You're doing it wrong: ergonomics

Here’s a picture of my keyboard. It’s a Logitech Alto cordless keyboard, that came with a laptop stand.

Logitech Alto cordless keyboard with laptop stand

All in all, it’s a pretty nice keyboard, and the whole stand+keyboard thing has really worked out well for me. But I have to say to the folks at Logitech (and to every other keyboard maker out there), “You’re doing it wrong!”

What does ‘cordless’ mean?

This is a cordless keyboard. What does that mean? Think about it. If you have a keyboard with no cord, where does it go? It goes in your lap, of course. Or on your knees, or maybe balanced on one arm of your office chair.

It doesn’t just sit on your desk in front of your laptop, looking cool with no cable. Wireless devices in general can be used farther away from the terminal, in stranger and more convenient and incredibly awkward locations. (In the middle of a power outage, I once had a customer using a cordless mouse on my back.)

And using a cordless keyboard as a “laptop” keyboard should mean certain things. In particular, it should mean that the design engineers spent some time optimizing the design for its likely use.

But clearly they haven’t. Because every cordless keyboard I’ve seen, until recently, looked like a slightly shrunken corded keyboard. “Wow! I left my enormous keyboard in my pants pocket, and mom put it through the wash. Look! The cord is gone and it shrunk by about an inch. Neat!”

Folks, the fact is that I will probably never use that numeric keypad on the side of your keyboard. I have a separate numeric keypad that I use for my expense reports. That’s a relatively new product, too, and it’s still not perfect (you need arrows and numbers at the same time when you’re doing spreadsheet work, idiots!) but that’s a different blog post.

So why does every “cordless” keyboard have a number pad? Because if it didn’t, someone might claim more keys than us? I have no idea why, but here’s the problem: that number pad unbalances the keyboard!

Do the math. The keypad takes up what, four inches of space on the right side of the keyboard? And so as a result, the center of balance of the keyboard is two inches farther off than it should be. Because that keyboard is going to be in somebody’s lap!

Talk to your ergonomics people. Most of your users have arms that are about the same length. And so the “natural” position for a keyboard is to have the left-hand keys and the right-hand keys about the same distance away from the left and right hands, respectively.

Putting the arrow keys and the numeric keypad and the whatever-other-stupid-things out there on the right side of the keyboard makes the thing harder and harder to balance on your lap. And it moves the actual keys that people type with farther and farther ti the left, away from the hands that want to use them.

So please, keyboard guys, build me a keyboard. And twist those keys. Don’t just give it a nice “wave” shape, because that crap only works on the desktop. A keyboard for my lap needs to admit that my belly will prevent my hands from being anywhere near the “center” of the keyboard. So twist those keys 40 degrees or so – you’ve got a lap, you do the math. But remember, only “good girls” keep their keyboard on their knees. And there’s about two girls, good or otherwise, in programming. The rest of us keep that keyboard on our thighs, so we can prop our feet on the desk.

Then get rid of the keypad, or at least make it a separate unit. (I’ve already bought one of those.) And move the arrow keys and all the other nonsense. Make ‘em close to the edge, or down where laptops put ‘em, or something. But they have to be easy to use!

What I’d like to see added is a scroll wheel. I write code for a living. And when I’m not writing code, I’m writing documents – design documents, trip reports, recommendations, and even the occasional blog post. So I spend a lot of time going up and down in documents. I don’t want a touchpad. I hate touchpads. But if you could take the scroll wheel from a mouse and put it in the middle of the keyboard (in the V gap where you twisted the keys apart) that would rock.

And finally, let’s get old-school. Remember the Gateway AnyKey keyboards? If you design guys still want to put some keys on, I’d like some more function keys. Those of us who live in IDEs like Visual Studio or Eclipse have got too many options. Put some G-keys on the left. Put some H-keys on the right. Whatever it takes. But remember to keep the center of balance the same. If the keyboard grows by an inch on the left, then grow it by an inch on the right, too!

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