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:

Keyboard

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.

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    I don't know; seems you can just as well argue that the keys are slanted to the right. ? / -> } ], for example. – a CVn Jun 1 '13 at 12:50
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    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) – MSalters Jun 3 '13 at 0:08
  • 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) – DA01 Jun 6 '13 at 23:56
up vote 63 down vote accepted

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

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    A non-staggered keyboard layout is commercially available from typematrix.com. For some reason, it also moves Backspace and Enter to the center. – dan04 Jun 1 '13 at 5:56
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    @dan04 It is, but it has terrible keys, and is expensive without improving ergonomics much. – JohnGB Jun 1 '13 at 6:00
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    @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. – JohnGB Jul 11 '15 at 12:29
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    @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 Jul 12 '15 at 19:49
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    @freeforalltousez Yes, it's a first generation Ergodox. – JohnGB Oct 30 '17 at 22:04

My guess is that it's a skeumorphic carryover from mechanical typewriters. Note how the rows are shifted differing amounts, they are not all uniformly shifted from the rows above and below by half a key's width. This might have been done to allow all the mechanical levers connected to the keys to have their own plane to move up and down in and not collide with the levers of other keys.

Of course keys that aren't in the original typewriter keys set are under no such historical constraints, hence the numeric keypad and such are arranged in a nice grid.

  • Based on photographs of old mechanical typewriters like this one, I'd say you're correct. – dan04 Jun 1 '13 at 5:11

There are two separate concerns here: (1) why the keys were shifted originally, and (2) why they remain shifted nowadays.

The computer keyboard as we know it today came from mechanical typewriters, because at the time the first computers were developed many people were already trained in typing on those machines, so using the old design helped with marketing and eliminated the need to retrain. At the time computers came to be, typewriters already existed for over 100 years, and they underwent a significant evolution in that time. One thing however remained relatively constant within that evolution: the placement of keys on the keyboard. This "QWERTY" keyboard can be traced to the Sholes and Glidden typewriter designed around 1868. (Other typewriters with different designs existed before, but it is the Sholes and Glidden one which became commercially successful.) The notes from the inventors indicate that they designed their keyboard after the piano keyboard (in fact, originally there were two rows of keys only).

Now, what about the reasons for keeping the keyboard the way it was? Most likely this is because such design is somewhat more ergonomical:

When the rows are shifted one relative to another, each key in the middle has 6 equidistant neighbors. This means a finger can easily jump from one key to other six. With the rectangular grid, each key would have had only 4 direct neighbors, whereas other 4 neighbors would be roughly 1.4 times further away. In a 10-finger typing method the fingers almost never have to travel more than one key away from their "home" location, which means the triangular grid is more ergonomic.

On the other hand, we see that on mobile devices and tablets the "virtual keyboard" uses a rectangular grid (well, at least on those devices that I own). This is because nobody uses a 10-finger typing method on a smartphone, and hence rectangular keyboard becomes slightly more preferred.

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    Could you provide some evidence or reference for the assertion that they are intentionally like this because it is better? – JohnGB Jun 1 '13 at 5:37
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    Besides, they're not equidistant anyway. A-Q is shorter than A-W. – MSalters Jun 3 '13 at 0:09
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    Your logic regarding the equidistant neighbor keys is observably false. In 10 finger touch typing only the index and pinky fingers reach off of their home column. For example, in a staggered keyboard the index finger must reach further between home position and the key up and to the left. On a QWERTY keyboard, J to Y and Dvorak H to F. – Antonios Hadjigeorgalis Oct 14 '14 at 15:34

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