Why are keyboard keys staggered?

  • In every keyboard that I have used, the keys are arranged so that the keys are staggered a small increment to the left from the previous row. Q is above and slightly to the left of A, and A is above and slightly to the left of Z. This pattern continues across the entire board. Case in point:


    What is the motivation behind this design? I would think that a column layout would be easier to type on - and indeed, many ergonomic keyboards seem to go with a column layout, where Q is directly above A and so on.

    I don't know; seems you can just as well argue that the keys are slanted to the *right*. `? /` -> `} ]`, for example.

    They're definitely slanted to the left: the A is below both the Q and the W, but much closer to the Q. I.e. the Q and the A are in the same column, and W and S form the next column. (It's basically crystallography: the pattern of distances tells you the form)

    place your wrists where you normally place them. now move your fingers. Note that they do not move perpendicular to the keys but at an angle (different angle with each hand)

    JohnGB where can I get that board to make my own non-staggered keyboard? Thanks for the help. You can email me at [email protected]

    The better question is why keyboards are **still** designed with staggered keys. Case in point, you're getting answers about the historical reason for the staggering, which is, of course, irrelevant to modern day keyboards.

  • JohnGB

    JohnGB Correct answer

    8 years ago

    This is largely a case of path dependency. Originally keyboards had to have a staggered layout to fit the mechanical linkages between the keys and the levers.

    enter image description here

    After that, it was what industry was tooled up to make, and what people were used to. And there hasn't been a big enough change to typing to get most people to change over to a matrix (non staggered) layout since. Just like most people still use a qwerty layout even though there are other better layouts around.

    Keyboards without staggered keys are generally much easier to type on, but hard to find. For example, I built my own keyboard without staggered keys, which I love. You can see the right hand of it below:

    enter image description here

    A non-staggered keyboard layout is commercially available from typematrix.com. For some reason, it also moves Backspace and Enter to the center.

    @dan04 It is, but it has terrible keys, and is expensive without improving ergonomics much.

    Very interesting. A tangent, but I notice in the picture, the bottom row starts Z-C-X-V instead of Z-X-C-V, and M is beside L - any idea why the order of Z-X-C was changed?

    Good answer John. I was wondering if you could explain the benefit of typing on a proper grid (your personal keyboard) compared to the standard offset keyboards.

    @rk. It's easier to reach all of the keys for one. Think of the typical position of `y` or `b` as examples. Also, it's just easier to move your fingers from the home row either straight up or straight down vs. at some angle which changes depending on your hand.

    Can this be considered path dependence? The keyboard design is not "limited" to the staggered design, more like people haven't made the conscious decision to change it.

    @Rich Path dependence isn't about being unable to change, it's about the choice of a historical path making it difficult to change. The choice of qwerty is a path dependence issue, as is this. Some people make the change, but it's not common.

    QWERTY is a horrible keyboard layout because it's designed to be inefficient. Tze most used characters are at the very left and right to slow down the typing progress so that the small metal oieces that hammer the letters dont get stuck

    @JonasDralle That is a commonly held, but erroneous belief. QWERTY was designed to prevent keys getting stuck, and so focused on alternating between left and right hands. I'm the last one to say that it's a great layout (I don't use it), but it was not designed to be inefficient. That may have been a consequence, but it was not a design goal.

    @JohnGB "QWERTY was designed to prevent keys getting stuck, and so focused on alternating between left and right hands." (Quoted from you) "so that the small metal pieces that hammer the letters dont get stuck" (Quoted from my comment). We're basically saying the very same.

    @JonasDralle Not really. One is saying that the goal was to slow down typing to prevent them getting stuck, while the other is saying that the goal was to alternate hands to prevent them getting stuck. keys that are far apart from each other on a mechanical keyboard are less likely to get stuck on each other, than closer keys. Alternating hands isn't a strategy to slow down typing, it's simply the best approach to minimising stuck keys. Many good layouts (Dvorak for example) focus on alternating hands, and they are designed specifically for speed.

    I dont know why you think that our opinions are diffrent. I dont know what you are trying to prove but I'm just saying that typewriter print keys using mechanical metal pieces whixh get stuck if two or more of them collide. Thus the keyboard pattern got changed to be inefficient so that the most used keys are not in the middle and thus don't meet as often. There are alternative keyboard layouts such as dvorak that require less finger movement as you already pointed out.

    @JonasDralle I'm not sure what's not clear here. You said "QWERTY is a horrible keyboard layout because it's designed to be inefficient". I simply said that it wasn't designed to be inefficient. It was designed to prevent key jamming via hand alternation, which doesn't necessarily make it inefficient. The focus here on the "…designed to be inefficient".

    @JohnGB JonasDralle Slow down, you ARE both correct. Language use if your only argument here. The prevention of getting keys stuck was achieved by making the human operate slower than the machine could cope with, this is slowing things down to make things go faster. "Inefficient" is just a poor choice of word because it has never been intended to be used to describe such an effect.

    @KalleMP That is incorrect. Slowing typing down is not the same thing as reducing jamming. Slowing typing down is a possible method, but not the method that was used - at least not according to any records. Alternating left and right hands and making letters further apart is the method that was used. Alternating hands is used in Dvorak as a design criteria, and nobody is saying Dvorak is designed to slow people down.

    @JohnGB Is that the ergodox?

    @freeforalltousez Yes, it's a first generation Ergodox.

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Content dated before 7/24/2021 11:53 AM