The
Hands Down
Layout
and its discontents

Professional tools won't make you a pro,
but a pro won't compromise on their tools.

I designed Hands Down to be an uncompromising tool
for comfortable endurance typing.

A painter will choose the best brush and a musician the best instrument, just as a craftsman will demand the best equipment and a runner will demand a custom fit shoe. A keyboard and layout are tools for people who type for a living, so shouldn't you choose the keyboard and layout that work the best for you?

don't compromise on the tools of your profession

Navigating this site
click for a brief description of the site

  • This home page introduces the basics of the Hands Down™ layouts, a collection of closely related, fully-optimized, high-performance keyboard layouts with a comfortably rolling typing rhythm. Why more than one? Because a layout with uncompromising comfort and performance means it must be tailored to your hands, your texts, and keyboard. I doubt all three of these variables are the same for everyone.

  • There are three base variation families: Hands Down™ Reference, Neu, and Alt. There is a brief explanation of the variations below, and each family has its own page, for more complete description of each variation.

  • More Variations page has related layouts designed for making your transition from QWERTY a bit easier, or to explore other ideas in layout design.

  • The discontents?” Also on this site you will find my take on several smart keyboard technologies (Combos, Home Row Modifiers, Adaptive Keys, Linger Keys, Semantic Keys) that I've deployed on my keyboards, designed to work seamlessly with the underlying Hands Down layout to further improve typing efficiency and comfort.
    These are not strictly a part of Hands Down, and can be used with any layout, with differing levels of efficiency. But Hands Down was designed with these smart keyboard features in mind, and I have described some of the ways they work together on my keyboards to improve the typing experience.

  • FAQ has answers to many general layout related questions, like:

  • Design notes has rambling info about the design ideas and evolution of Hands Down™.

  • The Statistics page is for those who must have lots of comparative numbers.
    But remember that a keyboard diet too high in statistics can lead to bloating or hardening of the opinions. Be sure to salt these statistics appropriately.

Hands Down™ Discord Server.

Talk with others about choosing and learning a new layout, modifying a Hands Down™ variation to suite your specific needs, adapting to a different form-factor, or implementing some of the features mentioned here.

Keyboards are different
Texts are différent
Hands are different

Isn't it silly to presume that one layout could be perfect for everyone?

Guide to the Hands Down variations:
Learn about the three Hands Down families to help you choose a variation.

Choosing the right layout for you will depend on what what sorts of things you type (prose, code, languages, etc.), and to some degree, your own hand physiology (hand size, and the ratio of digit length), and what simply feels comfortable to you. Keyboard form factors also influence how a layout feels and performs, so the type of keyboard you want to use can also help you determine the layout that will work best for you. In many places, I have included comments about how to productively adapt a layout to accommodate differences from the 34 key split ergonomic keyboard reference platform. While this minimalist platform may work for some, most people use a keyboard with more keys, and all of the Hands Down variations will work just fine on a larger keyboard.

The three Hands Down families:

The Hands Down variations comprise three families, Reference, Alt, and Neu, each with variations for standard (ANSI/ISO/JIS a.k.a. slab) keyboards ⌨️. There is native OS support for the keyboard you already own, if you want to give it a try. If you can Ditch the Slab for a more ergonomic keyboard with dedicated thumb keys 👍🏻, you can choose a variation from the Alt and Neu families with a letter on a thumb for even greater efficiency and comfort.

Each of the Hands Down™ variations described on this site excels at a different task, be it English only, mixed languages, coding, etc. Some place more priority on reducing total finger motion (Hands Down™ Alt variations), while others prioritize rolling typing rhythm (Hands Down™ Neu variations). All aim for typing comfort by reducing finger tangling Same Finger Bigrams (SFBs). These pages describe just the best of the more than a dozen layouts I designed and tested in real-world, real-time settings. Some, like the Hands Down™ Alt variations, I used to write significant academic papers, and many Hands Down™ Neu variations have already been adopted by dozens of other happy typists.

  • Hands Down Reference ⌨️ designed for balance
    This is the original Hands Down Layout, designed with an obsessive attention to balancing the many variables involved in a layout: very low SFBs, proportional distribution of finger burden favoring frequency on the middle finger and dexterity on the index, finger–finger, hand–hand, and even row (top-bottom) balance, etc. Hands Down Reference has the lowest SFBs of the standard Hands Down variations, and the most even burden distribution.

  • Hands Down Alt ⌨️ designed for less movement
    Hands Down Alt variations all aim to improve comfort by decreasing total finger movement, while aiming to increase rolling behaviors. Hands Down Alt variations may have slightly higher SFBs than Hands Down Reference or Hands Down Neu counterparts, but tend to have lower total finger movement.

  • Hands Down Neu ⌨️ designed for more rolling
    Hands Down Neu variations are based on a total rethinking of a keyboard layout (more things are non-standard). All of these variations aim to maximize rolling behaviors while eliminating SFBs with full optimization of all glyphs (alphas and symbols).

Other keyboard behaviors described on this siteHome Row Modifiers, Combos, Adaptive Keys– are technically independant from Hands Down, and they are all implemented differently for each layout because they rely on the topology of each variation. In fact, each variation is designed with these smart keyboard features in mind, so the layout performs best when all the features are implemented as an integrated system. This is particularly true with features like the H digraph Combos and Adaptive Keys, that are mnemonically and/or spatially related to individual letter placement. Each variation is really conceived of as a comprehensive smart layout, each feature designed anticipation the impact on the others. Thus, each variation has a separate description section with some details of unique implementations of these optional smart keyboard features.

Once you've chosen a layout to suit your typing preferences, texts, and choice of keyboard, you may want to make it fit you even better, by customizing it. In each of the variation sections here I've tried to offer some designer's insight about the features and possibilities of each variation, so you will be able to adapt it to suit your unique situation, and avoid pitfalls of the 2.6 nonillion possible arrangements of letters. I encourage you to consider these layout variations as a very good place to start, then to tailor it to fit you like a hand made glove. Your own customizations may necessitate changes to other features, especially Combos and Adaptive Keys, as these are best when tightly integrated with the underlying layout.

Hands Down was designed
to work Hand in Hand with “smart keyboards

Home Row Modifiers, Combos (chording), Adaptive Keys, Linger Keys, Semantic Keys
click for more info on these optional smart keyboard typing behaviors

A layout has an intimate relationship with the keyboard is sits on. Hands Down was concieved as an uncompromising layout specifically designed to work with the latest ergonomic, smart keyboards and features, especially Home Row Modifiers (HRM).

The reference design platform is a minimalistic, 34 key split ergonomic smart keyboard, which presents the most difficult scenario for a layout (I have been working with sub-30 key designs, such as the 28 key Ingulish layout for Hummingbird, and Touch/Touché for touch screens, but they are of a separate design lineage). The designs are then considered for other form factors, including ergonomic keyboards with more keys, ortholinears, and standard row-stagger keyboards (ANSI/ISO/JIS, a.k.a. slab).

The Hands Down design also anticipates, though does not strictly require, smart keyboard controllers capable of other typing behaviors, such as layers, multi-taps, combos, and what I call Adaptive and Semantic keys. Hands Down's phonotactic foundation with Adaptive Keys and Combos means that you can type in more than one language with virtually no compromise in efficiency.

While lexicon based input systems like Steno (Plover) offer unparalleled input efficiency, they require sophisticated input method interpreters, are much more difficult to learn, and are tied to a given language (or need robust workflow dictionaries). Significant performance and comfort gains can be achieved from smarter keyboards running various on-board firmware OSes (QMK, ZMK). I may have migrated to these built-in features as they became available and supported my needs, though many I originally implemented myself. (Hands Down Rhodium is my personal variation, and absolutely does require all these features.)

  • Home Row Modifiers: All Hands Down variations were designed from the outset with Home Row modifiers in mind. Modifiers, after all, are keys that are pressed (and often held) a lot, and that has a profound impact on the stresses and demands a keyboard makes on the hand and finger's joints. While Home Row mods are at the heart of the Hands Down design philosophy, these layouts do work very well with modifiers on the thumbs, and all of the statistics cited here are based on shift on thumbs. Some Hands Down variations will also work on keyboards with the modifiers in standard ANSI/ISO/JIS slab keyboard positions on the pinkies (Reference, Alt, Neu), but I strongly advise that you ditch these slab keyboards–they really are objectively harmful due to the unavoidable ulnar deviation. (See my earlier comments about home row modifiers here).

  • Combos: Two or more keys pressed together eliminate finger twisting for shortcuts. My own Hands Down implementations have over 100 combos, making my tiny 34 key keyboard faster, easier, and more comfortable than any keyboard with more keys.

    • Functions such as Cut, Copy, Paste, SelectAll, Quit, Close, ScreenGrab, Find, Kill, and many more are all faster and easier than on a traditional keyboard (and all in similar positions to their QWERTY locations, so easy to remember).

    • The H digraphs (TH, CH, WH, SH, GH, PH), are so common in English that the first four appear more frequently than individual letters X, J, Q, Z. l use quick combos for all of these, speeding entry and reducing keystrokes. Thanks to Hands Down's phonotactic foundation, the combos are easy to learn and use (the three most frequent are even on home row), leveraging existing muscle memory (a phantom H in the middle finger, combines with the leading consonant, to form a combo of neighboring fingers).
      The impact of the
      H digraph combos is huge: If it were a letter on its own, the TH digraph would be the 13th most common letter, occurring more frequently than the individual letters UMFPGWYBVKXJQZ. In fact, some 80% of the H occurrences in English are in these six digraphs†. So counting occurrences of H separate from the six H digraphs, it would be the 20th most frequent letter, with an individual letter frequency similar to V, after GWYB and before the letters VKXJQZ.

    • Pronoun Combos, for common structured derivatives like I'm, I've, I'll; We'll, We'd; You've, You'll, You'd; for example, are two key combos that differ only by the pronoun initial letter. They form an easy to remember group of combos that together reduce a good number of keystrokes. (ex. I+L=I'll, Y+L=you'll, W+L=we'll, etc. Shft/CapsLK is honored, as in H digraph combos above). (Just to show how powerful these features are together, linger on these pronoun combos to add 've to the pronoun, like I'd've, or you'll've).

    • These combos also respect shift and caps lock states (Shift will capitalize the first letter, caps lock will capitalize all). Technically, while the number of keys pressed is the same, they are all neighbors, so they occur in one motion of one or two fingers, so it reduces the number of keystroke cycles, if not keys pressed, making a more syllabic typing rhythm.

    • 10-Key combos on the number layer allow entering currency, time spans, or even entire equations with one hand, without leaving the layer . ():–~…$¢€¥£% plus excel navigation (return, tab, esc, numLK, etc.).

  • Diacritics are distributed on the layout spatially, in relation to the letters they modify and the position of the modification, so the strokes to get É and Ü, for example, are clustered around the base glyphs they modify (above, below, thru/replacing, etc.). It makes working in multiple European languages with diacritics, like åéüōç & ðþ as easy but faster than if they were separate keys. I'm still working on this…aiming for a thoroughly polylingual (latinate) variation of Hands Down, called Hands Down Polyglot. This will work with Semantic Keys (below), to make full unicode character composition (base + diacritic) be platform independent (Mac's dead keys vs, Windows numpad compose, and Unicode's postfix character composition scheme are all different.) One layout, one keyboard, any platform, any language! A ridiculously idealistic, but tremendously useful design aspiration.

  • Adaptive Keys: Alter the characters sent based on the sequence and speed of keys typed to eliminate awkward fingering sequences, especially row jumps. When typed quickly (usually like rolling), statistically more common letter sequences are sent. Once again, Hands Down's phonotactics make these easy to remember, leveraging established muscle memory. Dozens more of these statistically derived sequences increase comfort and speed: Neighbor rolls alleviate a row jump/step and/or stretch to the middle column:

    • GM becomes Gl, PM is Pl, using the same finger for L, but without the row jump.

    • VP is VL & PV is LV, BT is BL & TB is LB.

    • AE produces AU. AU is a higher SFB than AO in English, so many alternating layouts striving for low SFBs will pair EU and AO. But not all SFBs are created equal: the SFB gain with EU and AO is small, and the inward rolling facilitated with EA and OU (and even OA) optimizes rolling comfort for the more common scenario in English. ,A sends UA, to complete the bidirectional AU SFB solution, as in "guard that gauge!" would be typed "g,ard that gaege!" while preserving the optimization for the much more common rolling sequences, like "A goat would as easily eat a board instead of bread as you would break bread and eat a heated gourd." (there is the logical A, alternate to AE for AU, if the simple inverse motion for AU and UA are easier to wrap your head around.)

    • 🇫🇷 🇧🇪The influential Deutch Bauhaus Bureau fictif de Lettrés beaucoup, notes that AU is very common in French and German, and in loanwords in English (AU more common in German, not quite as common as EU or UE in French, which presents a serious problem for layouts that chose to put E&U on the same finger). Adaptive Keys for AU offers a solution with no downsidesright on home row where it belongs. So, typing bureae yields bureau. If you work for BAE, just type the same letters a tiny fraction slower, like we often do for initialisms, because we don't think of them as words...You probably won't notice anything, it just works.

    • Rolling ./ sends .com. Adaptive Keys also respects Shft/CapsLK states, like the combos, above.

    • More elaborate Adaptive Keys are possible, too, like ns for ness an ts for tness.

    • Adaptive Keys rolling speed is configurable, and can be turned off on the keyboard. (for gaming, or speed typing tests). My settings are very fast, so Adaptive Keys triggers only when I really am typing to get my thoughts out fast.

  • Linger Keys: Holding a linger key for just a bit triggers additional functionality. The most common is Q. Pressed once, and you get Qu (hold with shift for Qu, capsLk for QU), but hold a bit and the U is deleted, leaving just Q for things like QMK. Linger on paired symbols (, {, [, ", to get its mate ", ], }, ). Linger Key can be triggered by any keystroke or combo, like my linger combo for Japan to get Japanese, or my combo for there, when lingered, is there's , and so on. (Linger Keys are similar to mod taps, but not quite. They send a keycode immediately on press, and may do other things if held.)

  • Semantic Keys: Runtime platform independence is fully realized with Semantic Keys that send the appropriate keystroke(s) to the host. Navigation shortcuts, (Word left/right, browser back/fwd), are the same keystrokes, regardless of platform. From Undo, Copy, Find, Quit, and ScreenCapture, even typing special characters or § are always the same keystrokes, whether via regular keypress, combo, or even as the result of Adaptive Keys. Semantic Keys somewhat normalizes the experience using different platforms, improving ergonomics and workflow efficiency, and reducing potentially destructive errors. Switch platforms on the fly with a simple keystroke (no recompile to make a keyboard fit only for one platform at a time), and the keyboard will remember the last platform used so you can pick up right where you left off.

Using Peter Norvig's Mayzner inspired Google English corpus.

👍🏻 Thumbs up variations require dedicated thumb keys

If you are interested in pushing keyboard ergonomics and efficiency to the limit, you might consider one of the variations that put an alpha (or punctuation) characters on the thumb opposite the space. Putting a letter on a thumb helps to balance the load over more fingers, and can greatly reduce the dreaded same-finger bigram (SFB) problem. It is a very compelling argument, but it is not for everyone—it can be devilishly difficult to learn, and may not be faster for everyone. Which letter to put on a thumb is largely a matter of personal preference, but may be strongly influenced by the types of texts you are typing (different languages, coding, etc.), and your preference for the feel of the typing rhythms.

Most of these variations also remove the infrequent letters Q and Z from the main keyboard finger field, with access to them via combo or by placing them on another layer (with statistically guided recommendations for their placement). When integrated with other smart keyboard features (Home Row Modifiers, Combos, Adaptive Keys, Linger Keys, Semantic Keys), these highly-efficient layout variations propose an evolved way of typing, demanding the most of the keyboard controller as the keyboard does more work for you. While these full optimizations take some effort to learn, in my opinion they greatly improve typing efficiency, convenience, most importantly, comfort.

All of the letter-on-thumb variations perform close to each other, statistically, but each has certain advantages that may make one variation more appropriate for some corpora than others. There are so many subtle issues involved in each of these variations that it is impossible for me to say which may be best for you. The variations are presented not as a continuum of good-betterbest, but as possibilites that have been evaluated to give you a solid basis from which to build your custom-fit layout. I have simply tried to present the best variation, statistically, based on which letter you choose to put on the thumb opposite the space.

  • Hands Down Gold (Neu-tx), Hands Down Alt-tx T on Thumb:
    T is among the most common letters in many languages, and has a pronounced influence in the construction of syllables. Isolating T on the thumb results in a superb typing rhythm, preserving the syllabic cadence while also delivering unparallelled efficiency and rolling behaviors in English.

  • Hands Down Silver (Neu-nx), Hands Down Alt-nx N on Thumb:
    N is among the most common letters in many languages. As with T, isolating N on the thumb results in an excellent balance when typing in many languages, and in multiple languages.

  • Hands Down Platinum (Neu-lx) L on Thumb:
    L is perhaps the 'stickiest' consonant in many languages, combining with many letters in consonant clusters. Isolating L on the thumb yields the lowest SFBs of any Hands Down variation.

  • Hands Down Titanium (Neu-rx) R on Thumb:
    R on thumb reduces pinky use on the left hand, making pinky use more balanced between hands. Like L (Neu-lx), R is also commonly blended with many other consonants, so putting it on the thumb brings the hand use toward the middle. Stats are similar to Hands Down Platinum, with extremely low SFBs and very high rolling like Hands Down Gold, but a feel all its own.

  • Hands Down Bronze (Neu-hx) H on Thumb:
    H is has unique properties in English and some other languages, binding with other letters in very common digraphs (Th, Ch, Sh, Wh, Gh, Ph), some digraphs being more common than individual letters. Isolating H on the thumb results in the highest rolling quotient of any Hands Down variation, and better rolling than most other layouts. H is among the most suited for putting an alpha on a thumb, H is almost never doubled and double letters are hard to type quickly with the lumbering thumb.

  • Hands Down Dash (Neu-ex), Hands Down Alt-ex E on Thumb:
    E is the most common letter in English. Isolating E on the thumb results in lower overall finger movement, but also may have the highest cognitive load by interrupt the mental 'chunking' involved in syllable parsing.

    • Hands Down Dash has the lowest total finger movement of the Neu family, while retaining much of rolling behaviors.

    • Hands Down Alt-ex has the lowest total finger movement of any Hands Down variation, and lower than nearly any other layout.

  • Hands Down Élan (Neu-dot) punctuation on thumb:
    Period and comma on the thumb mirrors the syllabic 'chunking' of space, and affords an elegant balance suited for symbol-heavy texts (such as coding).

⌨️ Slab variations will work with almost any keyboard

You might consider one of the three base variations, Hands Down, Reference, Alt, or Neu, if you prefer to keep all the characters in the finger field (like most layouts), if your thumbs are already busy with other tasks (like layers, shift, etc.), you like that wide artisan space bar you just bought on Etsy, or you can't wrap your head around the idea of typing a letter with a thumb (it is weird, at first, and not necessary to get Hands Down levels of comfort).