The Stack Overflow Podcast

Flow state at your fingertips - how keyboards impact developer productivity

Episode Summary

On this sponsored episode of the podcast, we chat with two keyboard specialists from Logitech, Giulio Barresi, Lead UX Designer on the MX Series and Olivia Hildebrand, Global Product Manager on the MX Series. We brought along our own mechanical keyboard expert, Cassidy Williams, for a discussion about the impact a keyboard's hardware, software, and design can make on developer productivity.

Episode Notes

For those not familiar with the MX series, you can read more about the different versions, including the mechanical one, here.

If you don't know about Cassidy's passion for keyboards, you can check out her website here or listen to a previous episode diving deep into the details of mechanical keyboards here.

Stayed tuned for episode #2, airing next week, when we'll be digging deeper into the science behind keyboards and coders with Prof. Thomas Fritz and Marcel Twohig Head of Design for the MX series.

Episode Transcription

[intro music plays]

Ben Popper Hello, everybody. Welcome back to the Stack Overflow Podcast, a place to talk all things software and technology. We have a very special sponsored episode today. I am joined as I often am by my wonderful co-hosts and collaborators, Ryan Donovan and Cassidy Williams. Hi, y’all. 

Cassidy Williams Hello! 

Ryan Donovan Hey, Ben. 

CW I'm excited to be here for this one.

BP Yes. Cassidy, we had to invite you on. So we're going to be doing a sponsored podcast series –first time we've tried that out– with Logitech, and a lot of it is about keyboards, which is near and dear to your heart. So today we're going to be chatting a little bit about mechanical keyboards where you're a specialist, and efforts to sort of build them with developers in mind to enhance productivity. So should be good. All right, without further ado I'd like to invite on our two guests, Olivia and Giulio. Hello! 

Olivia Hildebrand Hey, everyone.

Giulio Barresi Hi! Nice to meet you. 

BP Nice to meet you both as well. So let the folks who are listening know a little bit about you. How did you get into this world of keyboards? What brought you here? And what is it you do day to day in your current role at Logitech? 

OH So my name is Olivia Hildebrand. I'm a Global Product Manager at Logitech, focusing on developing keyboards for the past four years and recently the MX Mechanical. 

GB Hi there. So I'm Giulio, Giulio Barresi. I've been working at Logitech now for quite some years. I'm a Lead UX Designer working on the Master Series portfolio for the past three years now with this incredible team, helping Olivia and other product owners bring our best experiences to life, ranging from hardware to software.

BP For both of you, what was it that brought you to a career working on keyboards? Did you fall in love with them the first time you ever touched them? Did you work in other hardware and then transition to this? This is a very specific tool that I think many people use every day without really thinking about, so what brought you to this sort of focus? 

GB I may be less focused on keyboards specifically. I really look at how our users interact with computers in general or technology so I've been working on keyboards with Olivia, she's really a keyboard specialist I’d say. But not only that, I really work on defining and working on the ecosystem of devices that our users use at the desk and beyond.

BP Gotcha. And Olivia, how about you? 

OH For me it started four years ago looking at what it is to be a premium keyboard, and this is why we first launched MX Keys. And I'm actually fascinated by how we use these keyboards every day. What makes it performing? What makes it so that you feel like you're performing and it's all about understanding our users' needs and trying to translate them with useful shortcuts and tools. And also it's all about the technology behind it and I find it fascinating. We've been going from MX Keys to MX Keys Mini and now MX Mechanical. I must say I’ve become a true geek on keyboards over the past years. 

RD I have a confession. I have never used a mechanical keyboard. I'm not sure I've even seen one. 

CW Ryan! We've been on this podcast together for a very long time! 

RD I know, I know. What's the appeal? I know Cassidy is obsessed. What gets people so obsessed about them?

OH When we started to discuss with those users that love mechanical keyboards, I can tell you they had stars in their eyes, they were so emotional about it as you are Cassidy. It's about this tactility, right? It's about feeling performance. It's about feeling what just happened and it's kind of reassuring to them and they just want to keep that going. It's about sharing this moment, this instant, and it's quite personal in a way and they get into that world from very early on as gamers for example, and now they have grown up and they're getting into that professional world and they don't want to compromise on this tactility that they got earlier on and they're coming into this professional world and they want to keep it. And that's why we are coming with MX Mechanical.

GB I think for us, we really asked ourselves, “Hey, how do we bring that sort of next typing experience?” And bringing MX Mechanical was a bit of making a statement of what should be the ultimate typing experience. And so we believe that this proposes, really as Olivia was saying, something that is without compromise the best typing you can get. 

BP I can understand from a gamer's perspective that they need feedback and there's issues of latency and professional gamers do hand exercises to get up their actions per minute as they're moving their way around the keyboard. Did y'all do any sort of research? It sounds like you talked to customers and users to understand what produces productivity or what gives people that, like you said, pleasurable sensation that keeps them in the flow state at work. What kind of research and user feedback led you to design the keyboard the way you did?

GB Oh, thank you for the question, Benjamin. We're a design-centered company and we really want to make sure that we provide the right sort of experience to our users. And everyone was passionate about the topic and everyone had their own opinion of what this keyboard should look like, and we had a lot of debates internally [about] what was the right decision to make, and there were so many options and so many things we could go about. So as you said, we were like, “Okay, we have to take a user first approach,” and we are really talking [about] developers in this case. Our gaming colleagues, they have a lot of knowledge about mechanical keyboards and that was an awesome resource for us to work with them and look into what would be the best ingredients but really applied to a productivity environment. So we did quantitative and qualitative research of course, and really tried to understand what people valued and what were the problems we could identify and tried to solve for them with this proposal. So I'd say we always start by user learnings in different ways. 

BP I guess if I could just dive one layer deeper. What were some things where you had to make a choice between, some users wanted this and some users wanted that? Any specifics you can tell us from the research that was like, “Well, having learned this about gamers and this about coders, we're going to build the keyboard this way.”

GB Yeah. There was probably one big difference and it was really around the format and what size. And you saw we launched two sizes. We made the decision to actually do that, and I don't know if that was taken for granted at the beginning. And we went incognito on forums and into specialized communities and tried to figure out what was going on there. And people were posting a lot of keyboards, and Cassidy, you have a series of keyboards behind you with all different sizes and formats, and we saw that the more extreme you were, the more you would go with a smaller format and basically press a bunch of key combinations to get to an action. I think the most extreme was like a 45% keyboard, meaning you would have like four rows of keys and triple function of some of them. And we were like, “Wow, that's really fun and it looks really good.” They look cool, but then it was like, “Hey, we need to make something that is useful and usable by most.” But I think that's typically one of the things that was surprising to us and seeing how some folks had optimized the travel between the keys basically by making it so small, which informed some of the design decisions we made on the final product. 

BP Cassidy, for folks who don't know, you were pointing to one in the background here. What kind of sizes do you play with? And when you get to that small size where you're lacking keys, what do you enjoy about that? 

CW Well, I think the smallest keyboard I have is a plank which is one of those 40% sized keyboards. And what I like about the smaller form factor is that because it has so many layers it's kind of like on your phone keyboard, where on your phone when you hit the symbols key, suddenly your symbols and numbers are on a different layer. It's the same thing, only your keycap legends don't change so you do have to kind of remember it. But because it's smaller, you can choose how much you want to move your hands around. And it's nice to kind of have everything right on the home row where your fingers only have to move up and down and that's it. You never have to actually move your wrists because you don't have to move side to side. And I switch between keyboards as small as that or the much larger ones. And I’ve got to say, every time I move to the much larger ones I'm just like, “Yes, it's convenient that I just have to reach over and hit the arrow keys, but ugh, it's so slow because I have to move over there.” And so having the different sizes I think is very important. 

OH That's very interesting because we got exactly the same feedback. So you have the Mini size and then you have the full size, but even for the full size it's smaller than traditional full size mechanical keyboards. We've removed the space between the F-row and the alphabetical keys for that exact same reason. People do not want to travel their hands around. And this is also why we have two tones of keycaps to help you with peripheral view, kind of seeing where you are on your keyboard but without the need to necessarily look at your keys. So that was also an important decision in terms of the design of the keyboard, making sure that you can see where you are and not moving your hands around too much.

BP Sorry, just for folks who don't know, what are the two sort of views you're talking about there?

OH So when we talk about the alphabetical, bringing out the keyboard, it's really about this space between the top row which we call the F-row, and then the E-row which is where you have your number keys. For example, in mechanical keyboards we have a separation between F1 to F4 and F5 to F8, but physical separation. And here we're bringing everything close together and it's just easier for people to access. And then the dual tone helps you to know, “Okay, I'm on F4,” or “I'm on F8.”

BP I gotcha. You have this visual cue with the tones. As things are brought closer together you have that to help them avoid making mistakes. 

GB Exactly. And there are references to some old school designs. We tried to bring some sort of old references like highlighting modifier keys, and as Olivia was saying, these kind of packs of four F-keys, bringing some of those kinds of software geek references into this keyboard.

BP This is ringing a bell. I don't remember when it was, but the separated F-keys now is triggering some ancient childhood memory. 

CW Now because I am one of those software geeks, is this a keyboard that, let's just say I wanted to change things up. Is it programmable where I could move keys around or anything if I wanted to?

OH We have the software, Logi Options+ that allows you to remap everything you have on the F-row so you can decide that it does something else like reload your code. And then we also have all the keys you like the most, like home and page up and page down to go through your code. But then we have added features. To some extent you can add new functionalities, but we also added some new ones like emoji to allow you to use a bit more character to your messages with your colleagues or your friends in messages and it doesn't have to be just text. 

BP That's an interesting point, because often when I think of mechanical keyboards and in the discussions with Cassidy, it's almost like a retro feel. I want something that's reminding me of these older keyboards that were a bit more tactile, a bit more punchy–

RD Almost that typewriter feel.

BP Yeah, exactly. But then it'd be interesting to bring in the modern stuff. I do always want emoji. My least favorite keyboard experience of all time was the Mac with the digital row. I just couldn’t stand it. 

CW The Touch Bar?

BP With the Touch Bar. And I didn’t anticipate that. 

CW They took away my escape key. 

BP Yeah. But now that I don't have to deal with it it is just so much more satisfying. That really rubbed me the wrong way after owning it for a couple of years.

CW Yeah. Well I'm going to pull up another keyboard visual, and for example, this is the keyboard that I'm using right now. And I programmed it so that H, K, J, L, if I'm using anything somewhat VIM style I can use H, K, J, L as my arrow keys and play around with it that way. And so depending on the keyboard size that you use and stuff, I like being able to program everything just in case, and I often make a certain function key plus like the M-key will be mute or different media keys and stuff like that. 

GB That's really cool.

BP And you also have your little visual reminder, you got the green there in case somebody's using it and they don't know what they're getting into.

CW Yeah. There's definitely people who look down on my keyboard and they're like, “What am I doing?” I'm like, “Type normally. Don't worry about it. And then if you want to get deeper, I'll talk to you.” 

BP Yeah. So I guess you've been through a few iterations like you said now, different sizes and then moving to mechanical. From the research and from the user feedback, what's coming next? Are there areas where, for example as Cassidy’s pointing out, in a development environment, certain things are really going to pay dividends? Or now that you've gone mechanical, the next step would be to go– I don't know, what's past that? Ultra mechanical, customizable, hot swappable? But from the learnings you've had over these first three keyboards, the MX and the Mini and the Mechanical, what are you excited for in the future as you continue this research and continue to chat with users?

GB That's a good question. Well first of all, I think you can do quite a lot already with the keyboard. And as Oliva was mentioning, reprogramming some of those keys and doing that also per app if you'd like, that's something that you can do with Logi Options+. But we’re always working on something so you'll probably see something in the future. Now I'd say we've already jumped a step. At the beginning we were thinking about what type of keys we wanted to go with and we went low profile directly, and for us it was like, “That's the future.” That's really how we felt about it. So that was our stand at least for this product. 

RD You all talked about personalization and Cassidy had the green row there. Have you seen other interesting personalizations that you thought were useful or just plain fun? 

OH We see quite a lot of people changing their escape key to something else, for example, as a big standout. And when I built my own mechanical keyboard at the beginning of the project just to understand what is a mechanical keyboard and what is it made of, I had a watermelon escape key which I truly loved. It's all about making it your own and customization and personalization is huge. We see it everywhere. Cassidy, I love your background with all those keyboards. We see quite a lot of people just as passionate as you. 

CW I got a GameBoy as my escape key here.

OH I love it. And so that's why we also have those cross stem switches because it allows our users, even if it's low profile, you can find third party keycaps. We didn't go that route for sustainability reasons. Our keyboard is the most sustainable mechanical keyboard made, and we wanted to be true to what we are looking for in terms of our sustainability goals, but it doesn't mean that it prevents people from customizing. So we're looking forward to seeing what will come up in the next months. We launched maybe six weeks ago, five weeks ago, and looking at what people are doing with it and getting the feel of how it’s going for them.

CW And kind of going back to your older question Ryan, for the, “What is the big deal? Why would people use a mechanical keyboard?” I think that customizability is a huge factor in that. Because for the switches you can choose if you want quiet or linear switches or clicky switches and you can choose which kind of feel you have, and then also just the key caps, the look. There's this moment when you're typing with a mechanical keyboard where it hits you, “I'm enjoying typing right now. This is kind of fun.” It's really exciting when that happens. There have been times where I'll put my keyboard in front of a person and I'll say, “Hey, will you write this email, or will you take me to the website that you were talking about,” or something like that. And they will be typing and then they'll stop for a second and say, “This is a nice keyboard!” And getting that reaction is so satisfying because it's so fun to be able to kind of share that with people and just have an enjoyable typing experience, because we type all the time these days.

BP I may finally have to go this route because I've had this conversation with you a few times and I was just sort of like, “This is not for me.” But it's true, my keyboard is just totally utilitarian, I don't think about it. Except that when I did move from the old Mac with the Touch Bar to this one I realized how much more I enjoyed it and how I'd found the old one frustrating. So maybe I need to go that one step further where it's like every time I sit down to type it motivates me or something. 

CW You're happy. 

GB Hey, Cassidy. When you say that we type a lot these days, think about it as a developer. I guess that's your primary interface with a computer. You probably use it almost more than a mouse as a developer.

CW I do, yeah. It's the tool to use, and you might as well use tools that not only look good and feel good and stuff but also will last, because there's been such a trend of the rubber dome keyboards that will fall apart after like three years just because they aren't designed to last. But with mechanical switches, those things will last a decade. They'll last two decades. They’ll last a really, really long time and I think that's a very powerful thing in this day and age of just planned obsolescence. 

BP Cassidy, do you ever do empirical research on how fast you're typing with a certain keyboard or whether or not it boosts? I remember you telling me once you had a speed record on a certain keyboard, but do you measure your productivity that way? 

CW I've stopped myself because it was distracting, but it's something that I'm very interested in. I recently got a keyboard that I'm going to try to make a stenography keyboard to try to do the chorded typing to see if I could type any faster, but truly from a hobby perspective, and I don't want to optimize it because I will get so deep in trying to fix it. It's very dumb, this is not related to work, but I like to play Tetris a lot still and figuring out your speed while playing Tetris and being able to rotate pieces and move and stuff is very important and I definitely know that I play significantly better on a mechanical keyboard than a laptop one. And so if ever I'm trying to improve my time in a certain way I know which keyboards I'm going to use to practice. 

BP Gotcha, gotcha. You've got your Tetris keyboard set to the side.

CW It's very important. I feel like I could talk to you both for a lot longer so I will cut myself off and just ask, what is your favorite thing about the new keyboard?

GB That's a good question. I've been working on this project for so long, I think I'm really happy about where we got in terms of design and look. I think it's looking really cool. But beyond looking cool, I think it's completing its mission of really sort of serving the audience and doing that well, and we're super excited about getting it into the hands of people and getting their feedback about it. And I'm really in love with our compact format and that's the one I use regularly. I'm still looking for a unicorn keycap, so if anyone knows where I could get a unicorn shaped keycap to replace my escape key just shoot me a message because I'm looking for that one. 

CW I got you.

BP You're on the call with the right person. 

GB So we'll take that offline, but no, I'm really excited about it. In general, I think we've done a good job. Looking forward to feedback from our users out there. 

CW What about you, Olivia? What's your favorite part of the keyboard?

OH I just like how it changes to the light, depending on how you put it on the desk and the different angles you see it. It's not just a dull keyboard on your desk, it's kind of living throughout the day. Depending on the angle, you can see the dual tones well. And personally I'm using emoji quite a lot, and screen capture. I don’t know if you saw, but we have screen capture right at the top of the keyboard and it's allowing me to, instead of having this keyboard shortcut, I just have it instantly and I've been so much faster. That's what I've been liking. What I love most is seeing people loving this keyboard and giving us feedback on things that we spoke about for months and months, so I'm looking forward to more feedback to always make it better.

[music plays]

BP All right, everyone. Thanks for listening. I'm going to take us to the outro. We always like to thank the winner of a lifeboat badge, somebody who came on Stack Overflow and helped to save some knowledge from the dustbin of history and share it with other folks and ensure that they can get their jobs done. All right, awarded 28 minutes ago to Martin Smith. The inquisitive badge: ask a well received question on 30 separate days and maintain a positive question record. Martin, thanks for being so curious. All right, everybody. Thanks for listening. I am Ben Popper, Director of Content here at Stack Overflow. You can always find me on Twitter @BenPopper. Email us with questions or suggestions, And if you like the show, leave us a rating and a review on your podcast platform of choice.

RD I'm Ryan Donovan. I edit the blog here at Stack Overflow. You can find me on Twitter @RThorDonovan. And if you have a great idea for a blog post, please email me at

CW I'm Cassidy Williams. You can find me @Cassidoo on most things. And I do developer experience at Remote and OSS Capital.

OH So my name is Olivia Hildebrand, Global Product Manager at Logitech for MX keyboards. I'm on LinkedIn if you want to chat about keyboards, otherwise I'll be continuing looking at posts online.

GB I'm Giulio Barresi. I'm a Lead UX Designer overseeing UX for the Master Series at Logitech. And if you have some feedback you can always slide it into my DMs on LinkedIn or on social media.

BP All right, everybody. Well thanks so much for coming on. This is a very exciting topic for us and we have a bunch more episodes so we're excited to continue chatting. Everybody else, thanks for listening, and we'll talk to you soon.

All Bye!

[outro music plays]