Ergonomics: What makes a good gaming keyboard

There’s a world of good, bad and ugly gaming keyboards out there. But what makes the good ones good, and the bad ones bad? We’ll use basic human design principles (ergonomics) to answer that question.

First up, gaming keyboards should reflect functionality to the user. This is a very simple concept that some manufacturers get very wrong. Your logo is fine; ten iterations of your logo are not. Extraneous information distracts from the useful aspects of the keyboard. A keyboard is an easily-assimilated series of regular visual patterns (keys the same size, QWERTY layouts, etc.). On the rare occasion that muscle memory fails to serve this regular layout, there is no need to introduce irregularity in the visual information presented, thereby prohibiting gamers from rapidly adopting practiced visual pattern recognition tactics. In other words: make sure your keyboard looks like and does only what it needs to look like and do.

The second aspect is sensory confirmation. A key press is a binary event: it is either down or up (in all games that I can think of). This means that, in order to retain user visual focus on the screen, other senses must be employed in confirming the key press. Traditionally, this is a ‘click’ sound. The sound must be sufficiently loud to confirm unequivocally the occurrence of the binary event. It should also indicate the end state of the affected system; one particular click should indicate ‘on’ (or ‘pressed’) and a different one should represent ‘off’ (or ‘un-pressed’).

Alternatively, or in addition, manufacturers may opt to use tactile, or haptic, stimuli to represent both the occurrence of the binary event and the state of the system itself. For example, ‘mechanical’ keyboards often use an additional ‘click’ haptic event to confirm binary press. This is similar in action to a piano key’s final ‘travel’ once the hammers have struck the strings. This effect can be seen by very gently pressing a key until resistance is met, and then pressing harder to overcome the resistance. Such a haptic event is very important for pianists’ realisation of subtle or touch-critical passages of music, and no less diligence is due at the computer keyboard.

Finally, gaming keyboards should accommodate a feature set so as to provide functionality of any type required by the user. This is a tertiary consideration – that is, the other two principles take priority. Over-inundating users with features without adequate visual layout strategies or binary event confirmations will likely lead to frustration on their part, and a decline in performance.

Nonetheless, such functionality may include ‘macro’ keys, to automate certain programmable tasks, a ‘disabling’ key to disable keys that may result in quitting the application to revert to the OS default, or additional lighting features that may aid in visual discrimination of patterns at certain times of day or night, and perhaps improve the aesthetic appeal of the product itself.

More significant is the old problem of ‘rollover’ – the issue that keyboard designs can only interpret a certain number of simultaneous keypresses. Generic keyboards can rarely handle more than a small few, which reduces gaming performance in many situations. Gaming keyboards offer as standard a high rollover figure – the Corsair Vengeance K90 supports 20 simultaneous keypresses, for instance, and Microsoft’s Sidewinder X4 allows 26.

It is one of those technical specs that is given to pointless one-upmanship, though – you do not have to be an ergonomics expert to know that more than ten keys are unlikely to be pressed simultaneously in any given gaming situation! A more interesting approach is taken by Alienware’s TactX keyboards, which concentrate anti-ghosting measures around the WASD key cluster on the left-hand side, most commonly used in keyboard-mouse gaming control setups.

Learn more the author of this post:

Daniel Moeller
I was born in Berlin, Germany, studied Engineering in London and wrote my thesis on emergent computer technology. I now work as an engineer and freelance writer for London-based firms. My interests include blogging about technology, computer science, social media and design in my spare time.