By Design November 2013

Life After QWERTY

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Levi Brown

Humans speak at a rate of about 120 words per minute, yet many practiced typists get words out only about half as fast, and most of us text at a crawling 14 to 31 wpm. The culprit is the 1870s-era qwerty keyboard layout, named for its top left six keys. By some accounts, qwerty was designed to slow us down—to avoid typewriter jams, it spaced out the most commonly used letter pairs—and it slows us down even more now that we’re doing much of our typing with our thumbs, on smartphones and tablets.

Researchers and designers are beginning to propose revised layouts to deal with this problem. The team behind one such design, kalq (like qwerty, it’s named for a stretch of keys), used a series of studies and models to determine the most efficient keyboard layout and shape for thumb typing, as well as optimal key size and position.

The resulting design maximizes alternation between thumbs—as one presses a key, the other can move toward the next target. Vowels are clustered on the right-hand side, so as to minimize thumb travel distance, and the left hand, which the researchers determined to be quicker at finding the next key, handles most of the consonants. Each side has its own centrally located spacebar to save even more time.

After training on the layout, people increase their texting speed to an average of 37 wpm—a noticeable improvement, if still not enough for our laggard thumbs to catch up with our racing thoughts.

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Eleanor Smith is an Atlantic senior associate editor.

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