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TLDR: Standard keyboards are unergonomic and slow. Utopia uses ergonomic keyboards that support chording/stenotype.
Across the internet there are enthusiast communities centered around alternative keyboard layouts. The most classic alternative is Dvorak, which was developed in the mid-1930s to be a superior alternative to the standard “QWERTY” layout:
According to its proponents the Dvorak layout improves speed and accuracy by shifting the most-used keys to being on the home-row where one’s fingers are supposed to rest, and generally involving more action with the index fingers instead of the pinkies.
I’m somewhat skeptical of Dvorak’s superiority, as well as the superiority of other alternative keyboard layouts, such as Colemak or Workman. Not because they don’t offer improvements to QWERTY (why isn’t the “E” key on the home-row??), but because they’re small changes that leave most of the inefficiencies intact.
Legend has it that the QWERTY keyboard, being designed for typewriters, was deliberately made to slow typists down to prevent keyboards from jamming. This is probably false. The QWERTY layout was originally designed for telegraph receivers and its odd layout is a result of a combination of quirky desiderata (evading patents, supporting morse code, etc) rather than being deliberately slow.
But you know what aspect of the keyboard is designed around the (no longer relevant) technical demands of the typewriter? Offset keys. The keys on your keyboard aren’t arranged in neat columns because the lever-arm of a typewriter needs to connect each key to the main mechanism. Human fingers easily and naturally flex forward and back, but more strain is involved in moving fingers side-to-side, as is necessary to accommodate the offset-keys.
No keyboard layout per se can fix this, as it’s an issue with the keyboard itself rather than which keys are where. The same could be said about the use of thumbs, which are one of the most powerful and flexible digits, yet are often nearly unused when typing, being both assigned to the same space-bar. And likewise, the pinkies in every standard keyboard layout are responsible for an obnoxious amount of work, responsible for punctuation, capitalization, carriage-return, and more.
One big indicator that QWERTY isn’t much worse than the alternatives is to look at the world-records of typing speed. To quote Wikipedia:
The fastest typing speed ever, 216 words per minute, was achieved by Stella Pajunas-Garnand from Chicago in 1946 in one minute on an IBM electric using the QWERTY keyboard layout. As of 2005, writer Barbara Blackburn was the fastest English language typist in the world, according to The Guinness Book of World Records. Using the Dvorak keyboard layout, she had maintained 150 wpm for 50 minutes, and 170 wpm for shorter periods, with a peak speed of 212 wpm. …
The recent emergence of several competitive typing websites has allowed fast typists on computer keyboards to emerge along with new records, though many of these are unverifiable. Some notable, verified records include 255 wpm on a one-minute, random-word test by a user under the username slekap and occasionally bailey, 213 wpm on a 1-hour, random-word test by Joshua Hu, 221 wpm average on 10 random quotes by Joshua Hu, and first place in the 2020 Ultimate Typing Championship by Anthony Ermollin based on an average of 180.88 wpm on texts of various lengths. These three people are the most commonly cited fastest typists in online typing communities. All of their records were set on the QWERTY keyboard layout.
That quote is (technically) wrong. Every day professionals around the world regularly type faster than 255 words-per-minute. And they do so using a keyboard that’s superior to QWERTY, Dvorak, or any of their kin.
The true fastest typists in the world are stenographers, typically used in courtrooms to transcribe speech, which is around 150 WPM, but can sometimes go as fast as 250 WPM (or faster). Stenographers use a specialized keyboard with paddles instead of buttons (ironically closer in mechanism to a typewriter, in some ways), and where simultaneous key-presses encode chunks of sound or common words instead of single characters.
Thus, on a stenotype machine, to type the word “the,” the typist must simply press multiple fingers down simultaneously like a chord on a piano. A more complex/rare word like “establish” will take two or three chords in sequence, depending on the specific code that the stenographer uses.
Stenographers use chording keyboards to type at unparalleled speed. Again, quoting Wikipedia:
In order to pass the United States Registered Professional Reporter test, a trained court reporter or closed captioner must write speeds of approximately 180, 200, and 225 words per minute (wpm) at very high accuracy in the categories of literary, jury charge, and testimony, respectively. Some stenographers can reach 300 words per minute. The website of the California Official Court Reporters Association (COCRA) gives the official record for American English as 375 wpm.
The downside to these speeds is largely in the increased amount of training needed to use a chording keyboard. Everyone can understand a device where if you hit one key it makes one letter; memorizing the key-combinations that give rise to various syllables and words takes more effort. But typing is an extremely common activity, and one of the best ways to interface with a computer. At the very least we should look towards supporting chording on keyboards, even if many users still end up doing hunt-and-peck typing of individual characters.
I think Utopia takes a chording-is-default approach to keyboards. Utopian keyboards tend to be more generally ergonomic, involving split designs that match the natural posture of the hands to reduce repetitive-strain-injuries and carpal tunnel. There’s a diversity of options, of course, as no two people are exactly alike in either body or aesthetics. Some even use pseudo-keyboards like the CharaChorder One or Azeron Cyborg. As a result of more customization and better design of both hardware and software, Utopian typists achieve much higher average typing speeds and significantly lower rates of injury.