The Ergonomic Marketplace
Over recent years, several keyboard manufacturers have developed modestly improved keyboard concepts based around the traditional flat keyboard key layout. They are called ergonomic keyboards, even though they are based around an ergonomically-challenged, old-fashioned key layout left over from the era of mechanical typewriters—long before the idea of ergonomics entered the English language.
While some variants of the flat keyboard offer customers some alleviation of the physical stress factors associated with flat keyboard work, they each may represent only a small step in the right direction. One doctor of occupational medicine has been quoted in the press calling these flat keyboard-based alternatives at best a “ten percent solution.”
The flat keyboard was designed to meet 19th Century workplace needs, before better technology was available, but the age of the standard is not the problem. The main question: is this antique, flat keyboard standard sufficient to address modern work demands—or is it an enormous handicap, a vestigial cultural habit, as unfortunate and unproductive as any other bad habit? Does it represent a failure of imagination and inability to grasp a better way to do things?
The search for an alternative to the flat keyboard and its modestly ergonomic cousins has led some innovative manufacturers to design data entry pens, voice entry systems, and chorded keyboards (requiring multiple keystrokes to enter a single letter).
The flat keyboard was designed to be intentionally less productive. During the era of the mechanical typewriter, workers had to be slowed down to prevent the clashing of keys on old-fashioned mechanical typewriters. Tangled key levers was the biggest barrier to productivity at the time. Intentionally retarded speed was the solution.
Even with the manifest manual challenge of learning to perform keyboard work, hands working on a keyboard are more quick and agile than the voice. Similarly, they are certainly more efficient than writing with a pen—no matter how good handwriting recognition may become.
Long hours of voice entry can imperil vocal health, just as continuous work on ergonomically inadequate flat keyboards can threaten musculoskeletal health. Voice entry may seem a good idea when measured against an antique, unsafe, and awkward keyboard design, but it will be much less attractive once a much better keyboard alternative becomes widely recognized.
Traditional keyboards still force operators to conform to arbitrary key locations and finger travel distances left over from the Mechanical Age—when keys had to be fastened to an array of levers. On these designs, keys are not located conveniently for the benefit of keyboard operators; users are forced to fit the stressful demands of a tool based on the need to align numerous key levers which now no longer exist in the era of electronic computer technology.