Most of us spend hours every day tapping away at keyboards that aren’t very good. Although a keyboard is still the best way to get text into a computer, we’re stuck with a layout designed around the mechanical constraints of 19th-century typewriters. Worse, keyboards keep getting cheaper and flatter. The husband-and-wife team of Jesse Vincent and Kaia Dekker are doing something to fix that with their hardware startup Keyboardio.
Building the Product You Want to Buy
In his career writing open-source software, Vincent tried just about every keyboard available to help his aching wrists. He wanted something comfortable to type on that would stand up to punishment and “that would be pretty.” What he found instead: a lot of products that were uncomfortable, unattractive, and poorly made. So, in the spirit of hackers and entrepreneurs everywhere, he built his own.
Vincent started making prototypes by hand, using YouTube videos to teach himself to solder. People in cafés began asking him about the unusual hardware, and then he wrote a blog post about building your own keyboard that attracted a lot of readers. From that post, a mailing list was born, which he and his wife have put to good use as Keyboardio has progressed.
It took Vincent dozens of prototypes, “but finally I built the thing that I was desperate for someone to sell me.” During this process, Vincent and Dekker read deeply into ergonomics research. They discovered that there are a lot of things people have forgotten about the design of keycaps, which is why keyboards from the 70s and 80s are often more comfortable than new ones.
The entrepreneurs refined their product during a stint at the Highway1 hardware incubator in San Francisco. Along the way, Vincent “inadvertently learned CAD” by using Fusion 360 to design the keycaps. As Dekker points out, Keyboardio’s product is unusual because “each keycap is individually sculpted” for ergonomics, so “no two are alike on the entire keyboard. While honing the Model 01 keyboard, they used Fusion 360 for 3D-printing prototypes, and then to convey their designs to a manufacturing partner in China.
What Keyboardio Does Differently
The keycaps on the Model 01 are crucial. They are made to connect you to the keyboard by guiding your fingers to exactly the right places. Meanwhile, the keys are laid out in columns rather than staggered, which puts your hands in a more neutral, natural position and minimizes stretching and reaching. Shift keys are moved away from your (weak) pinkies and under your (strong) thumbs. All of this means that you can type more comfortably and more accurately for longer periods.
Dekker and Vincent have also given a lot of attention to the look and feel of the overall product. The anodized aluminum enclosure and wooden palm rests are meant to be warm and beautiful.
Mechanical switches under each key improve responsiveness, just as they do on high-end gaming keyboards. The distinctive butterfly shape of the keyboard emerged by accident over time, but now the cofounders have included a butterfly in their company logo as well.
As befits Vincent’s roots in the open source community, the keyboard is designed to be completely hackable. Users can create shortcuts and macros to speed up their work, and the logic board is Arduino-compatible to make customizing the hardware even simpler.
Bringing Something Practical and Beautiful to the Market
Dekker takes inspiration from the great furniture-designing couple Charles and Ray Eames, who designed iconic furniture that is beautiful, comfortable, and just as elegant today as when it was introduced in the mid-20th century.
Some keyboard manufacturers think it’s foolish for Keyboardio to make keyboards with such exhaustive, loving detail, but Vincent and Dekker disagree. “You spend a huge part of your life in front of a keyboard,” Dekker says. “If you’re going to spend all that time using something, why not make it the best tool you possibly can?”
The long roadtrip might be a good metaphor for the journey that has brought them to this point, and that they hope will carry them much further. As Vincent puts it, “I had no idea what I was getting into when I got started. If I did, I probably would have stuck to software.” But then he adds: “I’m really glad I didn’t.”