12 considerations for choosing a one-handed typing method

One-handed typing can be a useful option if you have a disability involving one of your hands, and there are a surprising number of options for typing with one hand. Here are some key issues to consider when choosing a one-handed typing method.

One-handed typing: 12 key considerations. Photo of someone typing with their right hand on a keyboard.

One-handed typing: 12 key considerations. Photo of someone typing with their right hand on a keyboard.

What do we mean by one-handed typing?

At the risk of stating the obvious, we’re talking about typing using the fingers of a single hand, possibly with a bit of help from the other hand but often completely solo. The most basic one-handed typing method is to use a standard physical keyboard with one hand instead of two, requiring more movement of the typing hand and arm, and reducing opportunities to touch-type. Because of these limitations, a number of other options for one-handed typing have emerged over the years.

This post was inspired by a question to the QIAT listserv, asking about typing options for a middle school student born with only one hand. You might benefit from a one-handed typing method if one of your hands functions pretty well but the other has limitations, perhaps due to a stroke. You might also benefit if you need to avoid using one of your hands due to repetitive stress injury or pain, or if you are in a hands-busy environment where one hand just isn’t available for regular touch typing.

By choosing the one-handed typing method that best meets your needs, you can have an efficient and comfortable way to enter text using only one hand. Read on for some key considerations that will help you make a good choice.

12 key considerations

It’s tempting to just jump right into a list of all the available options out there. (And we’ll get to that in a future post.) But it’s worth thinking about the various considerations of what to look for in any one-handed typing method, before getting too much into the details of specific products or trialling any devices. This gives a more principled basis for matching device features to your particular needs.

Here are 12 important considerations that apply to most cases; their relative importance depends on your specific needs. Please note that this is not an exhaustive list, but hopefully it will give you a good starting point. (These are quite similar to the considerations presented in our earlier post about hands-free mice, but it’s worth taking some time here to describe how they apply in the one-handed typing scenario.)

Considerations related to basic features

1. Text entry method

The text entry method defines exactly what you need to do to enter text. There are three main text entry methods used in one-handed typing:

  1. Conventional — press each key with a finger, one keystroke per letter, just as in regular typing.
  2. Chorded — press multiple keys at once, like playing a chord on a piano. A chord may generate one character, or a syllable, or a word, depending on the specific keyboard and its encoding.
  3. Swiping — move a finger across all the letters in a word and have it figure out what word you mean.
The BAT keyboard, with hand resting on top. The thumb presses one of 3 button keys, and each of the other 4 fingers is assigned to a key.
The BAT chorded keyboard
An animated view of swipe-style typing, showing the continuous finger path made for each word in the text 'This takes some getting used to'.
Swipe-style typing using QuickPath in iOS 13

Your goal is to make sure the functioning of your typing hand matches the requirements of the text entry method. For example, if you have any difficulties coordinating all five fingers on your typing hand, the chorded text entry method could be challenging or impossible. Sometimes you can only tell by trying out the device, but you may be able to narrow down the choices a bit first by considering how your physical strengths and limitations match what’s needed by the device. It’s also possible to use speech dictation in conjunction with or instead of these finger-based typing methods.
(Note: Our assumption here is that one hand has fairly good mobility and dexterity in at least one finger. If that’s not the case, there are other alternative methods of text entry that you may want to consider, but those are outside the scope of this post.)

2. Physical form of the keyboard

What is the physical form of the keyboard (or typing device)? The most familiar form may be the typical laptop or desktop computer keyboard, with its physical keys that press down and release up, giving a tactile feel to the typing action.

Typical computer keyboard, black, with 102 keys
A typical physical keyboard

In contrast, the on-screen keyboards found in smartphones and tablets take up space on the display but otherwise have no real physical form. There are visual cues of what virtual key you’ve pressed, but there’s no physical movement when pressing and releasing the keys. The figure above illustrating swipe-typing is an example of an on-screen keyboard.

Still other devices may have a unique physical form, like the Twiddler with its 12 small keys.

Person holding a Twiddler typing device in their left hand.  Device is black and roughly the size of the palm.
Twiddler 3 typing device

3. Required hardware components

Does the one-handed typing method require a hardware device of any kind, such as a physical keyboard, an adapter cable, a wireless receiver, etc.? Any method that uses a physical keyboard will have at least one hardware component (the keyboard itself), while an on-screen keyboard may be 100% software and thus require no hardware components at all.

4. Wired or wireless connections (or none)?

Consider the connections between you and any hardware component, as well as between the hardware components and the host computer. A wired connection means that there is some sort of physical cable between your keyboard and your workstation. A wireless connection might transmit a signal using Bluetooth or radio frequency. (If there is no hardware device, then there is no connection — this would be completely wireless.)

Which is better for you (and whether this consideration matters at all) depends on your situation. If you need to move the keyboard from computer to computer frequently, a wired connection will require a bit more setup before each use, and might mean that you’ll need someone to help you connect the cabling. On the other hand, wireless connections like Bluetooth are sometimes temperamental and less consistent than a wired connection.

5. Requires a “wearable”?

Some newer one-handed typing devices involve wearing or holding the typing device in your hand, like the Tap Strap 2 with its wearable finger ring device that captures individual finger motions. This may not be a big deal, depending on your situation and personal preference, but it is important to know what is required and how it will fit in to your lifestyle. The need for a wearable can affect independent use, portability, and robustness, as described further below, and it may interfere with your ability to use the typing hand for other tasks.

Tap Strap 2 worn on right hand.  Rings on each finger track finger movements and convert them into keystrokes.
Tap Strap 2 typing device

6. Positioning/Mounting

Some options may work best when positioned or mounted in a specific location, which can require some problem solving, occasional adjustments, and may make portability more of a challenge. Keep that in mind when sifting through your options.

7. Compatibility

Will the typing method work on the computer platform(s) you use? Most typing methods can work on any platform, but make sure you know how this will work. For example, there are multiple ways to connect a physical keyboard to an iPad tablet, and some may work better for your needs than others. Swipe-style text entry is probably the most platform-specific method. It has only recently been available for iOS devices with the new iOS 13.

Considerations related to user requirements

So those are some key considerations about the one-handed typing method itself: its basic features and how it works. Now let’s look at considerations that relate to your individual requirements.

8. Tasks and typing performance

What are the main typing tasks that you need to perform? How important is typing performance to you? Do you have specific requirements or expectations for your typing speed and accuracy?

Cartoon of Snoopy using a typewriter to write a letter dictated by Woodstock

In addition to typing letters and words, what related input tasks do you need to perform? Examples include:

  1. Combining keys — just about every typist needs to enter capital letters and shifted punctuation, and you may be a person who uses a lot of key commands (like Command-C) that require 2 or more keys. On a conventional keyboard, you may be able to use your non-typing hand to hold down modifier keys.
  2. Text navigation — to put the cursor in a specific spot for additions or deletions. On a typical physical keyboard, you’ll use the cursor keys, key commands, or the mouse for navigation tasks, while in an on-screen keyboard situation, you may touch the display directly for where you want the cursor to go. More unique methods such as chorded keyboards may have their own method for text navigation.
  3. Pointing tasks — to enter commands, click buttons, etc., as typically performed either with a mouse/pointing device or by direct touch on the screen. (If you think you might benefit from a hands-free mouse, see our considerations and guides for hands-free mice.)

For any one-handed typing method you are considering, pay some attention to how it supports all of your necessary tasks and whether that will fit your needs.

9. Potential for 100% independent use

How important is it to you to show up at your computer workstation and just start using it, with no help from anyone else? If 100% independence is essential or very important, then pay close attention to the requirements for wearables, mounting, and electronic connections. You’d want to be sure that any wearable required is easy for you to don and doff yourself. If any mounting is required, be sure that it is easy for you to get into the correct position relative to the mount, and that the typing device stays in position while you use it.

10. Portability/Transferability

Do you need to use multiple computers? For example, maybe you use one computer at school or work, and another one at home. If so, will you want to use the same one-handed typing method on all of your devices? Usually, the answer to that is Yes, although like all of these considerations, it depends on your specific needs and preferences. Consider whether it’s important that you be able to use any conventional computing device, without special equipment. Or, if you go with a specialized one-handed typing setup, consider whether you’ll want a separate one-handed typing setup for each computer (assuming the computers are known in advance), or whether you can use a single device and move it from computer to computer as needed.

11. Robustness

Robustness includes issues that affect whether the typing method will keep working smoothly over time and in various situations. Some issues that affect robustness include:

Physical demands: Are you able to perform this method easily for as long as you need to, without significant fatigue?

Environment: Will this method work well in all the environments and situations in which you’ll need it? For speech recognition, will you be working in a quiet enough area for it to work well? Will it be appropriate to speak commands out loud over and over in your environment?

Maintenance: Are the components rugged enough? Any batteries required? Are they rechargeable? Does that matter to you? Will it be easy to keep clean? If there are cables, will they be out of harm’s way? If it is wireless, is there a little receiver piece that you might lose track of?

12. Cognitive load

How much learning and thinking is required to use this typing method? Ideally, typing should be completely transparent; you don’t have to think about it, you just do it. It doesn’t get in the way of the task you are actually trying to do on the computer.

Cognitive load is a complex topic, and it’s not always easy to predict how much learning and thinking something involves. But you might expect higher cognitive load with a typing method that requires you to memorize specific gestures or codes, or uses a sequence of steps to type a letter or word. For these types of typing methods, consider whether there is any support for learning required codes or gestures, such as a tutorial or learning game. See if you can find any information regarding the typical learning curve. This cognitive load may shrink or even disappear with practice, but it is something to keep in mind (no pun intended).

Cheatsheet illustrates thumb and finger combinations to generate characters using the BAT chorded keyboard.
Guide to character codes for the BAT chorded keyboard.

To sum up

Writing about this has reminded me that there are many considerations for what seems at first to be a fairly straightforward access need. And again, the importance of these requirements depends on your specific situation. It may not be possible to anticipate all possible issues before purchase, but some time spent thinking things through is likely to be time well-spent, particularly when considering the purchase of a more expensive option.

Stay tuned (or subscribe): Our next post will provide a list of available one-handed typing methods, with notes on how they stack up on these various considerations.

What other considerations are important to you? Let us know!

2 thoughts on “12 considerations for choosing a one-handed typing method”

  1. Great post, as always. An important factor that is not mentioned is form or aesthetics. I call it the “weird” factor. Consumers can already be self-conscious enough about their disability and often do not want to stand out even more with an unusual-looking device. Product A may be 10% faster but looks too “out there”. Product B may be the winner in consumer choice as it doesn’t stand out. I have seen this many times.

    1. Thanks, Paul. I totally agree with your point. I’ll plan to edit the post to include this. Do you find that some things with a non-traditional form can actually seem cool, yet others seem too weird? e.g., It seems like people often think the Tap Strap is cool (even though it’s definitely different). Does it depend on whether the device was developed for a mainstream market?

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