The Asset Keyboard

by David Piepgrass ( © 2006 blog

The keyboard you likely have in front of you (named "Qwerty", after its top row), was first available as a typewriter sold in 1874. A common myth is that this keyboard was designed to slow down typists to prevent the keys from jamming; but from the accounts I've seen, it was only designed to prevent the keys from jamming: no more, no less. The original typewriter design simply wasn't very good. Rather than improve it, they rearranged the keys from the original alphabetical order to one that kept common pairs (or "digraphs") of letters away from one another. So the story goes, anyway (for the curious, I wrote a report on the whole matter and more.)

It is clear, however, that it was not designed for fast typing. At the time, everybody typed with two fingers, and even with two fingers, key jamming was a problem.

Oddly enough, it took 60 years until Qwerty's speed-savvy competitor appeared, Dvorak. Sadly for Mr. Dvorak, his keyboard never really caught on. But there is reason to doubt its optimality, and so, in the computer age, there have been a few attempts to improve upon it.

This page notes problems with the Qwerty and Dvorak keyboards and introduces a new layout called Asset. Asset is designed

Introducing the Asset keyboard:

Having been fed up with Qwerty, I decided in 2004 to learn Dvorak. I was surprised how difficult it was to learn, and noticed a curious phenomenon: I would often type letters on Dvorak with the correct finger, but the wrong hand. I came to the conclusion that the hand to use was distinct in my brain from the finger. This led me to hypothesize that there were three separate things I had to learn in order to use a new layout:

  1. The hand to use
  2. The finger to use
  3. The finger motion to use
If this was correct, then a key assigned to the same hand as for Qwerty would be easier to learn, and a key assigned to the same finger would be easier still. One of my major beefs with Qwerty was that the keys were on inappropriate rows, so that the hand must do impressive gymnastics to touch-type on it. With these ideas in mind, I designed the original Asset keyboard on May 17, 2004. It gathered dust for awhile, and then from November 10 to 13, 2006, I tweaked it to the layout shown above. It's called Asset because
If you want to try it now, click here.


Principles of layout design

It is widely agreed that the following principles should guide layout design for touch-typing:
While the principles are agreed upon, their relative importance is not. I haven't yet searched for papers that weigh these matters.

I would add these additional considerations:
  1. As I said, it's easier to switch away from Qwerty if the new layout resembles Qwerty.
  2. The B and Y positions are difficult to reach, so take more time to type.
  3. The index fingers are assigned 5 keys each, so the potential for digraph clashes increases for these keys. Perhaps the most important thing is that a vowel not be assigned here, as clashes would be guaranteed.
  4. Backspace is a commonly-pressed key. Many have suggested turning Caps Lock into a backspace (particularly, I tip my hat to Colemak). Then the question arises of where to put the Caps Lock: shall it replace the old backspace? or replace a rarely used key such as the Right Windows key or Right Alt key? or require the user to hold shift while holding the former Caps Lock key? I found this last choice to be the most appealing to me.
  5. Keys that take longer to reach also strain the hands more; so it seems plausible that a better layout will lead to fewer repetitive stress injuries.
  6. That the bottom row of the standard keyboard is misaligned. When your fingers are on home row and you move them down, they end up between the keys below, which makes it unnecessarily difficult to press keys on the bottom row, especially (in Qwerty) Z, X, C, comma, period and slash. I believe these keys should be moved left by about 1/4 the width of a key. This will improve alignment for touch typing while not excessively annoying experienced typists.
  7. The top row is also misaligned. This can be realized by noting that the left hand must turn toward the outside of the body while the right hand turns toward the inside; obviously the design is not related to our hand shape. A simple solution would be to align the two rows squarely; I'll leave the more elaborate solutions to the ergonomics experts.
Of course, the last two considerations are not specific to Asset and could be offered by any manufacturer of any layout.
I've divided the alphabet and other common characters into classes according to similar frequencies, i.e. letters within a class occur with similar frequencies. This is based on a sample of over 1000 books (mostly fiction). That page also contains counts of how many words can be formed with a given set of letters--for example, about 30 words can be formed with the Qwerty home keys, ASDFJKL. These counts are based on a word list called 2of12.txt which is found in a package 12dicts-4.0 at Kevin's Word List Page. Note that this list contains abbreviations, some acronyms, and all word variants. By the way, here's a page with other interesting statistics, though it seems to be based on small sample sizes.
Class   Approximate prominance of each character in English documents, respectively
0. Space character   18.7% (may be skewed upward by certain documents that have large runs of spaces)
1. Most common characters E T 9.6% and 7.0% (total 16.6%)
2 A O I N H S R 6.2% to 4.4% (total 36.5%)
3 D L U 3.5% to 2.3% (total 9.0%)
4 M C W G F Y 1.9% to 1.6% (total 10.48%)
5 P , . B 1.3% to 1.2% (total 5.0%)
6. K V " ' - 0.7% to 0.3% (total 2.8%)
7. Least common characters ? X J ; ! Q Z : 0.2% and below (total 0.7%)

See also: Letter frequencies of French and German (based on this page)


Asset's design is English-centric, but I did consider the above frequency information in my design.

Problems with the Qwerty keyboard:

Problems with the Dvorak keyboard:

Advantages of the Asset Keyboard

Asset versus Qwerty
  1. Asset resembles Qwerty. As illustrated above,
  2. All ten of the most common English letters are on home row.
  3. Eight of the nine most common letters are on the home keys, except H, which was placed to match Qwerty.
  4. Over 1000 English words can be formed with the home keys alone, and about 3000 English words can be formed with the home row keys, including such basic words as

    a an are as at did do does has had he her here there in into is it its no neither nor not on or she so to too then than that their these

    Thus, while initially learning this keyboard, many meaningful sentences can be constructed with only the home keys and home row. Additionally, 60 words can be formed from ASET alone and 10 from NIOR alone. Unlike with Qwerty, Asset touch typing tutors do not require users to type dull sets of nonsense words.

  5. Because 12 letters are in the same place, a Qwerty-to-Asset transition course can be developed which starts with those 12 letters plus E. Over 300 words can be formed from these ten letters. Then, if we add the other home keys (ETNIOR), almost 9000 words can be formed! Adding the letter D raises this number to almost 14000. Most of the moved letters are still pressed by the same hand, which means users do not need to change which half of their brain sends the signal for each key. For the most part, users need only to learn new movements, and it should help that many keys are pressed with the same fingers.
  6. Most typists make numerous mistakes. The long distance to the standard backspace is detrimental, so Caps Lock should be replaced by backspace. Old habits die hard, so the standard backspace can remain in place for the time being. Caps Lock could be removed entirely or it could replace something else such as the right Windows key or the Scroll Lock key.
  7. Many people have a strong muscle memory for Cut/Copy/Paste (Ctrl+X/C/V) and for some people, Undo (Ctrl+Z) and other keystrokes such as Ctrl+W (close window) and Ctrl+S (Save). To respect such habits, Asset keeps WASZXCVB in the same positions.

Problems with Asset:

I am using myself as a guinea pig. I will say how the trial has worked out when there's more to report.

Try it

I've made a Demo page where you can try two versions of the Asset layout.

Install it

You can install Asset on Windows XP and Windows 2000.

Original design

The original design isn't nearly as good as it could have been. Here it is if you are curious: Original design


I don't believe patents should be granted for easy or simple inventions such as this one, nor the tens of thousands of others that are patented every year. Asset is not patented, so it may be used freely by anyone.

Additional thoughts