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.

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  1. binaryphile says:

    I stopped using the QGMLWB fully-optimized layout from carpal-x after using it for about 8 months so I could regain my lost QWERTY skills. When I decided to go back to QGMLWB so I could become proficient at both at the same time, I found it too difficult to maintain and decided to give Colemak a try because it doesn’t try to remap every key, and because of its popularity.

    Unfortunately, I found that learning a new layout was more painful than reviving my suppressed QGMLWB skills. However, having a basis to compare all three layouts taught me something important.

    I realized that the greatest difficulties I had with learning new keys were those that moved off of the same finger, and those that moved in relation to the other keys around them.

    I figured out that it I could move a much greater number of keys if a) they all moved together and b) they stayed with the same fingers. What I found is that this approach valued the flow of my typing and the finger impulses I had. I only had to modify the aim, not the entire finger or hand, and this resulted in less thinking and greater accuracy.

    The simplest example of this would be to switch the entire home row with the upper row of the keyboard. I’m using this just as an example, although according to the stats, this is actually an improvement for home-row typing percentage.

    If you make that switch, you’ve changed over 2/3 of the keys on the keyboard. However, you’ll quickly find that this layout is *easier* to learn than any other. After an initial period of confusion, your brain snaps into the switch and gets it that it’s just a row transposition, which is a simpler transform than swapping individual keys. It doesn’t have to figure out individual key transpositions after that.

    After making that realization, I decided to use that as the guiding principle for a new layout, one that achieves the best possible home-row frequency while making transpositions in chunks, and one that honors finger impulses where it doesn’t. I wrote up my results as a website: http://minimak.org/. After using it for a couple days, I was able to achieve more progress than I had with either QGMLWB or Colemak in the same amount of time. I’m interested to hear other people’s experiences, if you’re willing to try.

    It shares a tiny bit with Colemak in that it moves substantially fewer keys than most layouts, but it’s more like the Asset layout in its goal. It resembles neither when you look at it though. Take a look and see what you think.

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  2. Andy says:

    I agree. One’s time could be better spent doing something else, like learning how to fly an airplane. Here’s another thing to consider, as well. With technology progressing as rapidly as it is, how long is it before keyboards are passed up for something more efficient? This debate may have had weight years ago, but these day, whatever you’ve learned, stick with it.

    - Andy
    http://skypark.tv/

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