QWERTY vs. Dvorak

Readers of this blog fiercely debated the validity of the QWERTY keyboard story a few months back. As the legend goes, Christopher Sholes engineered the QWERTY layout that is still in use today in order to slow typists down and prevent key jams. One commenter (ludvig) pointed to this 1996 article from Reason magazine by Stan Liebowitz and Stephen E. Margolis that “put the torch to the QWERTY myth.” In the article, Liebowitz and Margolis argue that the persistence of the QWERTY myth undermines the theory of efficient markets, since it is usually used as an example of luck winning out over innovation:

The typewriter keyboard is central to this literature [against market efficiency] because it appears to be the single best example where luck caused an inferior product to defeat a demonstrably superior product. It is an often repeated story that is generally believed to be true. Interestingly, the typewriter story, though charming, is also false.

But then another commenter (saharvetes) linked to this furious letter to the editor that appeared in the next issue of Reason. Randy Cassingham, who wrote the letter, also wrote a book called The Dvorak Keyboard in 1986. Dvorak is a layout invented after QWERTY by Dr. August Dvorak that minimizes finger movement by prioritizing letters that are used more often (like vowels), allowing for greater speed and less chance of carpal tunnel. Cassingham claims that Liebowitz and Margolis reported biased research that “proved” QWERTY’s superior efficiency in order to disprove the myth, mainly relying on the research of a man who hated Dr. Dvorak and destroyed his own data so that his findings couldn’t be verified.

If you feel like going down the rabbit hole of this old feud, check it out. And if you decide that Dvorak *is* the board to beat, here’s a wikiHow that will show you how to switch your keyboard and operating system. According to the Wiki entry, you’ll need a month of training with the new Dvorak layout to get up to your old typing speed and the transition period may be initially painful, because you’ll be using new muscles. And don’t even think about using a QWERTY keyboard during your Dvorak training. You’ll only undo all the progress you’ve made.

My question: Is there anyone who cares enough about a few extra words-per-minute who would be willing to give up the ability to type for a whole month? Learning the Rubik’s cube or baking a kitty litter cake might be time better spent.


Eric J

procombodia - The reason that more people don't use the machines Court Reporters use is because they're designed to take down shorthand transcription phonetically, to be cleaned up later. The reporter is pressing multiple keys at once, and various "chords" map to different phonemes. These days a computer translates the notes into English and automatically formats the transcript. But someone still has to go through and clear up homophones, proper names, etc. Before computers, the reporter or a secretary familiar with the reporter's notation would read the notes into a tape recorder, and a typist would type the transcript from the audio recording.

Basically it's a different skill set and use from typewriting/keyboarding that I don't think would transfer well to computer input. (Although I do remember a vogue among the geeks for chording input devices in the early Wired/proto-Internet timeframe.)

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Haacked

I type using Dvorak. One unintended consequence of the increased speed is that you can type more characters per hour.

Thus by taking advantage of that speed increase, some of the RSI benefits can be negated, especially with a bad keyboard where the keys require a lot of pressure (relatively speaking).

For me, I just type more slowly at my old Qwerty speeds. Considering that your fingers can travel 16 miles in a typical day of typing (http://haacked.com/archive/2007/05/15/sabatoge-due-to-pain.-developers-take-ergonomics-seriously.aspx), it's a good idea to just type less in dealing with pain, if you can.

Haacked

That last URL got cut off. I should've used tiny URL. Sorry. Here it is: http://tinyurl.com/2jxxpk

Richard

In college, after I began having RSI problems, I switched to Dvorak during a summer break, with the help of a trainer program. It took about two months for me to get up to speed, but it has been worth it - in the 7 years since then, I haven't had any pain from typing. I can switch between the two fairly fluently and without looking at the keys, but Dvorak is just more comfortable for me - typing in qwerty for only a day will get my hands hurting again. Fast typing in Dvorak is like calmly twiddling your fingers, whereas I find qwerty, at any speed, to be like scrambling your hands furiously over the keys. No sense in running when you can walk and still win the race.

All modern Windows PCs, Macs, and most Linux boxes can be set up to use Dvorak just by clicking an option in the control panel. You can even set a key combination to switch between the two on the fly (though on Windows, the only options are Ctrl+Shift and Alt+Shift, which are too easy to press accidentally). So when I need to work on a strange computer for a long time, I can almost always just switch it to Dvorak and switch it back when I'm done (remembering to disable it completely, otherwise the computer owner will get quite a shock!). I've even gotten used to the command keys (Cut, Copy, Paste) in their new positions - the only hard part is remembering which mode I'm in when I use them.

Oh, and I've never changed the actual key caps on my keyboard - when I was learning I just stuck a picture of the key layout next to my monitor, and learned never to look down.

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JanneM

@goinglikesixty: I'm a researcher, and have worked among other researchers spending most of their days on a keyboard, either writing text or programming, for a number of years. This same subject came up in conversation just a couple of weeks ago.

Overall, I'd say perhaps 5-10% are touch typing "for real", as in actually having trained to do it and following a real methodology. Most of the rest (inlcuding myself) do some kind of self-evolved semi-touch typing, with no real consistency as to which finger presses what key, and often forgoing the use of the little fingers (and to a large degree the ring fingers as well).

Callum

For anyone who wants to use both layouts, check out Das Keyboard which has no key markings at all. It's completely blank. They claim you gain a significant speed increase because you stop looking at the keyboard pretty quickly!

If I ever get round to blanking the keys on my laptop, I plan to experiment with Dvorak.

stankwell

Anyone know where I can get a Dvorak mouse?

krevbot

I don't know how anyone can justify using QWERTY when they know that Dvorak is faster. It's like continuing to burn books because that's what everyone has done before you, and then you keep doing it even after you learn that burning books is limiting knowledge.

I switched during college, and although I'm not much faster, I my typing is more relaxed and comfortable.

clsand99

Hey JCgoodchild, your comparison of the "lucky" QWERTY keyboard to the gasoline powered automobile engine would be a nice argument for alternate fuel sources except for the fact that a steam engine still requires a heat source: coal, wood, gasoline, etc. If steam had been the prevailing technology in the infancy of automobiles, it would not have eliminated the possiblity that gasoline would be eventually be used to fuel that steam engine. And it certainly would not have prevented our current environmental crisis. Consider, if the larger, heavier, steam engine had miraculously prevailed over the relatively small & light-weight internal combustion engine then, in all likelihood, that steam engine would have been fueled by coal - which was the predominant fuel during the time that the auto was invented (late 19th century). As a fuel source, coal causes much more pollution than gasoline; and collecting coal from the earth causes much more environmental destruction than collecting oil; & coal, of course, is also of limited supply so instead of complaining about gasoline prices this summer, we'd be complaining about coal prices. So any chance that "luck" lead to our "poor environmentalism" is not a valid argument. Actually, the reverse may be true. Our environment is in trouble, but based on the technology available for MOST of the last 120 years, the gasoline engine most likely did the least damage. But this does not diminish our argument that, for environmental purposes, it's time to replace that engine with more modern options. Conversely, I believe that if we avoid making silly claims like the gasoline engine was never a good engine to begin with, then we have more credibility to make the logical argument that the gasoline engine has outlived it's purpose & it's harm to society is beginning to outgrow it's benefit to society.

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Jeff

I'm coming in a bit late, but this is how I see it.

I've just started on using Dvorak but it has done wonders on my typing, I am a true 'touch-typer' and found it easy to switch over, I blanked my keys and just went with it. If you are a hunt and peck person to begin with switching keyboard styles will be the worlds most frustrating thing, and there really would be no need for it, but if you are a touch typer or pseudo touch typer then switching over is fairly streamlined and extremely easy, especially if you are one the keyboard for long periods of time. I know it made my life easier, I type at about the same speed in just about two weeks of typing and it is much easier on my wrists and such, so I think it's a great system.

Craig

just came across this a little late,

mostly those that switch seem to do so for comfort more than speed.

I don't use either layout. I unenthusiastically used Qwerty for forty years, now I happily use Colemak instead. I tried Dvorak a couple of times but did nod care much for it. Glad I found Colemak which by the way works pretty well in other languages because the layout is based on more than letter frequency in English.

James McKay

I'd just like to add something to what Craig said. The BIG disadvantage of Dvorak is that it takes forever to learn it, and you have to go completely cold turkey if you want to stand any chance of learing it at all.

He mentions the Colemak layout and I thought I'd expand on that a bit, as I am also a (very satisfied) Colemak user. It is a new, public domain, keyboard layout (first released two years ago) that moves only seventeen keys from their original qwerty positions to make a layout that is very tightly optimised for touch typing as well as being much easier for an existing qwerty typist to learn.

Basically, it makes Dvorak obsolete.

Personally, I managed to switch in only three weeks using a "qwerty by day, Colemak by night" approach, which avoids the loss of productivity in the early stages. I only abandoned qwerty (as far as it is possible to do so) once I was up to about 50 wpm on Colemak. There's no way you could possibly do that with Dvorak.

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Scott

As a systems engineer, I am very interested in all of the talk about increases in productivity. However, it is my experience that many people who find themselves typing frequently at work tend to be limited more by the speed of their thoughts than the speed of their typing. Even as I compose this comment, I'm pausing to compose my thoughts and translating them into sentences. I typically can type 60 to 80 words per minute, but my "composition" speed is closer to half that and my programming speed maybe an eighth on a good day. A Dvorak layout would not change this, even if my typing speed did increase.

On the topic of comfort, I think many people will find the pains of typing on a QWERTY board goes away if a proper (but slightly less "comfortable") posture is used. This isn't so different from sitting in a chair: if you are "comfortable" and slouch, you strain the muscles in your back. Most people allow the hands to slouch or rest the wrists, causing the fairly small muscles in the wrist and hand to do most of the work. QWERTY typing is "bad" for you, in the same way that sitting in a chair is "bad" for you. In fact, many keyboards labeled as ergonomic are just as bad or worse for your wrist and hand; look at the warnings found in most of the keyboards' included literature.

To alleviate the pain of typing on a standard-shaped QWERTY keyboard, I recommend allowing the larger muscles in your arms to do more of the work. In essence, I'm suggesting typing the way a pianist plays the piano: float over the keys. This allows the hand to retain a much more natural and powerful position and removes the need to stretch or clench to reach a key. As a side effect, you may find (as I did) that your accuracy and speed increase along with your comfort, especially for the numeric/symbol row.

Incidentally, I often blame poor typing posture on the height of most office chairs compared to the height of the keyboard on the desk, which places the keyboard too high and forces the user to immediately assume an unnatural, claw-like hand position.

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Jim Randall

I don't believe the posts that I am reading in this blog. For starters Stan Liebowitz and Stephen Margolis did not do there homework and what is driving them to be followers of Dr. Earl Strong on there Anti-Dvorak Crusade?! Are they threatened by change? What do they have to gain by bashing Dr. August Dvorak's gift to humanity?

Their tireless effort to discredit this humanitarian, even after his death, is relentless, ruthless, and unjustified. Don't they have anything better to do with their time? What do they have to gain?

I have already beat my Qwerty speed by over 20wpm and am still climbing. I had typed Qwerty over 20 years and Dvorak now for under a year. My hand pains are also gone! I have no desire to go back to the Qwerty Torture Board of finger-tangling and knuckle busting. Did you know that the inventor of the typewriter, Chistopher Sholes, recognized that Qwerty was inefficient and tried to change it? Also did you know you can spell the word "typewriter" on the top row?... How's that for a marketing stunt.

There is no special hardware needed to convert. It can be changed in most operating systems in less than 60 seconds.

European contries are now starting to introduce their own Dvorak layout versions.

Are these two individuals threatened by change? I do not think the Qwerty keyboard is going anywhere soon...look at the metric system. In fact, I am typing Dvorak on a Qwerty keyboard right now.

You have the freedom to type on whatever layout your heart desires.

All I ask is for Stan Liebowitz and Stephen Margolis to give up their silly and unjustified crusade as there is many that have benefitted to include myself. Can they focus their time and effort on something more worthwhile and positive?

If you want true documented, unbiased proof on this subject, contact Keytime in Seattle, WA. They have been teaching thousands to type each year in Qwerty and Dvorak.

other useful references:

http://www.keytime.com
http://www.dvzine.org
http://www.gigliwood.com/abcd/
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YPfevKbJRmQ
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FkMB5Q27nQI

There are several other references out there on this topic, but thought I'd highlight the more important ones.

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Randy Cassingham

Randy's Response to the Anti-Dvorak Crusaders
One poorly written anti-Dvorak article has had more press in the last several years than the Dvorak keyboard itself. Written by Stan Liebowitz and Stephen Margolis, it has been published in journals, magazines, and web sites again and again and again -- even though The Dvorak Keyboard author Randy Cassingham debunked it years ago. Yet the authors still repeat the same tired old stuff again and again, as if they've never heard that many of the things they keep saying are plain wrong!
Here, for instance, is a letter from 1996. The authors did read it at that time and was published in Reason. Yet their meritless anti-Dvorak campaign continues.

Letters to the Editor
REASON Magazine
3415 S Sepulveda Blvd., Suite 400
Los Angeles CA 90034-6064

30 May 1996

Dear Editor:

The eight rambling pages by Stan Liebowitz and Stephen Margolis ("L&M") in your June issue devoted to slamming the Dvorak keyboard was not up to the standard I expect from REASON. While I agree that Dvorak's slow acceptance may not be a good example of why markets can't be "trusted," L&M first slander "Typewriting Behavior", the 1936 book by Dvorak, et al., presenting the keyboard's design as "a late-night television infomercial rather than scientific work". Rather, the 500+ page book stuffed with charts and design details is, in the preface, clearly noted as part of "a series of commercial education [books] to result from" their studies, which they gratefully acknowledge were funded by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching (not the "Carnegie Commission"). L&M claim that they "discovered" this support, as if it were somehow hidden from public view. Hidden in the preface of the book?

They claim the 1944 Navy study was difficult to find, and the author's names were hidden from public view. My publishing company has had copies of the report available for 15 years (and copies of "Typewriting Behavior", for that matter). It clearly shows it was "Prepared by Training Section, Departmental Services Division of Shore Establishments and Civilian Personnel, Washington D.C." -- not an atypical attribution for a government study.

Their coup de grâce, though, is the GSA's 1956 study by Earl Strong. L&M conclude that because there has been "no attempt to ...discredit the GSA study", academics and journalists are not living up to their high standards when writing about the Dvorak. L&M didn't do their homework: Dvorak supporters would simply say "been there, done that." Example: my 1986 book, which L&M could probably have found in their university libraries, spent several pages pointing out gross bias behind the GSA study. Harvard's Richard Land was quoted as saying the GSA test was "poorly designed," that "the conclusions are overstated," and that the data actually showed "great promise" for further improvement by the Dvorak typists which Strong ignored. When other researchers wanted to see the raw data so they could draw their own conclusions, they found that Dr. Strong had destroyed it all! This is an example of the high standards L&M aspire to? Further, Strong was clearly biased: in 1949, he wrote "I am out to exploit [the 'present keyboard'] to its very utmost in opposition to the change to new keyboards," and there is evidence of a personal animosity between Drs. Strong and Dvorak.

I agree with L&M on another thing: there is a need for good-quality, unbiased studies on Dvorak. The best raw data I have access to at present is from KEYTIME, a Seattle-based company which uses keyboard instructional technologies they developed in house. In the past nine years, they have trained several hundred typists on Dvorak, and several thousand on Qwerty, using the exact same equipment and teaching methodologies. They have "repeatedly found" that after 15 hours of training and practice time, existing Qwerty hunt-and-peck typists can touch type at an average 20 WPM. After 15 hours of training and practice on Dvorak, similarly able (Qwerty) typists consistently average 25-30 WPM touch-typing on Dvorak. Further, KEYTIME reports that the Dvorak typists continue to improve at a higher rate. They have noticed a recent "a change in tide" of students wanting to learn Dvorak over Qwerty.

L&M say that "the advent of computer keyboards, which can easily be reprogrammed, ...lowers the cost of converting to Dvorak to essentially zero" (true, yes), but "few computer users have adopted the Dvorak keyboard." May I inquire as to the whereabouts of their "high standard", statistically valid study to support this statement?

Your authors note that "there is further evidence of Qwerty's viability in its survival throughout the world." Indeed: since 1936, this has also been good proof of Dvorak's viability.

L&M close with "the story of Dvorak's superiority is a myth or, perhaps more properly, a hoax." Concluding that there is some sort of conspiracy afoot among the obviously grass-roots 60-year support for the Dvorak is paranoia, not academic theory.

Sincerely,

[copy]

Randy Cassingham
Author, "The Dvorak Keyboard" (1986, Freelance Communications)

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Anony-mouse

As one who has transitioned from QWERTY to Dvorak, I wish to place my (perhaps worthless) opinion and experience against taking over a month, and also that using a QWERTY keyboard destroys all progress made thus far.

Although I admittedly am an avid "gamer chick" who spends far too much time playing and even making her own video games, and is rumored to have a USB port for a bellybutton, it took me less than fourteen hours to make the transition: seven hours in a busy chat room among friends who knew I was making the switch, and another seven in the game StarCraft, where fast typing is key to victory. Breaking up the uniformity of this "training," however, I would be forced to use QWERTY on the school computers. Perhaps it was the duality of my "growing up" on Dvorak that lets me easily switch between the two keyboards without a second thought, but in the end, I felt that the switch was not at all a painful one-- though the fate that I avoid, CTS, is much moreso.

Sincerely,
An Anony-mouse

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just me

I was equally proficient on QWERTY as I now am on DVORAK. I really noticed no speed increase, and actually I may have been slightly faster on the QWERTY. However, I had a serious wrist injury two years ago and have been unable to go back to QWERTY because of that. When I type with QWERTY, it aggravates the old injury so badly that I can get maybe one paragraph of type before I have to rest. The same does not happen at all when I'm using DVORAK. I would like to see this layout used more widely in the USA. It's just more comfortable and I'd bet it'd help a lot of people with wrist problems such as RSI. Most of us are not concerned about foreign travel where we might encounter another type of keyboard layout. Besides which, Windows seems to be pretty much everywhere and standard installations allow switching layouts.

Kenneth Burchfiel

The DVORAK keyboard was instrumental in my writing education. Before adopting it, I couldn't touch type using ANY format; then, once I got the basics down, I was able to go beyond 100 WPM rather frequently.

A few notes. First, you don't need a DVORAK keyboard. I simply pried out my keys and switched them around (you'll find layout guides online). Second, if you're able to touch type rather well, there won't even be a need to switch the keys; just change your keyboard format in your operating system and keep on typing with QWERTY.

You don't need to become a freak to adopt the DVORAK system. Just learn to touch type with it on your home keyboard, and I think you'll be glad you did.

Nikki

I really wish that I was able to say mare about the results of a switch, but I a week into converting to Dvorak (and yes, it IS painful. I felt dizzy the first few days.)

I was a very proficient 90 WPM typist on qwerty, and I had touch typing down to a tee (I could easily type with my eyes closed, and I could even detect my own typos this way.) Now, after just about 7 days of Dvorak, I'm at around 30-35wpm, but of course I haven't learned touch typing many of the keys yet.

I'm hoping that this transition will be worthwhile - and perhaps after I've mastered the keyboard, I'll come by and leave an update saying how awesome it is to be able to properly type again.

Matthew

The free market idealists can relax on this one because in a way both sides are correct. The Dvorak keyboard is superior to the Qwerty keyboard. Then why did the Qwerty keyboard win out? Because it was superior --at the time. When the Qwerty keyboard was invented there was no Dvorak keyboard to compete with, and because of the mechanics of typewriters at the time it met a need. However, needs have changed and as computers become more and more an every day item (remember, only ten years ago Bill Gates' lofty goal was to put a desktop PC in every household in America) and people have to deal with the chronic stress syndromes brought about by the primitive torture board known an Qwerty the shift will become inevitable.