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    Are layers actually ergonomic?

    • Started by tpet
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    • Registered: 16-Dec-2021
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    Lifelong QWERTY user here, beginning my quest for ergonomic typing. Practicing DHm every day, looking into keyboards to buy. The concept of layers is pretty new to me, but makes a lot of sense. I understand that layers can be great for saving space, typing faster, having a more portable and cost-efficient board, and also just general slick philosophical appeal. My question is, are they actually ergonomic?

    There's an underlying assumption I've seen around the keyboard community, and it pops up equally whether discussing layouts or physical boards. People assume that minimizing finger and hand travel is, in general, a good thing for ergonomics. I'm posing more of a question here than making a stand. I'm completely willing to accept either answer (and honestly I'm hoping layers come out on top, since they seem cool). I'm motivated by my own RSI. I was interested in an highly-layered setup (34-40 keys) for maximum ergonomics, but as I was thinking about it, I wondered if holding your hands on the home row all the time was actually the ergonomically optimal thing to do.

    I'm going to group stretching one's fingers around the board into two general categories: twisting and jumping.

    By "twisting," I mean twisting your fingers around to hit, e.g., Ctrl + Y on a standard full QWERTY layout with one hand. I think most people could agree that using layers to prevent these intra-hand gymnastics is a good thing. Similarly, holding a key down with your thumb wrapped underneath while reaching with another -- e.g., holding the 2 or 3 on the number pad down while hitting another number pad key with a finger on the same hand -- could definitely be painful for people with RSI. In fact, any layering that involves holding down one finger while simultaneously using another finger on the same hand is potentially problematic, in my opinion, unless the key position is very near optimal (e.g. Ctrl+ZXC on QWERTY).

    By "jumping," I mean more inter-hand gymnastics: moving my entire left hand and hitting Ctrl + Shift with, say, my left middle and ring fingers. while simultaneously jumping my right hand a few inches over to hit the arrow keys, or similarly holding Shift with my left middle/ring/pinky finger while hitting Home or End with my right hand. Two-handed layering like Ctrl+Enter or Shift+End that involves a lot of movement around a standard keyboard is something that, as far as I understand, people who use layers are trying to optimize, since it's slow. 34-key layouts take that to an extreme where no hand movement is ever required.

    Again, for speed, design appeal, and saving space, 34-key layouts (and any heavily layered layout) are great. But for pure ergonomics, using your left arm to move your left hand towards shift and control, perhaps using your middle and/or fourth fingers to hit them, avoids use of the pinky (which can be an RSI trigger, since it's weak), and technically minimizes hand/wrist movement, relying on the shoulder and elbow to rotate. The same is true of floating your entire right hand over to Page Up/Down or the arrow keys.

    Taking the thought even further: if you never have to leave the home row, you can hit keys faster, which could trigger more RSI. If you have enough layers, you're probably going to need to do a lot of holding a key down with one hand while pressing a key with the other -- or even worse, holding with one finger, pressing a key with another finger on the same hand -- generating more physical key presses, potentially triggering more pain. My thought was that sharing the load between elbows, shoulders, wrists, and fingers might decrease strain as opposed to putting all the layers in your fingers.

    Or am I thinking about this wrong? Does staying near the home row constantly (e.g. a 34 key layout) outweigh the increased keypress count? Or does buying a mechanical keyboard (as opposed to whatever the $9 Verbatim I'm typing on right now has) do enough for finger health that finger presses become a negligible factor in RSI? Because if so, I'm going to go buy the lowest-key keyboard I can find and just load up on layers.

    Any thoughts, insight, and experience appreciated.

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    I've only had a keyboard capable of layers for one week. It's a moonlander, so I still have access to the number row.

    My experience is that my symbols / numpad layer is a big win for the symbols (especially parens, ~, +, and | ), but the numpad is only faster if I'm typing multiple digits. For me, the stretch to the number row for a single unmodified press is quicker than a chord of easy keys or consecutive presses of easy keys (as done with sticky OSMs). That said, I feel that I have mediocre coordination but reasonably long index, middle, and ring fingers.

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    An interesting post, being an advocate of layers, it did give me pause to think about why I like them so much.

    People assume that minimizing finger and hand travel is, in general, a good thing for ergonomics.

    I think this is correct - needing less hand and finger movement is more ergonomic for the same reasons that optimized layouts are more ergonomic than Qwerty. I mean, I have actually heard people make the argument that Qwerty is better because it requires your hands to move more and thus exercises them more! That argument makes no sense to me~ it just means it's more straining to type the same given text. Of course, it does lead to a consequence that if you end up doing more work in the same amount of time due to being more efficient, that might be lead to problems... but that's not a problem per se with making yourself more efficient.

    The "twisting" and "jumping" actions you describe are what layers can solve. Especially the twisting one, which is really bad, yet I was guilty of doing that for many years. The important thing is that the method of layer/modifier selection should itself be comfortable (i.e. not via keys on outer edges of the keyboard). If standard keyboards had Ctrl, Alt, and especially Shift as thumb keys, even with no changes to Qwerty, it would be a huge step in an ergonomic direction, even without considering extra layers.

    Layers are really just an extension of modifiers - a way to allow an individual key press event to have more than one meaning. No-one would suggest having a 500 key keyboard so that Shift-A, Ctrl-A, etc could all have dedicated keys - we instead take for granted it's better to have fewer keys and have mechanisms to allow each key to be reused to perform many purposes depending on context. For me, Layers just represent the extension of that idea to its logical conclusion.

    Last edited by stevep99 (18-Dec-2021 15:06:11)

    Using Colemak-DH with Seniply.

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    • From: Viken, Norway
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    I agree with most of your points. See the BigBag links page, where there's a link to an article on chording vs sequencing by XahLee, and also the Extend page where I have a section on sequencing.

    On a side note, I'm one of those strange people who believe you can go too far in reducing board size! Lots of typing enthusiasts seem to want a 34-key board these days but I don't agree with that for my purposes. Around 6×4×2=48 keys plus thumb keys is what I'd probably like best. A 34-key board is probably good enough for typing simple English text and a few symbols, but once you want to do anything more fancy I believe in having both layers and some more keys that you can reach with short stretches. The trick is to keep the often-used stuff near the home position, and still have those extra keys for more rarely used stuff. So I don't mind a few short jumps as long as they're rare and make it easier to remember where I put stuff!

    As an example, I use the number keys to release glyphs from several of my dead key layers. If I am to enter a lot of numbers I prefer to use a NumPad layer (my Extend2 layer) instead of reaching up to a number row, but I still want the number row! Both for the occasional single or so digit entry where accessing a layer is no real benefit, and for mapping stuff to the number keys on other layers. If the number keys themselves were only found in a layer, releasing glyphs with them would mean more of a tap-dance.

    I realize that with a programmable board you can introduce key chording concepts that allow extremely powerful layering from the home row, but unless you can do something like that I don't quite believe in taking size reduction all that far. I do like the idea of at least three thumb keys on each thumb though.

    You have to realize that there are several kinds of layers! Or rather, ways of accessing them. Chording layers which the usual switch-type modifiers (Shift, Ctrl, normal Extend etc) provide are great for navigation and things you want to stay in one layer for a while to do – as long as you don't end up playing "keyboard Twister". Typing many key strokes in the same layer while holding down a modifier gets tiresome and gymnastic, which is why we got the CapsLock which is a lock-type modifier.

    I use a sticky shift with a timer on it, which is a special kind of latch-type modifier. This helps avoid some twisting, and feels great.

    For one-shot output such as special characters, PowerStrings or command shortcuts, I greatly prefer either latch-type modifiers (you press the modifier and let go of it, then a release key to produce the result) or sequences. Which one it is depends on what I'm doing. Latching for things I use often and that may be logically placed in layers – for example, accented letters – sequencing for things that are used less often and may be hard to remember in layers – for example, I use the Compose key to produce the below with the sequences 'thoth' and 'saybig':

    ( Θώθ)  ~(  See "DreymaR's Big Bag Of Keyboard Tricks"  )
      https://dreymar.colemak.org

    Last edited by DreymaR (20-Dec-2021 11:19:24)

    *** Learn Colemak in 2–5 steps with Tarmak! ***
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    @stevep99: I agree that shift and control make sense, and some layering is necessary. I think my question is (a) at what point do the returns become insignificant compared to the cost of dropping keys? (b) at what point do the returns become ergonomically harmful? (Even without chording, layers require key presses, and enough key presses, however well-positioned, will eventually outweigh the benefit of moving one's hand an inch or two.) I saw some videos by Ben Vallack (e.g. https://youtu.be/8wZ8FRwOzhU) and in one of his comments he said he was moving towards a 24-key layout (!!!). I can see why he'd want to try this -- he's going to have essentially zero hand and finger movement -- but he's going to be pressing keys so many times to get to the layer he wants that I'm wondering when this stops helping and even starts hurting, not to mention the mental gymnastics of remembering which layer he's on. Obviously if it works for him then that's great; I'm just curious what other people's thoughts were on this tradeoff from the perspective of pure RSI ergonomics: layering trades hand movement for finger presses, and some of that is good, but how much?

    @DreymaR: your thoughts on layouts with approximately 48 keys is the answer I was looking for that I referenced in the previous sentence. 34-36 keys seems low, tenkeyless seems big, so where's the in-between? I also really appreciate your explanation of different layering methods, and I can appreciate from both you and stevep99 that the way you set the layers up matters a lot. I think ultimately this is a personal question that will probably take a lot of experimenting, and it depends on an individuals' RSI. I'm just looking for advice and thoughts since I would to buy as few boards as possible -- and iterate through as few layering schemes as possible -- before I find a setup I'm happy with. And, as you know, I tend to both optimize and bikeshed.

    What makes the layering question so important for me is the combination of my RSI and the fact that I'm coding for most of the day, which involves a lot of page up/down, ctrl up/down/right/left, shift+ctrl+home/end, numbers, shift for symbols, et cetera. Ultimately I'm trying to maintain productivity while minimizing pain, and I don't necessarily care quite as much about raw words-per-minute since coding involves a lot of thinking and pausing anyway. That's why I brought up the example of moving my entire left hand to ctrl+shift with my third and fourth finger (no pinky) while using the arrow keys. Slower, definitely. But less ergonomic? Not sure yet.

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    I agree there is no point to just try to reduce to as few keys possible - there is a happy medium between fewer keys and less movement but more key presses vs more keys and more movement but fewer key presses. But all things considered, I think that happy point *is* at relatively small number of keys - probably around 36.

    If you take the main body of they keyboard - that's 3 keys for each finger, except for the index fingers which have 6 - that's 30 keys. Then, I'd consider the optimal number of thumb keys to be 4 or 6, leading to 34 or 36 keys in total. That's the greatest number of keys you can easily type without moving fingers more than one key unit. I'm sympathetic to the idea you might want an extra outer row for pinkies in which case that gives you an extra six, leading to 40 or 42 keys. Any more than that, you have to start moving your fingers quite large distances, which more than negates an extra key press - particularly when such extra key presses are comfortable thumb keys.

    A lot of the popular smaller keyboards and layer systems seem to based around the 36 key mark, so I can't be the only one thinking that must be close to the sweet spot!

    Last edited by stevep99 (24-Dec-2021 16:11:00)

    Using Colemak-DH with Seniply.

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    Forget about keyboards for a moment.

    • Humans have a variety of joints and muscles that differ in their respective range of motion and strength respectively.

    • Manual tasks comprise of complex motions.

    Do pianists tickle only a handful of keys with their fingertips? Do guitar chords look particularly ergonomic? How much time and effort does it even take to learn the chords and chord progressions on any such instrument?

    Can you do any such chords efficiently while holding a cup in one hand and scratching your arse with the other hand?

    Last edited by davkol (02-Jan-2022 23:45:28)

    Get yourself an ergonomic keyboard. Learn Maltron. Or stenography.

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    Yeah, there is definitely a mental load issue. The fastest Colemak typists both seem to avoid going for too fancy solutions as the main load of typing at high speeds isn't physical but mental. Complexity comes at a cost.

    I'm currently trying to use a trick to type punctuation followed by a space and, if relevant, capitalization. In theory, that's quite the gain as I'll save my fingers from having to curl down to the lower row for punctuation and also get away with pressing the Compose key plus a home row key to get 2–3 key presses – also saving the hassle of reaching for the Shift key! But in practice my brain is too daft to get any real benefit from this brilliant idea so far, so if anything I'm slower rather than faster when using this trick. It could simply be about getting used to it, of course, but I've been trying it for a while now and I'm still confused...  ლ(ಠ益ಠ ლ)  It is comfy though, which is nice.

    Today I started using a thumb Compose key for this instead of an index one, maybe that'll be better. But at any rate, I'm definitely feeling the hassle of fancy layering these days.

    Last edited by DreymaR (03-Jan-2022 15:08:21)

    *** Learn Colemak in 2–5 steps with Tarmak! ***
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