Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Do you look at the keyboard to type?

I don't look at the keyboard to type. But my wife Claire, George (a non-programmer friend) and Ian (a programmer friend) all do - even though they've all used keyboards for over 20 years.

Even a whole bunch of programmers colleagues I know look at the keyboard to type. I find this strange and even mildly annoying when I spend any time thinking about it. The reasons for the mild annoyance I'm not too sure about so I'll leave that.

They don't do it when they use the mouse (i.e. look at the mouse when operating it). That would be silly, wouldn't it!

So what makes looking a keyboard to type not silly? I think most of them learnt to enter stuff at a keyboard by actually looking at the keyboard. It is obviously complicated for a beginner - more so than a mouse (although that is tricky enough with multiple buttons and double-clicking). And, although I think they instinctively know where the keys are, they still rely a little on vision to find the next couple of keys. They've never made the jump to avoiding looking at the keyboard.

Now is there anything wrong with not looking at the screen when typing? Let's just look at programming. Well, I guess part of the program is in your head - both the local line and the overall program structure. But when I'm looking at the screen I'm correcting mis-types immediately rather than at the end of the identifier or statement and I'm checking I agree with what is written down. That sounds strange until I point out that, quite often, when you say something it's not actually what you meant in your head. The same applies when you don't read what you've written - and it's very easy to spot things that haven't been proof read.

I can type pretty fast as well ... years of practice does that. Not sure whether looking at the keyboard actually effects that - but I do know sometimes I can't type fast enough to get my thoughts down at full speed.

Of course, I shouldn't feel too superior. On a standard QWERTY I don't actually use the 'home' keys, and when I'm in a rush I tend to mistype and use the backspace quite a lot ('fastest backspace in the west'). I think using the home keys would probably improve my accuracy. But, I guess like a lot of bad habits, I know about it, but it's too much effort to change.

Of course all those symbols in programming might slow a standard-home-typist down - but here I am typing pure text. And what about comments and variable names - again mostly text...

As far as I remember, copy-typists look at the piece of work that they are copying and occasionally at the screen/paper (to check for errors) but not the keyboard. The reason, I guess, they are taught this is purely speed and accuracy. Slightly different constraints for a programmer. Most of the time is thinking. But when the flow does come ... it's pretty fast.


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