Introducing ThinQu, the Fully Optimized Keyboard Layout

There has been many attempts to improve the QWERTY keyboard layout. Dvorak maximizes hand alternation; Colemak and many others emphasize on easiness to switch from QWERTY; Workman improves on these by considering the effort of lateral movements and the interaction between finger and row; Q*MLW* layouts provide the optimal solution of a quantitative effort model but fails to consider the factors raised in Workman. I generally agree with Workman’s finger strain mapping.

To design the most ergonomic keyboard layout, all of the advantages of the existing layouts are considered. The ThinQu layout has the following features in common with its predecessors:

  •  As much as 60.6% of letter typing is done with the eight base keys (lower than Colemak’s 65.0%, because of the two-letter keys). 80.1% of the letter typing is in the 14 keys rated 1-2 by Workman. There is a strong correlation between letter frequency and Workman’ rating.
  • Hand alternation is strongly favored. Within each hand, hand rolling (consecutive letters on the same row using adjacent finger) is favored.
  • Same-finger movement is strongly penalized, which provides motivation for a more even frequency distribution across fingers.
  • Lateral movement of the index and little finger is strongly penalized. The usage of the middle columns excluding numbers is 8.9%, compared to Workman’s 7.0% and Dvorak’s 14.8%.
  • Hand utilization is more balanced with only a slight consideration for right-handedness. 49.7% of letter typing is done by the right hand. If including punctuation marks and Shift but not numbers and special keys like Enter, 51.4% of the typing is done by the right hand.
  • With a priority for optimizing typing effort and speed, easiness for a QWERTY user to learn is minimally considered. No letters, four punctuation marks, and all numbers are in the same place as QWERTY. Three letters stay on the same finger as QWERTY. Users wishing to put less effort in learning the ThinQu layout should consider using the transitional ThinQu layout. 

The ThinQu layout shines with the following added advantages:

  • The most frequent and the third most frequent bigrams, th and in, have their own keys. The in key also lessens the burden of the pinkies by pressing i and n keys less. A third two-letter key, qu, replaces the q key since u follows q 99.1% of the time. Thus the name ThinQu. Also, Shift+in does not produce In, but rather the most common 4-gram – tion. Note that the bigram keys still output lower-case letters when CapsLock is on.
  • The base keys are shifted to the right by one space so that the right pinky is closer to Enter, Shift, and Backspace. It also redistributes most of its duties in punctuation marks to the new middle column for the index fingers. Now the right index finger rests on the K key of QWERTY. I recommend that you physically swap the J and K keys so your index finger can still feel the bump.  For those using a split keyboard, the non-shift version of ThinQu is recommended.
  • All modifier keys in Windows and third party applications are still in the QWERTY layout. You can keep using Ctrl+C and Ctrl+V keys in their usual location.
  • Utilization frequency for each finger is related to that finger’s strength but with finger movement in mind – less moved fingers can bear a higher frequency.
  • The locations of punctuation marks are optimized by considering their frequencies. Square and curly brackets are available through Alt Gr.
  • In addition to brackets,  letters with diacritics and other less often used symbols can be entered by pressing Alt Gr (right Alt or Alt+Ctrl). The layout is identical to the English international keyboard in Windows. Square and curly brackets along with an added  (en dash) symbol are placed in the home row.
    Brackets and other symbols can be entered using right Alt + another key.

    Capital letters with diacritics and more symbols can be entered using right Alt + Shift + another key.
  • There is a programming version that makes symbols more accessible by some rearrangement.
  • Users can modify the layout to their preference by editing the .klc file. Programmers can rearrange the symbols in the programming version to suit their programming language. This article lists the frequency distribution of symbols for each programming language.

The ThinQu layout makes the following assumptions:

  • The ThinQu layout is only suitable for touch typists.
  • It was designed for keys laid out in a QWERTY style (i.e. columns are staggered) although the relative loss for an ortholinear keyboard to adopt ThinQu is very small.
  • The language used is always English with punctuation marks, occasional internet slangs and abbreviated spelling, and limited account/password/captcha entering.

Finger Assignment

keyboard-layout (3).jpg
The top three keys in the middle column are assigned to the left index finger and the lowest to the right index finger.

The Non-Shift Version

keyboard-layout (4).jpg

The non-shift version is made for split keyboards and ergonomic keyboards like Kinesis in which the keys on one side cannot be assigned to the other side. The eight base keys are at the same locations as other keyboards. The keys in the middle column of the standard version are moved to the right end.

The Transitional Version

keyboard-layout (6).jpg

The transitional version is a balanced tradeoff between easiness of learning and typing effort for QWERTY users. It shares 10 letters and 7 punctuation keys with QWERTY (highlighted in green), 11 letters and 3 punctuation keys with the standard ThinQu, and 5 letters with neither. Of the 18 relocated letters and two-letter keys, 8 are still assigned to the same finger as QWERTY.

It’s suitable for those who type less often, are slow learners, or are close to the end of their lifespan. It’s also suitable for those who want to quickly get started with an ergonomic keyboard and are considering switching to the standard ThinQu layout later.

The Programming Version

keyboard-layout (8).jpg

The programming version is suitable for those who spend most of their typing time writing computer programs. In optimizing the layout of symbol keys, learnability is more emphasized than that of letters since some users may switch back and forth to the standard ThinQu. As a consequence, most of the symbols on the numbers row remain in the same place. Shift state symbols and normal state symbols mostly move together (e.g. apostrophe and quotation mark). For letters, only J and q  have changed place. The in key disappears. Symbols in the top row are directly entered whereas numbers are entered using Shift (except 0).


Windows XP or above

thinqu standard V 1.0 | 251KB | 6/2/2018

thinqu nonshift V1.0.1| 251KB | 9/16/2020 (Corrected F-P swap)

thinqu transitional V 1.0 | 251KB | 6/2/2018

thinqu programming V 1.0 | 251KB | 6/2/2018

Instructions: unzip and double click setup.exe to install. It will show up as United States – International Keyboard – Custom. If not, restarting the system will solve the issue. You may change the region by editing the source file and rebuilding the installer yourself.


To uninstall, double-click setup.exe and select “Remove the keyboard layout.” You can also deactivate it through Windows settings.

Mac version

thinqu standard V 1.0 mac | 8KB | 10/28/2018

Instructions: unzip and place the folder under user/library/keyboard layouts directory (credit to Mark Alexander).

Download Editable Source Files

To edit the keyboard layout yourself, download and unzip and open the source file using Microsoft Keyboard Layout Creator 1.4. It’s recommended that the installation directory contains no space to prevent a possible error. Uninstall your current ThinQu layout and create an installer for your edited layout by selecting Project > Build DLL and Setup Package.

thinqu source files V 1.0 (Windows) | 7KB | 6/2/2018

Due to the constraints of the editor, you may not assign to Capslock state keys that are different from the default state and Shift state. There are certain unassignable keys including Ctrl, Shift, Enter, and Backspace.

For Mac OS X V 10.2+ users, use Ukelele to edit the following file (provided by Mark Alexander):

thinqu stardard version source file mac V 1.0 | 3KB | 10/28/2018


I found a bug, what should I do?
You should send a bug report using this form.

Are the other versions of ThinQu available for Mac?
No. You can contact me to share the installer if you made one.

Do gaming keys stay the same?
No. In most PC games, the default keys for moving and attacking are at the new ThinQu locations. To use the original key configurations, either use QWERTY or customize the keys under the game’s settings.

What corpus did you use to calculate letter and bigram frequencies?
I used the results analyzed by Peter Norvig, who used Google Books Ngrams data and counted approximately 3500 billion letters. For punctuation mark frequencies, I used a couple of different resources but none of which is very accurate. For computer languages character frequencies, I mainly used the analysis by Xah Lee, who counted 14 million punctuation characters.

How did you decide where to put each letter?
Please read my other article The Development of the ThinQu Keyboard Layout: Factors that Influence Typing Effort.

Will learning ThinQu interfere with my ability to type on a mobile phone keyboard?
No, you will be able to type on your phone with your old layout as fast as before since it’s a visual keyboard. Your typing speed using your old layout on a physical keyboard

How many hours of loss in typing speed should I expect before it catches my QWERTY typing speed?
There is no scientific data of this sort that I’m aware of. From several people’s account of learning Dvorak, I estimate the loss to be 30 hours, spreaded out over eight weeks but mainly in the first two weeks. Note that this does not account for the increased cognitive effort in coordinating finger movement, which could be an even higher cost than the loss in typing speed.

What’s the condition that makes switching to ThinQu beneficial?
Since the cost of learning a new layout is much shorter than the period afterwards, we can model it as a one-time investment followed by a constant flow of benefit. The condition is:

Initial costs < C / r × (1 – (1/(1+ r))^T) × (1 – cost of risk and uncertainty)

where initial costs consist of loss in typing speed and increase in cognitive effort measured in hours lost; r is the real annual interest rate; T is the expected number of years you will be using the ThinQu layout; C is given by:

C = expected number of hours you will type in a year × proportion of increase in productivity including time and effort saved compared to previous layout – expected number of hours experiencing incompatibility × proportion of decrease in productivity including extra time and effort compared to previous layout due to incompatibility

Increase and decrease in productivity can be difficult to measure. Incompatibility arises when you are forced to type using a different layout. Risk and uncertainty is expressed in proportion of benefit lost and includes mortality, technological progression, appearance of better layouts and keyboards, giving up, and other factors. Visit here for more information about the formula.

Initial cost = 30 hours of time lost + equivalent of 25 hours of cognitive effort = 55 hours
r = 5%
T = 15 years
C = 400 hours × 15% – 40 hours × 40% = 44 hours
Cost of risk and uncertainty = 0.3
Initial costs × r = 2.75 hours
C / r × (1 – (1/(1+ r))^T) × (1 – cost of risk and uncertainty) = 319.694 hours > 55 hours

Therefore, for a typist who types 400 hours a year for 15 years with 15% marginal benefit than QWERTY gains a benefit more than five times greater than the cost by switching to ThinQu. It would be tough to create a situation where it’s not worth it to learn the ThinQu layout (or even other ergonomic layouts).

What tips do you have for typing with ThinQu?
If you are using the standard or programming ThinQu layout, it may be more convenient to press Alt Gr with your right thumb for some keyboards.

F + in or in + F is the most common sequence that requires a finger to move two rows (accounts for 0.08% of all bigrams). You may split the in and type I + N to eliminate this movement.

If you usually type thoughtful texts, when you start learning ThinQu you can set aside one hour each day just to practice typing. This way when you type at work you are not terribly slow that it interferes your thoughts.

Why is the work relatively balanced between the two hands when most people are right-handed?
The factors that further increase the usage of the right hand include: (1) the usage of Enter and Backspace, which are sometimes used more often than a third of the letters, (2) the usage of navigation keys and the numeric keypad, (3) the usage of mouse and the hand movement between the main keys and the mouse and other keys. One opposing factor that decreases the burden of the right hand is that it involves less hand movement than the left hand: 66.1% of the right hand usage is in the four base keys compared to 50.2% for the left hand. You can assign the thumb of your less loaded hand to the Space key (and leave the other thumb idle) to further balance the two hands. Some right-handed people also report that they prefer to use both hands equally. In conclusion, the effort may be slighted biased towards the right hand but varies a lot depending on the situation; this can be personalized by assigning Space to the stronger hand’s thumb.


5 thoughts on “Introducing ThinQu, the Fully Optimized Keyboard Layout”

  1. Hey chywang,

    Really excellent and innovative work on this! Thanks for sharing. Let me raise two points:

    I couldn’t see at a glance where you moved regular ‘q’ in the layout, it’s probably in one of the images showing the symbol layers. I feel that ‘qu’ is still so rare overall that incurring the confusion / cognitive load of the separate locations for ‘q’ and ‘qu’ just to occasionally save the one keystroke with ‘qu’ does not seem worth it.

    Also, wouldn’t it make sense to weigh the table showing the frequency of a letter preceding or following a vowel by the frequency of that letter? A more frequent letter might appear next to a vowel more often even though it is less likely to do so than a rarer letter. For example, putting J with the vowels should be less detrimental to alternation than placing M or L on the vowel hand.




      1. Even when ‘t’ and ‘h’ are on different hands, the benefit of ‘th’ is not diminished. More than half of the usage of ‘th’ is for the word ‘the’. On any great layout, ‘t’ (common consonant) and ‘e’ (common vowel) are definitely on different hands. Thus, typing ‘the’ on a normal keyboard layout follows left-right-right (or right-left-left) which is not ideal. For other common usages such as ‘this’, ‘that’, and ‘with’, the ‘th’ key minimizes same-hand consecutive strokes compared to any other possible layout that puts ‘t’ on one hand and ‘a,e,i,o,u’ on the other hand.


    1. Hi Philipp, there is no ‘q’ key. To type ‘q’, you have to type ‘qu’ and delete the ‘u’. If your password or account name includes a singular ‘q’, you will probably hate using this layout (but it’s part of the switching cost which I don’t consider in my development). From my 4 years of experience, the cognitive load of thinking of ‘qu’ as one letter is not high at all and so is the cognitive cost for ‘th’. On the other hand, sometimes dissecting ‘in’ from words is difficult, making the ‘in’ key underutilized. For example, the ‘in’ in ‘instead’ is very easy to separate and type because ‘in’ forms the first syllable whereas the ‘in’ in ‘minimal’ is much harder because the it crosses syllable boundaries (mi-ni-mal).

      To your second point, yes, it’s correct and it’s already implemented. If I put ‘j’ on the right side, I have to move another letter to the left side. The backslash, equal sign, and colon already have even lower frequency than ‘j’ and hyphen and quotation mark have similar frequency than j and they don’t clash with vowels as much as ‘j’ does so it’s not sensible to swap those to the left side. If I remember correctly, comma and period have higher frequency than ‘j’ but there are two reasons not to move them to the left side: 1. they most often follow left-side keys rather than right-side keys and 2. they are on the right side on QWERTY (even at the exact location). There is another counterargument: spaces always follow commas and periods and they are most often typed with the right thumb, although the thumb works more independently than other fingers.

      After 4 years of usage, the major weakness of the layout is that even though the left hand is responsible for about 50% of the strokes, it has much more movement than the right hand due to a more even frequency distribution of the keys. To counterbalance this effect, I should have lowered the load of the left hand (or swapped the two sides entirely). However, I’m personally still pretty satisfied with the layout as I’m slightly left-handed.


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