I basically dumped out this post in a couple of hours and I got really sidetracked while writing and went off on a bunch of tangents so if there's questions you want answered or things you want added then let me know so I can add them. They're probably really great questions and I just totally forgot to write about the topic.
Feel free to scroll down to the "links" section at the bottom - if I reference an external site or a helpful resource, you can probably find it there.
I've thought about changing my keyboard layout quite a lot in the past, of course. Exactly what you'd expect from a power user, if I'm allowed to call myself that. Of course I've seen Dvorak, and Colemak, and thought they looked convenient. And of course any serious attempts at switching were thwarted by the severe effort and time and frustration involved.
My first real life exposure to alternative layouts was in early 2018, when I was attending Hands On At Otago, a one-week university experience programme. I lived away from home, had a five day structured program learning about cybersecurity and making a presentation at the end. In my course, one of the teachers mained Dvorak, so sometimes we would try to type and end up with the wrong letters.
I asked when and why he switched, and he gave the same story about qwerty bad dvorak good that's in every blog post online about keyboard layouts. You can look up variations on the story yourself if you're interested. A warning: I'm pretty sure most of that story is folklore. There seems to be a lot of people putting their own spin on the story with very little in the way of evidence that it was a thing that happened, and a few people online downright disagree with it.
Only a couple of months ago now my youngest brother got his own personal computer, which I partially helped suggest parts for, build, and suggest software for. He's more of a power user that I expected. He's running Pop OS (his choice of Linux distribution) and has already installed all the tweak tools, and even shown me a couple of programs that I didn't know about, like PulseEffects. And most notably, he's using the Dvorak software layout. After all, he told me, since he has relatively little experience using computer keyboards, why not start with a better layout? I can't disagree with that logic.
At this time I was living with my parents and my brothers taking a break from school and for the betterment of my mental health. Without any pressing work, most of my day was spent playing Mario Kart Wii and using online chatrooms. I didn't want to be a lesser power user than my brother! Yes, that was what initially kick started me into embarking on this quest. I spent the afternoon looking up alternative keyboard layouts and their theory and advantages, as well as experience report blog posts from people using them. I would have used Dvorak like if it had not been for one thing:
ls -l is typed entirely with the right little finger. On Qwerty, the keypresses would be
p ; space ' ;. Not ideal.
After looking into various obscure layouts I eventually opted for Workman, which was designed in 2010, and I set to work learning it.
From everything I had read online, which is more than I can talk about here, I reached these assumptions:
- I may be able to type a little faster after spending long enough learning the layout.
- The main benefit would be shorter finger travel for the same piece of text.
- It would take around 3 months to reach my Qwerty speeds, which were around a comfortable 90-100 wpm.
- I would still be able to remember how to type Qwerty, so no harm done if the layout didn't work out.
We'll see how true those assumptions turned about to be.
Now that I have learned the layout, I can analyse the learning process I went through. I was stumbling around at the time, but now with total hindsight I believe my method was very good and I would highly recommend a similar process if you would like to learn a keyboard layout yourself.
The process was characterised by these features:
- Do not go back to Qwerty. No matter how frustrating it feels, stay on Workman, unless there is something I _urgently_ need to type quickly. Web browsing on Workman. Chatrooms on Workman. Do not change back.
- Keep a picture of the keyboard layout in the corner of the screen so that I can read where the keys are while I'm typing, until I have subconsciously memorised the key locations.
- Do not try to write code for a week or two. It will suck a lot. If I have to, I can use Qwerty for it.
With those features, I went through these general phases of learning:
- Using a Workman typing tutor with a key layout reference on screen
- Participating in chatrooms with a key layout reference on screen
- Using a typing tutor without a key layout reference
- Using my computer without a key layout reference on screen, but very slowly, and with a few minutes of dedicated typing practice every couple of hours
- Using my computer as I used to normally, but with dedicated typing practice every day
Feel free to mix, alter, and combine those phases if you want to.
The first few days were SO, SO, SO FRUSTRATING. Suddenly, typing only a few words would take several seconds. Typing a paragraph would take minutes. Both required enormous amounts of brain power. I wanted to communicate, but I couldn't: not quickly, and not without extreme effort. It really felt like a natural, core part of me had been suddenly taken away. Please forgive me if this is insensitive, but I remember thinking, this must be what deaf people feel like; this must be what Stephen Hawking feels like. The need to communicate and the inability to do so.
I learned the positions of the keys quite quickly, but having the reference on screen was possibly the best idea ever. From time to time I would take it off the screen and evaluate my ability without it, and once I felt comfortable enough, I closed it forever.
Slowly and surely I practiced through various methods. It took a few days until my typing was still slow, but not slow enough to feel super frustrating.
My saviour at the start was Typing Study, a website with extremely well designed Workman lessons.
My saviour throughout all of this was TypeRacer. TypeRacer made typing fun and constantly gives my the opportunity to try words which are more uncommon, which you may think is a good thing or a bad thing. Of course this also makes my WPM quite inconsistent between texts (± 15 WPM) because some texts are quite a lot easier than others if they have simpler language, shorter words, less punctuation, and no proper nouns. I spend probably 15 minutes on TypeRacer most days.
I tried Keybr for 30 minutes or so but I didn't like it at all.
It has now been one month and one week since I first typed on Workman.
Results and opinions
I can now type at around 82 wpm on TypeRacer and 90 wpm on monkey-type default list.
My hands definitely travel less.
The most notable thing, I think, is that Workman taught me to touch type. I tried learning to touch type on Qwerty in the past, but it never worked out, because the motions on Qwerty are so awkward. My technique involved using all fingers apart from the little fingers, hovering the hand above the keyboard in a useful place, and hitting the key using a nearby finger. Which specific finger depended on the word pattern that I was typing. One of the key facets of touch typing is to keep your hands on the home row and then to reach up or down from there - but on Qwerty, unbelievably, you actually spend _more time on the top row than on the middle row!!!_ With most alternative layouts, Workman included, the most common letters are on the middle row, which actually gives the hands an incentive to stay there. I wasn't consciously thinking about touch typing while learning Workman, but that is in fact what I ended up learning to do.
I read multiple people online saying that they were still able to type Qwerty after learning another layout, so I was confident that I would still be able to use other people's computers after maining Workman.
Until September 2, about 10 days after first typing Workman. My brother linked me to a website called "human benchmark" which rates how good you are at doing various tasks, some of which involved computer skills, some of which involved brain skills, stuff like that. One of them was a typing test. With Qwerty still being my best layout I went to take the speed test with Qwerty. I mostly hit the letters correctly, but for common patterns like "the", my fingers would automatically bash out the Workman layout for that word, then revert to Qwerty, without me even thinking about it. It was a little annoying, but I didn't think too much of it.
Until September 14, about 3 weeks of using nothing but Workman. I went down to the computer labs to work on a group project, and I found that... I didn't know how to type Qwerty anymore. I had unlearned it.
It was very embarrassing and completely unexpected. I had to literally look at the keys if I wanted to be able to type the correct letter. I wasn't reduced to zero experience - I was able to find the key I wanted quite quickly on the keyboard - but years of experience and learning were just gone. I was only able to use the index fingers on each hand. I wasn't able to position each hand in place for the next key. I wasn't able to hit sequences of keys, like "the" and "we're", with any speed greater than pressing each key individually. I had literally become a hunt-and-peck grandma trying to send an email to her kids on the newfangled computer.
It caught me completely off guard.
I'm sure I could relearn Qwerty moderately well with only a couple of days of effort - but I don't want to.
Various things which turned out to be really funny
- Qwerty position Ctrl-C types Ctrl-M on Workman, so I accidentally executed terminal commands instead of cancelling the currently typing command line for a couple of days.
- Caps lock is mapped to backspace, and it's easier to reach. But I would keep reaching for real backspace. I used `xmodmap -e 'keycode 22='` to disable real backspace and I learned to use 100% caps lock backspace in only 1 day. After then, I turned off that command.
- Qwerty position Ctrl-W types Ctrl-D on Workman which closes the terminal, but feels like closing a browser tab.
- I thought it would take a while for me to figure out how to type my password well, but it turned out to be trivial.
- I thought keyboard shortcuts would be super annoying, but they weren't that bad. I got used to the new positions for shortcuts within a couple of weeks. Sometimes still I accidentally press Ctrl-T instead of Ctrl-F to find text in a web browser.
- Websites trying to be cool and hip by making keyboard shortcuts on j and k. Enough said.
(Please read this section slowly, savouring every sentence, for dramatic effect.)
Now that I can type 80+ wpm, I suppose I should attempt to answer the question, is Workman better than Qwerty?
I don't know.
I don't feel as though I've gained any superpowers. I learned Workman very quickly, but I think I could learn any layout very quickly, I don't think there was anything special about Workman in that regard. Certainly my fingers move much shorter distances, and I now entirely touch type which I was unable to do before, but... is that actually important? What have I actually gained, after a week of pain and a month of training? Are there any meaningful metrics that I can reassure myself with? Does travel distance actually matter? Which things do matter? Does _anything_ matter, in this brutal keyboard war, the war for the best layout? ...Why?
Questions that I can't answer.
I don't know how to feel.
- Workman layout website with design decisions explanation
- Workman layout files for installation
- TypeRacer, the most fun typing practice (once you have the key locations in your memory)
- A very good blog post: Experience Report with the Workman Keyboard Layout
- Typing Study, the site that I believe to be the best Workman typing tutor, and I don't hand out that title lightly
- A reference image of the Workman layout that I created (CC-0, do whatever you want with it)
- My profile on TypeRacer
- August 23: First day, I think?
- August 27: 25 wpm without keyboard reference
- August 28: 37 wpm high score
- August 29: 43 wpm high score
- September 1: 45 wpm high score, 37 wpm average, I'm not super frustrated while typing any more
- September 2: 49 wpm high score
- September 2: oh no, I accidentally bashed out workman combos in qwerty
- September 3: 57 wpm high score, 48 wpm average
- September 4: 60 wpm high score, 50 wpm average
- September 6: 66 wpm high score, 55 wpm average
- September 11: 72 wpm high score, 66 wpm average
- September 12: 78 wpm high score, 69 wpm average
- September 13: 82 wpm high score
- September 14: helmp I can't type qwerty at all
- September 15: 87 wpm high score
- September 23: 91 wpm high score, 76 wpm average
- September 28: 93 wpm high score
- September 29: 106 wpm high score, 82 wpm average