A keyboard is a set of ‘switches’ that allows a user to interact with a device. While this definition may leave many unsatisfied or confused, most people probably used a keyboard to access this website and are aware of what they are. The most popular types of keyboards are conventional tactile keyboards (physical keyboards) or on-screen keyboards (such as that which you would use on a smartphone). For a review of other alternative keyboard options available on the market, please visit our Alternative Keyboards page.
When comparing conventional keyboards to on-screen keyboards, the biggest difference is conventional tactile keyboard offers tactile landmarks, tactile feedback, and the ability to rest one’s fingers on the keyboard. Keyboards with these features have been shown to improve performance and to be more strongly preferred by users compared to keyboards without these features (i.e., on-screen keyboards; Odell & Faggin, 2014). For this reason, among others discussed later, tactile keyboards are more highly recommended than on-screen keyboards.
When reviewing the research literature, the two features that come up most often regarding the a quality keyboard are key spacing and key travel.
Keyboard spacing (the distance between the centre of one key and the centre of the key beside or above it) has been a topic of research for decades. Dating back to the 1980s the spacing between keys on a keyboard has been shown to impact users’ performance, with a spacing of 19mm being preferable (Ilg, 1987). With the use of computers proliferating throughout the turn of the millennium, this research become even more relevant to the digital workforce. A series of studies done in 2013/14 by Pereira and colleagues show that across a variety of keyboard spacing sizes, 17mm to 19mm proved to be the most productive and preferred for men, while for women a spacing of 16mm to 18mm was optimal. Keyboards with smaller spacing reduced performance and were less preferred than those of the sizes specified (Pereira et al., 2013; Pereira, Hsieh, Laroche & Rempel, 2014). Another study that examined key size and spacing on on-screen keyboards found that 15mm spacing reduced typing speed by 15% and increased muscle activity and extension demands (Kim, Aulck, Thamsuwan, Bartha & Johnson, 2013). One study comparing typically developing individuals, people with gross motor disabilities, and people with fine motor disabilities on a on-screen keyboard entry task found no significant differences in how changes in key spacing affected performance, implying that all users with and without disabilities benefit from particular key spacing equally (Sesto, Irwin, Chen, Chourasia & Wiegmann, 2012). This research implies that a key spacing of 16mm-19mm will be optimal depending on the size of the users hands and that a more cramped keyboard can reduce performance. The research on optimal key spacing for children is unclear (Blackstone, Karr, Camp & Johnson, 2008).
Key travel, or key depression, is the amount of distance that a key moves downward when you press it. Research on this topic also extends back to the 1980s, with researchers finding a preference for keyboards with 4mm of key travel (Ilg, 1987). Current researchers have also revisited this topic with the advent of ultra-low profile keyboards (less than 2mm of key travel) and on-screen keyboards. When comparing ultra low keyboards to conventional keyboards, one team found that users were slower when using ultra-low keyboards, however these differences were, practically speaking, very small (3 words per minute; Sisley, Kia, Johnson & Kim, 2017). However, another research team found that when comparing on-screen keyboards with zero key travel to conventional tactile keyboards users were 20 words per minute faster when using the tactile keyboard, despite expressing a preference for the on-screen keyboards (Chaparro, Nguyen, Phan, Smith & Teves, 2010). Together, this research suggests that while large amounts of key travel may not be needed, having some key travel will likely increase typing speed over using keyboards without key travel.
In summary, when choosing a keyboard, one must ensure that the individual’s hands fit comfortably on all of the home row keys when resting without strain or feeling crammed (16-19mm spacing depending on size of hands, children may require less space). Furthermore, conventional tactile keyboards are preferred over on-screen keyboards if users will be using this device for production as conventional keyboards offer users many forms of feedback that on-screen keyboards do not. Typing skill proficiency is also crucial for keyboard users; for more on that matter please visit our Typing Skill Development page.
Special Consideration: Workflow
Exact prices change frequently, which is why only approximate ranges are listed.
$ - Under $5
$$ - Between $6 and $50
$$$ - Between $51 and $250
$$$$ - Over $250
Blackstone, J. M., Karr, C., Camp, J., & Johnson, P. W. (2008). Physical exposure differences between children and adults when using standard and small computer input devices.
Chaparro, B., Nguyen, B., Phan, M., Smith, A., & Teves, J. (2010). Keyboard performance: ipad versus netbook. Usability News, 12(2), 1-9.
Ilg, R. (1987). Ergonomic keyboard design. Behaviour & Information Technology, 6(3), 303-309.
Kim, J. H., Aulck, L., Thamsuwan, O., Bartha, M. C., & Johnson, P. W. (2013, September). The effects of virtual keyboard key sizes on typing productivity and physical exposures. In Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting(Vol. 57, No. 1, pp. 887-891). Sage CA: Los Angeles, CA: SAGE Publications.
Odell, D., & Faggin, E. (2014, September). The typing performance and preference costs of reducing tactile feedback and tactile landmarks in tablet keyboards. In Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting(Vol. 58, No. 1, pp. 1790-1794). Sage CA: Los Angeles, CA: SAGE Publications.)
Pereira, A., Hsieh, C. M., Laroche, C., & Rempel, D. (2014). The effect of keyboard key spacing on typing speed, error, usability, and biomechanics, part 2: vertical spacing. Human factors, 56(4), 752-759.
Pereira, A., Lee, D. L., Sadeeshkumar, H., Laroche, C., Odell, D., & Rempel, D. (2013). The effect of keyboard key spacing on typing speed, error, usability, and biomechanics: Part 1. Human factors, 55(3), 557-566.
Sesto, M. E., Irwin, C. B., Chen, K. B., Chourasia, A. O., & Wiegmann, D. A. (2012). Effect of touch screen button size and spacing on touch characteristics of users with and without disabilities. Human Factors, 54(3), 425-436.
Sisley, J., Kia, K., Johnson, P. W., & Kim, J. H. (2017, September). Effects of Key Travel Distances on Biomechanical Exposures and Typing Performance During UltraLow Key Travel Keyboards. In Proceedings of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society Annual Meeting(Vol. 61, No. 1, pp. 981-985). Sage CA: Los Angeles, CA: SAGE Publications.
Written by Harrison McNaughtan, Last Revision May 2018