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New Keyboard Strategy

Posted on:July 15, 2023 at 07:34 PM

I bought a glove80 keyboard and I’m slowly and a little painfully typing this post about it because I’m confident I’ve worked out a layout scheme that’s good enough to begin mastering. My layout is, I’m confident, better for me than a standard keyboard layout. Mine certainly will not work for many people so I wanted to write about my learning journey to hopefully help others speed things up or give some ideas to try.

My Layout

For a little context: I do software engineering in vim and bounce to Arc browser and use chrome dev tools quite a bit. I use shortcuts in almost every program I have. I use hyperkey plus raycast to wire up programs directly to keys. In the past I’ve been using karabiner to modify hjkl to match vim movement arrow keys (and I love having arrows here).

  1. Pre-work

Read up on what’s possible with ZMK. Primarily, understand the differences and settings for mod-tap, layer-tap, and mod-morph. This will start your imagination running wild. And just to get you excited imagine having home row mod-taps that allow you to use asdf as ctrl, alt, cmd, and shift when held! Imagine having a proper 10 key number pad you can access with a key press!

My strategy with home row mods is to use separate mod keys (pinkeys for shift and thumbs for the rest) for single press/hold cases, and home-row mods as an option when I would otherwise be making a claw to hit all of them. So, for example, to hard refresh a website I’ll hold ‘k’ (cmd) + ‘j’ (shift) and hit ‘r’. But to switch tabs I’ll hold the cmd key on the thumb and hit ’}‘. If you do try home row mods and you’re struggling with the timing, check out this insane layout, I found it fairly easy to borrow and use to optimize mine.

  1. Feel things out first

Assuming you are a touch typer, sit with the keyboard disconnected and just type whatever comes to you. Play though common patterns in your mind like swtiching betwen programs and doing all the keyboard shortcuts that are most common.

This is going to give you very fast iteration in your mind about where you might want modifier keys and what definitely won’t work. From doing this I came up with my first two principles below.

  1. Don’t over optimize (principles 3-6)

It can be tempting to put all kinds of keyboard shortcuts and combos under individual keys when you have so many open. The possibilities are endless and you can quickly go overboard. But consider the tradeoffs. You likely want to remain reasonably proficient on a standard keyboard. You do not know all keyboard shorcuts you’ll need in the future and you probably don’t want to be constantly adjusting your layout years down the line.

It’s more important to have a good way to do any possible combination, than a perfect way of only doing a few and possibly getting stuck having to drag out another keyboard to un-stick yourself.

  1. Have a logical ordering

At this point you should have at least a standard working keyboard you can optionally switch to. But that’s not why you spent $400 on a split ergo with six key thumb clusters :)

Focus on the most used patterns and how you can build them into the keyboard in a logical way. Here was my though process:

I type numbers fastest with 10-key layout so I want that on a layer. I jump to tabs, lines, and “spaces” via numbers so it’s important that numbers are easy/fast to hit.

Next I want symbols that make sense when typing code in vim (e.g. ”=>”, ”->”). Again, it must be fast/easy to hit any symbol or combination of symbols.

Finally a whole bunch of things that just make sense for me:


  1. Pulling the hands inward towards the thumbs is better than out to pinkies, modifiers move to the thumbs
  2. The top two rows are completely optional, everything I use should be elsewhere
  3. Never get stuck: have all modifies available on the base layer so in a pinch you can contort hands to hit the necessary keys
  4. One way is usually better than several options, but don’t fear contextual duplication (e.g. math operations on the number layer and symbols layer)
  5. Don’t feel the need to use every key, you can leave things blank for a few months and fill in what makes sense later
  6. Don’t stray from standard querty too far if you still want to be useful on a regular keyboard

You’ll note I don’t entirely stick to these principles but thinking though them helped me get to a point where I can start to practice and refine over time. After two days with the glove80 I’m back to about 75 wpm (noramlly ~90) and I’m seeing how vim can be great with 10 key symbols under the fingers at all times.