a J might be produced instead. Why would somebody do this? Good question: I think the usual schtick is something about being more efficient; your fingers travel less distance when typing common English words, so you wind up being faster.

The “normal” layout on English-language keyboards is QWERTY, so called because those are the top- and left-most letters on the keyboard. When somebody’s heard of alternative keyboard layouts at all, it’s usually the Dvorak layout.3 It’s popular enough that a lot of operating systems provide built-in support for it. There are others.

I settled on the Norman layout. Not for any particular reason; maybe I bought into its marketing hype. 🤣 Its home page states that it’s “the best way to touch type”. There are data about how it compares to its rivals. But the reality is that it’s not practical to test drive a bunch of layouts: it takes too long to get proficient. So I just had to make a call.

After a couple weeks of concerted effort, I made the shift. One interesting tidbit of the switching process was how I’d revert to QWERTY for specific key-pair combinations. That is, if there was specific pair of letters frequently typed together, I’d use the QWERTY position of the pair even after I’d mastered typing the individual letters correctly. (I never noticed this with any combinations larger than two.) I found it fascinating that my muscle memory was wired up that way. Brains are cool!

The trickiest part of the switch was getting used to Vim in Norman. There a couple of ways to handle it:

I went with the second approach. By and large, while it was an adjustment, it wasn't too bad. I think the hardest part was adjusting to the new positions of H, J, K, and L, but since I don’t use those for the bulk of my code navigation, it wasn’t horrible.

So after a few years of comfortably typing in Norman, would I recommend it? Heck no! Whatever moderate gains I get in less wear ’n’ tear on the ol’ digits is more than offset by the speed I’ve lost. I ran the numbers: my average with Norman is about 78 words per minute; with QWERTY, about 93. (Hardly a speed demon in either!)

To be honest, this isn’t Norman’s fault. I never gave it a real fair shake. I only used Norman on the ErgoDox, because I didn’t want to hamper my typing if I had to use somebody else’s keyboard. Even that was only partially successful. Whenever I wind up on any kind of split keyboard—not just the ErgoDox—my brain switches to Norman. Even a Microsoft Sculpt keyboard triggers Norman mode!

Another minor drawback has been keycap shopping. I can’t really get a sculpted set, because they’re generally only designed to work with QWERTY.4 This is hardly the end of the world. There are plenty of beautiful, flat keycap sets.

And none of this would have been mitigated by switching to a different non-QWERTY layout. All of them would suffer from these exact same drawbacks.5

There’s a good chance that Norman and its ilk are truly better layouts, for some definition of better. The problem boils down to the fact that I already learned QWERTY, and it’s good enough. Maybe my fingers travel a little farther, but it’s not far enough to matter. If I’m trying to spare myself carpal tunnel, picking up some nice dictation software seems like a bigger win.

I’m typing up this blog post in Norman, then I’m flashing my ErgoDox with QWERTY. We had some good times, and I’ll remember it fondly, but it’s time to wind this experiment down.

Questions? Comments? Contact me!

  1. But hey, I bought an EZ too, so I’m not complaining. It’s an excellent keyboard!
  2. Except for those six months when I gave Emacs a spin.
  3. I once pair progammed with a Dvorak enthusiast, who left my computer set up that way after we were done. Don’t be that guy, friends.
  4. On the bright side, this likely saved me some money. Keycaps ain’t cheap!
  5. In fairness, I think I’ve seen some sculpted sets for non-QWERTY layouts. Just never for Norman.

Tools Used

keyboard layout