RSI just isn’t cute – the best mouse alternative is a keyboard

Sufferers from repetitive strain injury may already use a trackball rather than a mouse. But have you ever considered using the keyboard (a whole lot) more?
26 May 2020

Mouse-related RSI costs organizations millions annually. Source: Shutterstock

Many IT professionals, in particular, suffer from RSI (repetitive strain injury) or some form of carpal tunnel syndrome caused by poor posture, uncomfortable working environments, and especially the use of computer mice or trackpads all day.

As computers are now an accepted part of just about everyone’s working day, the threat faced by businesses and organizations everywhere now includes many millions of dollars lost annually caused by staff needing to take time off sick or incapacitated.

In a previous article a few years back, we looked at some of the mouse alternatives available on the market that are specifically designed to help obviate the problem.

This article goes one step further to look at a couple of ways that RSI sufferers can vastly reduce their daily mouse or trackpad use, by simple means of using web browser plugins, or better yet, a keyboard-focussed web browser.

Why browser-centric services spell agony for thousands

Unlike twenty or even five years ago, most people don’t use applications that are installed locally on their daily driver computers. Instead, the ubiquity of the cloud and XaaS (anything-you-like as a service) now means that many, if not most business apps and services are addressed in a web browser of some sort.

The desktop operating system’s importance is now massively diminished — a fact that has as its proof the sales of millions of Chromebooks, especially into schools. These lightweight, cheap computing devices offer little more than a wireless internet connection and web browser. Users are expected to work online, store work remotely on cloud-based services like DropBox, and collaborate and communicate with team members or colleagues via platforms like Google Hangouts, Skype, Zoom and Slack.

While there are apps that can be downloaded and installed locally for many web-based services, these are often so-called Electron apps, or runtime applications, that are merely bundled web “wrappers”. To all intents and purposes, a local Slack client is just another view onto the cloud-based Slack hub. In short, most people can use a web browser connected to the internet to achieve a good day’s work.

Plugins on trial

If we accept that as a tool, the web browser is the piece of software that we’ll spend the lion’s share of our day in, it’s a source of wonder that the average way we use the app hasn’t changed much in the last thirty years or more.

Just about every site we visit, every interaction with every online service, starts with a mouse click. The constant clicking of mice is the new background white noise of everyday office life, interspersed with just occasional keyboard noises as data is entered, or a search term typed in.

To the RSI sufferer, however, even a single mouse click can cause shooting pains to leap right down the arm, into the neck and spine, and generally make the working day a physical ordeal. Many users, therefore, deploy web browser plugins to use keyboard shortcuts and commands that can “steer” their browser, not mouse movements.

That has two advantages: firstly, using a keyboard is quicker (once muscle memory is established), but mostly, keyboard use involves many thousands of different moves and gestures. That’s in contrast with the two or three deployed in using a mouse (left-click, right-click, scroll wheel). And reducing repetitive motions is what it’s all about.

For Chrome (and Edge) users, there are a few choices – Shortkeys, Vimium, and cVim, for example. To try these out, (gingerly) click the links, and see if they appeal. Once installed, many of the all-day, everyday activities of web browsing can be accomplished by using keyboard shortcuts. (For Firefox users there are Tridactyl and Vimium-FF plugins – installed in much the same way).

The cute answer to RSI

If you’ve tried some or all of the plugins mentioned above and explored the keyboard shortcuts too that browsers ship with to help navigate your way through their menus, and want to go further, we at TechHQ would recommend qutebrowser (pronounced cute-browser). This piece of software was developed as a way that developers especially could bring to their browsing experience the same keyboard shortcuts and navigation methods from a much-favored text editor used on the command line.

vi, or more commonly these days, vim (vi iMproved) is a pure, text-only editor that forms the basis of most IT development professionals’ toolsets. The advocates of vim argue its merits with a passion seen in few places outside colleges of competing theological theory, railing against its main alternative app, emacs, and using the word “Word” as a term of direst blasphemy.

Be that as it may, if you’re willing to get your head around some (at first) seemingly arcane keyboard shortcuts and some rather odd notions, like “modes” (command mode, insert mode, passthrough mode, for example), you can navigate the ‘web using just the keyboard (with maybe the occasional touch of a mouse now and then — at least, to start with).

Here, then, the developer’s tool becomes a cure for RSI. (As a bonus, should you ever want to start using vim, then the majority of the learning curve you might otherwise have experienced will be well behind you.)

It soon becomes apparent to the qutebrowser user that not only is having to reach for a mouse anachronistic (and painful), but compared with keeping one’s fingers hovering over the keyboard, the mouse is outmoded – slower as well as uncomfortable.

The learning curve to qutebrowser (and vim) is perhaps analogous to learning to use crutches, or driving a manual (stick shift) car when you’re used to an automatic gearbox. To begin with, it seems unnecessarily complicated and strange. But after a few days (or even a few hours), we promise you’ll not look back.

Props to The-Compiler

The qutebrowser was written and is maintained by a single person known as The-Compiler, and like many open-source and free software applications, he (we assume a “he”) relies on user feedback and donations to keep the work up to date.

If you find qutebrowser useful, we’d urge you to at least send a note of thanks, the price of a cup of coffee, or indeed, whatever you can afford to express your gratitude. Well recommended.