Five Modest Proposals for Improving the Computer Keyboard

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Feb. 1 2012 7:10 AM


And four other modest proposals for improving the contemporary computer keyboard.


Illustration by Robert Neubecker.

Perhaps it should have occurred to me years ago, but it wasn’t until recently that I fully realized that everybody hates something about their computer keyboard. I was in the company of several family members and friends, and had just mistyped my Gmail password for the 458th time in calendar 2011. I knew straightaway what had gone wrong—caps lock was depressed by accident—but instead of simply taking my lumps and re-entering my password, I vented: “Is there anything on the computer keyboard more annoying than the caps lock key?” 

Yes, my companions told me matter-of-factly, there is. Thirty minutes of conversation ensued, with each participant attempting to outdo the others with tales of keyboard frustration and fiery screeds relegating various keys to eternal damnation. The conversation was painfully nerdy, yet cathartic—and eye-opening.

Since that initial conversation, I’ve spoken with dozens of folks about computer keyboard annoyances, and I’ve compiled a list of five small-scale adjustments that would greatly improve the typing experience. My goal in compiling this list is narrowly tailored. I don’t want to fundamentally change the way we type—I don’t have time to learn the Dvorak keyboard, and I suspect you don’t either. These are small, one-key fixes that could make typing easier, faster, and less prone to error.


1. For starters, please allow me to reiterate the following: CAPS LOCK IS THE WORST! It is of very little use to the average citizen. Nearly everything that results from depressing this key is annoying.

While it’s important to consider the interests of groups that rely on the key (those with disabilities that make it difficult to press more than one key at a time, for instance, and people engaged in professions that frequently use all-uppercase text), caps lock also inherently favors yell-y Internet commenters, people who design terrible flyers, and others who deserve little consideration. For the rest of us, the key is a nuisance, its prime real estate leading us to depress it unintentionally and often unwittingly. The next thing you know, you’re submitting to a security-question inquisition from your banking institution, trying desperately to prove your identity having thrice entered your case-sensitive password incorrectly.

The utility derived from not having to hold down “shift” when drafting venomous complaint emails to Time Warner Cable does not justify all those needlessly mistyped words in other contexts. So, as a first-step move aimed at improving the keyboard, let’s scrap the caps lock key altogether. (Disabling it by using the Keyboard tab in System Preferences on a Mac, or specialized anti–caps lock software for PCs, doesn’t result in any freed up space on the board for new keys.) For the serially furious or enthusiastic, there would of course still be a caps lock function: Upper-casers could use a new key-combo or, for instance, access the function as iPhone users already do, by quickly tapping the shift button twice. Google eliminated the caps lock key from its laptops, and though the company replaced it with a branded search key that can still be annoying when pressed by mistake, it’s high time for other computer makers to open up that space for new, less-infuriating keys. 

2. One change that should have been made to the keyboard decades ago is the addition of a dedicated em-dash key. An em-dash is meant to indicate an abrupt change of thought within the context of a sentence. Writers of all stripes use them often—sometimes too often—but they can be a real pain in the carpal to type.

To make an em-dash using a Mac, you have to do this: First, press the option key. Next, while holding down “option,” press “shift.” Now, while keeping those other two buttons pressed, hit the hyphen key. It’s too much—three keys for one mark. On a PC, there’s a handy “shortcut.” Simply hold down “alt” and then type 0151 on the far right number pad. (Next challenge: safecracking.) Although some popular word processing programs will automatically create an em-dash when you type two consecutive hyphens, that’s no reason to prolong the mark’s banishment from the board.

(At least partially because there’s no dedicated em-dash button on the keyboard, people mess up this mark in many annoying ways. Some use two hyphens--like so. It’s not an attractive replacement. Other typists resort to a single hyphen as a stand-in for an em-dash-like so. That’s just confusing.)

Software programs such as DoubleCommand and Microsoft Keyboard Layout Creator allow users to remap keys by adding new characters and symbols in place of existing ones, or by moving letters around on the board. But should typists be forced to hack their keyboards in order to get an em-dash typed in a single step? It’s time to create a permanent button on the keyboard for this commonly used mark.

3. And while we’re reassigning keys, here’s an easy one for keyboard improvement step number three: Put the exclamation point on the same key as the question mark!