The keyboard layout designed for thumb typing.

You might not give it much thought but your computer keyboard is one of the most important devices you own.

QWERTY is the most commonly used keyboard layout in the world. And while some argue there are more efficient layouts – bear in mind that when the QWERTY layout was created back in the late 19th century by Christopher Latham Sholes, who made the first commercially successful typewriter, it was deigned for single finger typing – it does divide the layout between two hands quite well for touch typing.


But the arrival of tablets and large-screen smartphones with touchscreen capabilities has caused problems for dear old QWERTY. The most efficient way to type on one of these devices is with the thumbs and QWERTY does not lend itself to this form of typing. That is why researchers at St. Andrews, the Max Planck Institute and Montana Tech, came together to come up with a new digital keyboard that would be more fitting for thumb typing on a tablet or smartphone.

When one thumb is selecting a key, the second thumb should not be idle

Humans Invent spoke to Dr. Per Ola Kristensson at St. Andrews university to find out how they came up with a new layout they are calling KALQ. There are three distinct features of the KALQ, the first being grip. He says, “We experimentally investigated six different grips and identified the best grip to use when thumb typing on a tablet or big phone. We then based all the calculations on where to position the letter keys based on this optimal grip.”

Thumb alternation

Secondly, it maximises the use of both thumbs. Dr. Kristensson says, “When one thumb is selecting a key, the second thumb should not be idle. Instead, it should already be making its way to the next key. With KALQ we have therefore re-arranged the letters on the layout to maximise the alternation of both thumbs. The result is that the division of work between the thumbs is almost equal. Specifically, in KALQ the right thumb does on average 54% of the work while the left thumb does 46%.”

The final design consideration was to minimise thumb travel distance. Dr. Kristensson explains, “Taking into account the optimal grip and the objective of distributing work between the two thumbs as much as possible, computational optimisation algorithms searched for the key arrangement for each thumb that minimised thumb travel distance.”

It takes eight hours of typing to reach the crossover point

Like the split-QWERTY, the KALQ is divided into two parts, one for each thumb, with each side having a centrally located spacebar – this being one of the most frequently used keys. Dr. Kristensson goes on to explain, “Alternation between the two thumbs is very frequent, on average 62% of the key presses on a KALQ involves switching to the other thumb (maximising the parallel use of the thumbs is key to fast thumb typing). The right thumb handles all vowels except “y” (which can actually be regarded as both a vowel and a consonant depending on context).”

Quick learning

One fear that many tablet and smartphone users may have is that adopting the KALQ keyboard is tantamount to learning to type again from scratch as the layout is so different from QWERTY. However, according to studies, it does not in fact take long to become comfortable with the KALQ layout.

Dr. Kristensson says, “It takes eight hours of typing to reach the crossover point, the point in which users type faster using KALQ than QWERTY. Eventually, after 13 to 19 hours of practice, users type on average 34% faster using KALQ. In the beginning it can be a bit frustrating but relatively quickly you will get used to typing on a new layout. Also, there is no evidence that knowing two keyboard layouts will “damage” your existing knowledge of QWERTY.”

Why not try it out for yourself? If you’re not a machead you can download a beta version of the app for free on Android here.

Image credit: University of St Andrews / Max Planck Institute for Informatics

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  • Mister Devious

    I still don’t get why we’re leaving keyboard design to others. These are VIRTUAL keyboards: we should be able to arrange the keys any way we want to!

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