Review: the failure of my Kinesis Advantage experiment

For the past few years, I have vacillated between a classic unlabeled Das Keyboard Model S and a Microsoft Sculpt. I liked the Sculpt for the ergonomic aspect, as I have a high comfort level with split keyboards from past experience retraining myself to use them, but deep down, I am one of those IBM Model M / Unicomp devotees of The Click—not unlike many of my technical cohorts. Thus, I was always a bit torn.

For the last year in particular, I had been using the Das Keyboard and my laptop. In response to growing wrist and hand soreness of a type I would intuitively describe as “pre-RSI”, I decided to explore other options. I had begun to experience some hand discomfort from all the finger stretching, and other faint pains that likely presage RSI. I also began to experience that psychological anticipatory aversion to tasks that require lots of typing, which is often discussed as a psychological manifestation of creeping RSI. Never have I ever been averse to lots of typing before.

RSI is a dead-serious concern for people in our profession; I have heard about people having to change professional roles or exit the profession altogether because of it. And I seemed like a better candidate to eventually succumb to it than most because, in my estimation, I have put more mileage on my hands than most of my colleagues. This is because:

  • I am a fast typist; I can do 140 WPM fairly easily on the right keyboard, and if I concentrate really hard, more.
  • I have historically favoured loud, clicky keyboards that require high-impact, violent typing mannerisms, such as the IBM Model M, and used one or variations thereof for close to a decade and a half. These tendencies have been carried forward even to kinder, gentler keyboards, and I have worn out the keys on many a cheap laptop keyboard.
  • I have been typing fast and a lot since I was 9 years old, the age at which I began to work with computers seriously and program for the first time.
  • I’m a talkative and verbose personality, and I just type a lot in IM conversations, write lengthy e-mails, blog posts, etc.

For all these reasons, I had cause to be especially concerned. The combination of volume, speed and impact in my computer-based life led to a lot of strain. My relationship to the keyboard is an “intense” one.

The Sculpt did a pretty good job of soothing these discomforts as much as a keyboard can. It also comes with an optional component that goes underneath the wrist pad and elevates the keyboard, which I have found to make a big difference. Still, with this emergent discomfort, I began to grow anxious about my hands and the impact in five to ten years, so I was interested in exploring more radical options. They’re my hands. Next to my eyes, they’re the most important professional asset I’ve got.

The Kinesis has been around for a long time, and I have heard evangelism for it from some developer colleagues and friends for at least ten years. In my twenties, I ignored it; this keyboard was just a little too “weird”, would obviously require some retraining, had a $350 price point, and RSI seemed like a distant concern. In light of the shifting situation, however, it seemed quite appealing.

I read and researched; it got generally rave reviews, to the degree that there are several other keyboards (e.g. ErgoDox) that have basically mimicked at least some essential features of the concept. I read Hacker News comments from people who said the Kinesis literally saved them from having to change professions. I wasn’t sure how much of that was hyperbole, but I figured I’d give it a shot.

kb600-angled-cc-510x344

I had high hopes, and I knew it wasn’t going to be an easy road to adapt a layout where most functional keys (Enter, Space, PgUp/PgDown, Home, End, Alt, Win key, Ctrl, Backspace, Delete) were moved to thumb clusters. Reviews spoke of weeks or months to really retrain and make the switch. But I was really sold on the idea of key wells to reduce finger extension, since, intuitively, and despite my large hands, that seemed to be the biggest pain point for me. And, let’s be real — for $350, anyone’s going to have high hopes.

And thus, it gives me no pleasure to report that I am one of those people for whom the Kinesis isn’t going to work out. One doesn’t hear from them much; the online reviews are generally very positive, but I suspect they suffer from survivorship bias.

Typing words on the Kinesis was an amazingly pleasurable experience. If your job consists primarily of typing natural language text, this might be just the keyboard for you.

There were growing pains during the first day or two, of course. Hitting Backspace with my left thumb took some adjustment. The curvature in the wells had the same effect upon my typing as making some keys very small and difficult to hit. The columnar structure meant my spacing expectations were all off. P and O off to the northeast like that was odd. Getting punctuation right was hard. Nevertheless, after a few days, I had built my typing speed back up to a fairly respectable level with which I was comfortable. It’s hard to say how much of it is real and how much is placebo effect, but my hands felt considerably more relaxed and the stressful finger-stretching motions all but disappeared. It was nice to not have to take my fingers off home row much.

Alas, the primary factor dooming this venture wasn’t in writing e-mail or chatting, but rather my utter paralysis in the face of my actual work. I’m paid to be a consultant and a programmer, not a novelist or blogger.

Any programmer will recognise that every proficient “power user” of computers has their “flow”: their specialised use of input device idioms, keyboard shortcuts, and key combinations to get things done. Fast. This “flow” is generally taken for granted by anyone with deep computing experience. You absolutely need it to be effective and get things done, and being without it is crippling. I would liken it to doing higher-order math; to be any good at it, you have to be able to do the easy math at 200 MPH, otherwise you’ll spend all your time struggling through that. The same holds true for people who work with text; bare-minimal literacy is not enough, they have to be truly fluent readers. Or maybe it’s like speaking a foreign language; until and unless understanding and speaking becomes fairly second nature to you, you will spend too many brain cycles struggling with language mechanics, with no room to traffic fluidly in complex ideas. For that matter, you can’t perform Bach without having a second-nature relationship to the instrument and reading sheet music as a subconscious act.

Fluent computer use is like that, too. Here is a small sampling of things I do on my keyboard literally all the time — and I cannot emphasise enough that they figure into almost anything I do at the computer, any time:

  • Use special characters such as tilde (~), carets (<>), curly braces ({}) and square brackets ([]), plus (+), minus (-), underscore (_), parentheses, etc. Can you write code or even use command-line UNIX without using these constantly?
  • Use Ctrl + Backspace to delete entire words in generic text controls (e.g. browser).
  • Use Ctrl + Left/Right to skip around entire words in generic text controls (e.g. browser).
  • Rapidly deploy complex arrangements of tiled windows in i3wm and shuffle windows around within these arrangements. i3wm was the most significant productivity and comfort improvement in my life over the last year in that it virtually vanquished my use of the mouse (except in a browser of course).
  • Skip to beginning and end of text with Home/End.
  • Make use of PgUp/PgDown liberally.
  • Use Shift + arrow keys to highlight text.
  • Use Ctrl + A to select an entire block of text.
  • Use Escape to constantly switch among “insert”, “normal” and “visual” mode in vim.

The Kinesis’s placement of most of these keys is completely beyond the pale:

1-f-RqQi4YMcJ3yIfuaiqtlQ.png

Observe:

  • The arrow keys are split between the panes; up/down arrows are on the right, left/right arrows are on the left.
  • There are two Ctrl keys but only one Windows (Command for Mac layout) key.
  • Alt is at the top of the left thumb cluster.
  • Esc is a tiny and difficult to reach button.
  • The plus/equals (+/=) key is where you would expect to find Esc on most keyboards.
  • The minus/underscore (-/_) key is where you would expect to find Backspace on most keyboards.
  • The curly braces/brackets ({} / []) are awkwardly situated in the southeast corner, requiring use of one’s pinky finger to reach them.
  • The tilde (~) and backtick (`) key is off to the extreme southwest.
  • The pipe symbol is just to the top right of it.

Few of these keys are easy to hit, particularly the arrows, since they are also near the rim of the well curve.

Now, I’m not so naive as to think adaptation to this new regime is quick. The average time thrown out to truly make a transition was about a month, and I’ve had the Kinesis for less than a week. However, I drew the conclusion for myself — and it clearly isn’t shared by some other techies who swear by the Kinesis — that the time and effort required to invent a new kind of flow won’t pay off.

The flow is absolutely critical. Customers don’t pay me to be slow at what I do. They don’t pay me to do what I do at an average pace. They pay for database jiu-jitsu and command line fu. With the tools, shortcuts, idioms and patterns of computer interaction at my disposal, I can nail up an environment in which to debug their critical production environment in seconds. They’re not paying for me to struggle with my keyboard or type like a normal person. When I need to get cracking, it’s a flurry of windows, symbols, connections and output. SSH sessions fly through the screen like deadly weapons. My hands dance through directory structures and command line switches. It’s often enough that I have to soar to the apex, the crescendo of a human-mechanical chorus; I have to be one with the machine. If it’s not too immodest to say so, even savvy fellow nerds have commented that I am too fast on the keyboard for them to follow what I am doing. That’s just how I roll, and I rely on it for maximum effect and commercial advantage.

I don’t write code at 100+ WPM, of course. But programming involves trafficking in many layers of abstraction simultaneously. It happens in fits and starts. When an idea needs to be translated into code, you can’t be slowed down by basic input mechanics. As it is, the character-by-character entry is a bottleneck to the translation of thought process into code stream. The subconscious, second-nature use of those special characters and key combinations are absolutely critical to that. Code is hard enough to entertain without the keyboard or poor muscle memory being in your way.

I approve of the basic concept of the Kinesis. The key wells seem especially therapeutic. But this wholesale rearrangement of symbolic keys just isn’t going to work for me. Perhaps if they had designed the keyboard but kept more keys in conventional places, my outlook would be different. As it stands, however, it’s just fantastically difficult.

As best as I am able to understand the logic of the design, these keys are all considered “infrequently used”, and thus moved off to the sidelines to make room for keys that are frequently used. Well, infrequently used by who? The semicolon key is faded from wear on my laptop. The brackets/braces keys ({} / []) are slightly depressed from constant smashing. The slash key (/) is perilously close to destroyed. The arrow keys grimace every morning, anticipating another day of unremitting abuse. Letter keys are only the beginning of the story in my keyboards’ brutal existence.

The other major factor that discourages the Kinesis is, of course, the incompatibility with conventional keyboards. I acknowledge that twenty years of motor memory doesn’t go out the door in one day, but it goes quickly enough; after two or three days of nonstop Kinesis use, I tried typing on my laptop keyboard, and pure gibberish came out. It was surreal to realise that I had forgot how to type on normal keyboards in the space of a few days.

The culprit here wasn’t so much the compulsion to hit the Space Bar with my left thumb to achieve Backspace, but rather the different muscle memory expectations with regard to the spacing of keys. The Kinesis’ rows aren’t staggered like a conventional keyboard’s, they’re columnar. Some of the keys are located in awkward places near the rim of the key wells. Until I regained some of the old muscle memory, I just typed the wrong letters for a half hour. The other noticeable aspect of conventional keyboards, including the split keyboard, is that they felt very cramped after the Kinesis.

All the same, I’m often untethered from my desktop. I do on-site work sometimes. Y’all, I can’t just forget how to use the keyboards the other 99.9% use — and use them well. I’ve heard the comment that routine use conventional keyboards along with the Kinesis keeps both sets of muscle memory fresh, but in my case, that didn’t seem to be working out so well. It took me a whole evening to work out how to type on my Sculpt again. I shudder to think what this experience would have been like if I had put a few more weeks into the Kinesis.

Fortune favours the bold, experimentation is important, and RSI avoidance is a sufficiently compelling goal that the risk of buying a $350 doorstop was worth a shot. I regret nothing. Perhaps I will revisit the Kinesis when the impetus comes along, but for now, the Sculpt—and ergonomic split keyboards more generally—is an adequate middle ground that doesn’t in any way interfere with my typing on conventional straight keyboards as well.

No, I am not selling the Kinesis, and neither will it be collecting dust on the shelf. Typing prose on it was undeniably pleasant, and I will explore ways to try to adapt to it again in the near future. I will research ways to remap keys in ways conducive to developer “flow”. I may yet end up riding it into battle. However, at first glance, the experiment appears to have been a failure.



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