New research suggests that you don't need to learn to touch type to become a faster typist. Some of the benefits of touch typing date from the era of mechanical typewriters. But with modern keyboards, which require less force to press keys, typists who use fewer than 10 fingers can be as fast as touch typists. They do this with a number of techniques, one of which is commonly seen among PC gamers, but which has never before been recorded in a typing study, the researchers say.

Tips for faster typing

According to the researchers, if you want to increase your typing speed you should:

  • look at the screen and not your fingers. This will help you see mistakes more quickly, while letting your muscle memory pick up frequently-used key combinations.
  • use different keys for successive letters and practice pressing the next key before releasing the last.
  • practice using a typing test, but one which doesn't let you use the same source text again and again.
  • keep practicing so you don't relapse into old ways.

Infinite monkeys…

Researchers analysed 136 million keystrokes by 168,000 volunteers. They were asked to transcribe randomized sentences so that memory was not a factor in typing speed and accuracy. The team found that the fastest typists used roll-over typing. This involves pressing the next key before the previous key has been released, much like using the Shift key.

It's a technique often used in PC gaming, for example when pressing more than one of the W, A, S or D keys, commonly used to navigate the player in 3D games. Researchers claim that this is the first time the technique has been observed in a typing study. They also found that the fastest typists tend to make the fewest mistakes.

A more civilized age…

"Modern keyboards allow us to type keys with different fingers of the same hand with much less force than what was possible with typewriters," says Anna Feit, an author of the research. "This partially explains why self-taught typists using fewer than 10 fingers can be as fast as touch typists, which was probably not the case in the typewriter era."

Researchers also found that volunteers who had previously taken a typing course exhibited similar typing behaviors to those who hadn't, both in respect to speed and errors made. However they saw that different typists use different styles, including how they use their hands and fingers and whether they they use rollover typing. The fastest volunteers typed at 120 words per minute, whereas the average speed in the study was 52. According to the researchers, professional typewriter typists would have been expected to reach 60 to 90.

Differant mistooks…

Much of our understanding of typing is based on studies that date from the use of typewriters. However typists these days are prone to different kinds of mistakes. For example, whereas typewriter users were more likely to add or leave out letters, typists today are more likely to replace one letter with another.

"You do not need to change to the touch typing system if you want to type faster," says Feit. "A few simple exercises can help you to improve your own typing technique."

The team hopes that its research can inform the design of the next generation of user interfaces, as well as spell checkers and coaching software for typists. The research was carried out by teams from Aalto University, Finland and the University of Cambridge, UK. The research will be presented at the ACM CHO Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems later this month. The typing test is available online.