I’ve been able to touch-type since I was about 12 years of age, thanks to Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing. Like most people, I use the QWERTY layout, but I’ve always been curious about other layouts.
Apparently, it’s a bit of a myth that QWERTY was designed to slow typists down in case the mechanical keys got stuck. In the last edition of the Ultimate Typing Championship, all but one of the 26 competitors used QWERTY (and the one using the Dvorak layout came 12th).
The main thing to consider, in my opinion, is comfort. I remember being shocked once when I bought a keyboard and it came with a large warning that the use of any keyboard and mouse can cause ‘serious’ injuries.
This article talks about RSI (Repetitive Strain Injury), CTS (Carpal Tunnel Syndrome) and CTP (Carpal Tunnel Pressure).
If keyboard use does carry the risk of developing RSI, what is it about the keyboard that’s bad? Is it the physical design, the key layout, hand/wrist posture, or something else? My impression is that key layout is a relatively small component here, for several reasons. The first is my own experience, according to which it’s much more important to use a split keyboard, say, than the appropriate layout if I want to avoid RSI flare-ups. The second is that CTS is largely caused by CTP, which in theory seems more impacted by physical design (chiefly whether a keyboard is split and/or tilted/tented) and less by finger stretching or the horizontal rotating we do with our hands to reach keys at the sides of the keyboard. The third is Carpalx’s model, which suggests that established alternatives like Dvorak and Colemak, while better on the whole, use the pinky more heavily than does QWERTY – maybe it is a little bit bad to reach for the outermost keys, but any layout will have some keys at the extremes, so perhaps the difference between layouts just isn’t that great.
What about QWERTY specifically? I wasn’t really able to find any research on this. Maybe that’s because it’s very hard to design experiments to test it? You can’t just take a bunch of people and ask half of them to start using Dvorak, because there’s a significant learning curve involved. But you don’t want to find out if learning a new layout is good, you want to find out using it is good once you have learned it. There is no natural control group for these experiments, and no obvious placebo.
In sum, keyboard use in general does seem to cause RSI, but the risk seems fairly small. Bad key layouts may only be a minor part of the RSI risk, though QWERTY does seem worse than most alternatives, relatively speaking. The evidence here is weak and my confidence intervals are wide.