Ergonomic mechanical keyboard

Posted On 03/04/2015 By In Learning

Ergonomic mechanical keyboards: A primer and roundup

Page Contents:

  1. Introduction
  2. Health risks of typing
  3. The problems with standard QWERTY
  4. Why we still use QWERTY
  5. Features of ergonomic mechanical keyboards
  6. Summary of scientific research on keyboard ergonomics and RSI
  7. Ergonomic keyboard roundup
  8. Final tips
  9. References

Introduction

A couple months ago I noticed some troubling symptoms: wrist aches and tingling in my fingertips. At first they were minor, but I kept catching myself “shaking out” my hands to relieve the feelings. Classic symptoms of repetitive stress injury, a.k.a. RSI. Not good.

At 27, I can’t afford this—I’ve got too many years of typing ahead of me, not to mention that mechanical keyboards are one of my favorite hobbies and I run a keyboard blog. 🙂 So, I began to research ergonomic keyboards. Specifically, I:

  • Located and read academic and scientific publications
  • Read what people are saying online
  • Compiled a list of ergonomic keyboards

Now, I’d like to share my findings with you. There’s nothing groundbreaking here, but there’s no other place on the Internet where all this information is compiled in one place. If you’ve ever been interested in ergonomic keyboards, I think you’ll find this primer very helpful.

Health risks of typing

  • Ulnar deviation: Pointing of the wrists outward, as occurs when your elbows rest wider than your keyboard.
  • Wrist extension: Bending of the wrists upward, as occurs when your keyboard has a positive incline.
  • Forearm pronation: Twisting of the arms to face the palms downward, as occurs when typing on a flat keyboard.
  • Upper arm and shoulder abduction: Movement of the arm and shoulder up and away from the body, as occurs when desk height is wrong or your mouse is far from your keyboard.

The problems with standard QWERTY

Standard QWERTY computer keyboards were not designed according to the shape and function of the human body. They were never designed to be ergonomic. In fact, they were actually designed to be the opposite. The QWERTY layout was first introduced in 1873, on the Sholes & Glidden mechanical “Type Writer” (Piepgrass, 2006, p.2). Prototypes which used alphabetical layouts jammed too often, so the designers rearranged the layout to be as inefficient and slow as possible (Hobday, 1988).

Moreover, the inventors placed the keys in a rectangular form factor, which, although compact and easy to manufacture, is not at all optimized for the human body. Additionally, while humans are symmetrical, QWERTY keyboards are not.

I don’t blame the inventors; they were breaking new ground and had no idea their QWERTY layout would eventually be found in nearly every home and office in the industrialized world.

Why we still use QWERTY

QWERTY created a path dependency problem (Pipergrass, 2006, p.4). Once QWERTY caught on, it was what typists expected, what businesses felt confident selling, and what buyers knew best.

Scholes & Glidden original typewriterEven when other inventors like August Dvorak developed more efficient, optimized layouts, QWERTY remained dominant (Piepgrass, 2006, p.8), and so did the basic rectangular form factor.

Anyone who’s ever tried to learn an alternate layout like Dvorak or Colemak knows how difficult it is to retrain your muscle memory. Most people give up. So until a new standard is entrenched enough to be taught in schools and sold at retail, we can expect QWERTY to stick around.

Also, we are all built differently, and not everyone actually needs a keyboard with an ergonomic form factor. Many people work on computers all their lives without developing pain or debilitating injuries. Until RSI becomes a more mainstream discussion, keyboard manufacturers are going to continue doing what they’ve been doing.

I do think this could happen sooner rather than later, though. You don’t need to do research to know that Generation Y (the Millennials) uses computer keyboards a lot—much more than any previous generation. As Millennials age, I predict we will see RSI issues crop up on a scale large enough to generate real change in keyboard design. This could be the push needed to get past the standard rectangular QWERTY keyboard. Of course, if some new input technology comes along and makes keyboards completely obsolete, it won’t matter anyway.

Features of ergonomic mechanical keyboards

I define ergonomic keyboards as any keyboards designed to lessen or prevent typing-related musculoskeletal strain, pain, or injury. Features may include:

  • Split: By far the most common feature of ergonomic keyboards. A split keyboard isn’t necessarily two discrete halves, but it splits the keys into two groups and moves them apart from one another to minimize ulnar deviation. Examples: ErgoDox, Microsoft Natural 4000
  • Tented: Split keyboards can also be tented to form a pyramidal shape, with the inward-facing sides of the keyboard halves placed higher than the outward-facing sides. This minimizes forearm pronation and untwists the radius and ulna. Example: Kinesis Freestyle2 w/ VIP3 riser
  • Negatively inclined: Most keyboards feature feet in the rear corners, to achieve positive incline. Of course, this increases undesirable wrist extension. Some ergonomic keyboards feature feet in the front, to place the keyboard on a negative incline (a decline) to eliminate wrist extension.
  • Compact: By reducing the total keyboard width, the mouse can be brought closer in line with the shoulders, reducing upper arm and shoulder abduction.

In addition to the overall form factor of the keyboard, rows and columns of keys may be organized ergonomically.

  • Staggered columnar: Keys are arranged into straight up-and-down columns and rows are vertically staggered. Although straight columns may seem less ergonomic than traditional staggered QWERTY, your fingers actually move in a surprisingly linear path as you bend them. To see this in action, try placing your fingers on QWER and UIOP and move them straight down. They’ll travel between the keys beneath them, not directly over them. The staggered columnar layout adapts to this motion while still accounting for finger length. Example: ErgoDox
  • Matrix/Ortholinear: Keys are arranged into a square grid, without any vertical stagger in the rows. In my view, matrix/ortholinear keyboards are strictly less ergonomic than staggered columnar keyboards, because there is no clear benefit to not staggering the rows. Note that I couldn’t find any academic research on this issue. The only publication I could find is a paper commissioned by the company TypeMatrix, singing the product’s praises—hardly an unbiased source. But even Jack Humbert, who’s in charge of the Planck and Atomic ortholinear keyboard projects, told me over Twitter, “Ergonomicness of the Planck comes from minimised hand movement, not the ortholinearness.” Personally I was thrown at first by the term “ortholinear,” given how medical and therapeutic the term sounds, but it ortholinear turns out to be less ergonomic than staggered columnar. Examples: Tipro 128, Planck, Atomic
  • Scooped: Keys are arranged into columns inside spherical “wells.” This ultimately accomplishes the same thing as a staggered columnar layout. Examples: Maltron, Kinesis Advantage
  • Symmetrical: Most matrix or staggered columnar keyboards are symmetrical. This is in contrast to split QWERTY keyboards that retain normal row staggering and are thus asymmetrical (see the Kinesis Freestyle2). Examples: ErgoDox, Truly Ergonomic, Planck, Atomic
  • Symmetrical staggered: Solves the symmetry problem I just mentioned by providing symmetry and standard QWERTY staggering. I only know of one keyboard with this layout, which is the uTron.
  • Low-force: Easy-to-press keys can reduce stress on the fingers and arm muscles. Example: Kinesis Freestyle2
  • Other: Chorded keyboards (Matias Half-Qwerty, Twiddler, WriteHander, etc.), the DataHand, etc.


Note that not all these features are mutually exclusive. For example, a keyboard may be both scooped and symmetrical.

Summary of scientific research on keyboard ergonomics and RSI

Note: I cite Rempel (2008) heavily this section, as it’s the best available literature review on the subject. I highly suggest reading the article for yourself if you’re interested.

The first peer-reviewed research on typing-related stress was published by E.A. Klockenberg in the 1920s, and focused on testing a split, tented keyboard design. This design was meant to correct postural problems caused by standard keyboards (Taveira & Choi, 2009, p.459), and Klockenberg’s findings ultimately supported the theory that his design could reduce muscular strain and improve typing performance (Rempel, 2008, p. 385).

Not much else was published until 1972, when Karl Kroemer released a landmark study that “marked the beginning of a prolonged, worldwide research effort to determine whether and how the split keyboard design might improve comfort and prevent pain in keyboard users” (Rempel, 2008, p.385). The findings of Kroemer’s 1972 study generally supported what Klockenberg had found in the 1920s—that split keyboard designs were promising for musculoskeletal health—but more importantly, the study sparked a new wave of research at a time when injury reports were piling up from data entry operators from around the world (p.387).

In this way, Kroemer’s study inspired additional research that continued throughout the decade and into the 1980s. These studies mostly focused on split keyboard designs and their effect on “muscle load, posture, productivity, and preference” (Rempel, 2008, p.391). Rempel says that taken together, the findings of these studies further supported the health benefits of split keyboards, but also found that users may require four months or longer to fully realize those benefits (p.391). Similar research continued into the 1990s (p.388).

A post-2000 study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health found that split keyboards prevent neck-related symptoms and significantly reduce pain in the hands, wrists, and forearms. Rempel says this study is the “strongest evidence to date for both a primary and secondary prevention benefit of the split keyboard on upper body musculoskeletal health” (p.390).

Taveira & Choi (2009) have summarized the state of research by saying, “Although available research does not provide yet conclusive evidence that split keyboards reduce the risk of long-term discomfort or injury … there is evidence that users suffering from hand–wrist pain may experience improvement in soreness and function with this keyboard geometry” (p.459).

Scientific research outside of split designs is sparse. For example, I couldn’t find any published research on the merits of matrix or columnar staggered key layouts, except one paper commissioned by an ergonomic keyboard manufacturer (TypeMatrix). Similarly, Maltron has sponsored some papers about scoop/well designs, whose conclusions should be taken with a grain of salt. It does appear that Smith & Cronin (1993) is an independent, not sponsored, study of the Kinesis Advantage, and that paper reported “substantial physiological” benefits of the scoop/well design.

I found very little research regarding ergonomic benefits of alternative layouts like Dvorak or Colemak. There are some articles about speed and efficiency, but basically nothing about health risks. If you search the Internet, you’ll find lots of anecdotal claims about Dvorak and Colemak reducing RSI (repetitive stress injury), but it does not seem to have been rigorously studied. While there’s no doubt these layouts lessen finger movement, there’s no conclusive evidence they improve health. For example, here’s an anecdote from someone who switched to Dvorak and then back to Qwerty. He was able to relieve his pain, but he credits the change to general postural changes, not the keyboard layout itself.

Ergonomic keyboard roundup

So, while it’s great that research supports the benefits of ergonomic keyboards, at the end of the day what really matters is whether you, personally, can get relief from your symptoms. To that end, you really have to self-assess what’s causing you pain, and then pick the keyboard that looks most likely to fix the problem.

To help you with your research, here’s my roundup of ergonomic keyboards. Bolded models are mechanical, non-bolded are rubber dome/scissor switch/etc. If you know of any models I’m missing, let me know in the comments. (Last updated 3/9/2015)

Final tips

No matter which ergonomic keyboard you pick, there are some basic guidelines you can follow to minimize your chances of typing-related pain or injury.

  • Take a short break every hour. Get up, walk around, and stretch your muscles.
  • Use palm rests, but never wrist rests. Wrist rests put weight right on the carpal tunnel—exactly what you’re supposed to not do.
  • Make sure your workstation is set up according to best practices, meaning, get a good chair, proper desk and monitor height, and so on. Use Google to get more information about this.
  • Learn to touch type. If you hunt and peck, you move your arms and hands much more than a touch typist, and you’re inevitably going to place greater stress on your body. You’ll never enjoy the full benefits of an ergonomic keyboard if you can’t touch type.
  • Learn an alternate layout like Dvorak or Colemak — some people say it has little impact on typing comfort or speed, but others swear by it.
  • Get an ergonomic mouse. I won’t go into great detail since this is a keyboard blog, not a mouse blog, but a proper ergonomic mouse can do wonders for your dominant hand. I use an Anker, which has provided a lot of relief, but I’m not sure the angle is optimal and I find the buttons too stiff. Next, I’ll try an Evoluent mouse, which is considered a gold standard. You can also investigate the wide world of trackballs.
  • Try something wacky, like getting two Plancks to make your own split keyboard. 🙂
  • Drink more water. Mom always said to.

References

Hobday, Stephen W. “Keyboard to increase productivity and reduce postural stress.” Applied Ergonomics 19, no. 2 (1988): 173. http://research.microsoft.com/en-us/um/people/bibuxton/buxtoncollection/a/pdf/hobday%20ergonomics%20paper.pdf

Piepgrass, David. “Why QWERTY.” http://millikeys.sourceforge.net/asset/why-qwerty.pdf

Rempel, David. “The split keyboard: An ergonomics success story.” Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society 50, no. 3 (2008): 385-392. http://ergo.berkeley.edu/docs/2008%20Rempel%20HF.pdf

Smith, Wanda J., and Daniel T. Cronin. “Ergonomic test of the Kinesis keyboard.” In Proceedings of the human factors and ergonomics society annual meeting, vol. 37, no. 4, pp. 318-322. SAGE Publications, 1993. http://ergocanada.com/products/keyboards/kinesis_contoured_research.html

Taveira, Alvaro D., and Sang D. Choi. “Review study of computer input devices and older users.” Intl. Journal of Human–Computer Interaction 25, no. 5 (2009): 455-474. http://www.mva.me/educational/hci/read/computer_input_older.pdf

About

Aaron

14 Responses

  1. My work bought a Kinesis Advantage for an intern a few years ago and it was collecting dust until I discovered it in a closet. Nobody had any idea how much that keyboard was worth. Needless to say I started using it and got used to the odd typing experience. It turned out to be great! I think it helped out my wrist pain though didn’t completely eliminate it. I stop using it every now and then to use other switches. I enjoyed the Kinesis, but man does it feel empty and hollow. Not nearly as satisfying Cherry MX experience as other keyboards.

    Did you decide on an ergonomic keyboard to use?

  2. I have good memories of the original beige Microsoft Natural keyboard, I used it for a couple of years.
    Too bad the IBM M15 is impossible to find where I live 🙁 (or elsewhere for that matter).

    I never understood the current obsession with wrist rests, and whenever I see a “gaming” keyboard with a huge wrist rest, I weep a little 🙂 Especially those with non-detachable ones.

    I wish manufacturers made secondary legends with the Dvorak layout on each key, that would help adoption. Matias is the only one making a Dvorak keyboard, and should be commended for that, I wish they made one in plain TKL layout. Though once you learn Dvorak you don’t need legends 🙂

    I love Logitech for still producing trackballs, Microsoft should never stopped producing theirs. The Logitech ambidextrous trackball is almost perfect, it lacks a scroll wheel but I use it with emulated scroll wheel (scrolling the ball while pressing one of the secondary buttons, managed to make the emulation work both on Windows and Linux, but until they add a scroll wheel, or incorporate the emulation into their driver, it is not for everybody). The Logitech M570 is alright too.

    Also, also, not being able to move the keyboard while you use it, with those new grippy rubber feet is anti-ergonomical.
    About ergonomic designs, once I have a TKL or smaller keyboard, the ergonomic ones aren’t as necessary to me. I realized this long ago when I used a Logitech NetPlay keyboard as my daily driver for a couple of years: that keyboard was a extremely small 75% (detached from the joystick part, of course). The most important thing for me is that the keyboard should take as little space as possible and one should constantly move it on the desk so that it is aligned properly with one’s body. One of my keyboards is a full-size Model M, which I love, but it is so wide and the trackball ends up so far to the right, that it gives me cramps and tingling after two days, scary.

    Good article!!

  3. Aaron

    @Shibbyllama – Wish I would find a Kinesis Advantage in a closet! I’ve been using a Truly Ergonomic for the last couple weeks. I love the physical build quality, but not the lack of adjustability, the firmware problems, and lack of customer service. It doesn’t provide nearly as much relief as a split, tented board, but it’s certainly better than a standard board. I wish the two sides were splayed at a larger angle.

    I’ve heard that Maltrons also feel really hollow and cheap. Did you give up on the Kinesis?

    @Keyhopper – While I agree that smaller keyboards are inherently more ergonomic than wider ones, I get a lot of problems from forearm pronation. I think personally, that’s the motion that causes me the most pain, and unfortunately that has nothing to do with compactness.

  4. @Aaron – I still switch to the Kinesis when I feel like a change. The comfort will outweigh the marginal overall feeling of typing on the keyboard for awhile. But eventually I crave a better typing experience. I use software at work that requires WASD and space bar, which is a terrible combination for the Kinesis. I switch keyboards enough that I don’t want to bother with key remapping each time, and there are just some things you can’t do with the Kinesis.

  5. Great article; looking forward to reading the Rempel paper. Another important misconception to address is that “RSI” is a grouping of a number of related problems rather than a specific ailment. So a board that addresses the symptoms of carpal tunnel syndrome won’t do much to help with pain within the fingers themselves, etc. even though they are both considered RSI.

    I wonder if there’s any research on putting a keyboard in your lap. If you have something compact enough, you can hold it between your legs at a negative angle that places your arms in a very neutral position. I’ve found it to be very comfortable but haven’t read much about it.

    Just a heads-up for your listing; the Nexus is actually just an old name for the Axios.

  6. Aaron

    @Technomancy – Yes, very good point. Typing pain and injury can happen in many different ways/places, and not every ergonomic keyboard will be suitable for one’s particular ailments. However, models like the ErgoDox, Matias, etc., that are massively adjustable in all dimensions, are pretty close to universal assuming they’re set up correctly.

    Did not find any research on keyboards in laps, though I wasn’t really looking for it. I also find it comfortable, although when I sit back in my chair I’m generally too far from my monitor to compute comfortably. It can be good for long typing stretches.

    And thanks for the correction. Article updated!

  7. Aaron

    Recently learned of the Esrille New Keyboard and added it to the list. http://www.esrille.com/keyboard/

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