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. jcgoodchild says:

    A few comments actually –
    First, I’ve heard that the productivity benefits of changing to Dvorak would save companies “millions” although that of course is although theoretical money.

    Another story I’ve heard in regards to luck creating an “inferior product” is with gasoline engines on cars. I don’t claim to be an expert by any stretch, but someone once told me that cars originally ran on steam engines. In a race in Europe, every car in the pack was a steam engine car, except for the race’s winner — a gasoline powered car — which apparently won in a fluke. As a result, every automotive engineer pursued gasoline engines, which has of course led to our oil dependence and poor environmentalism.

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  2. jcgoodchild says:

    A few comments actually —
    First, I’ve heard that the productivity benefits of changing to Dvorak would save companies “millions” although that of course is although theoretical money.

    Another story I’ve heard in regards to luck creating an “inferior product” is with gasoline engines on cars. I don’t claim to be an expert by any stretch, but someone once told me that cars originally ran on steam engines. In a race in Europe, every car in the pack was a steam engine car, except for the race’s winner — a gasoline powered car — which apparently won in a fluke. As a result, every automotive engineer pursued gasoline engines, which has of course led to our oil dependence and poor environmentalism.

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  3. amitlu says:

    @2 – I switched over a couple years back. I typed around 70 words per minute using QWERTY, and I’ve been able to hit around 90 using Dvorak. The majority of the speed increase is in longer words, because having to bounce between hands for vowels and consonants gets more efficient the more you do it, I think.

    It took me about a month to get going, and the first week or so actually WAS painful. You end up using your hands a lot more than your wrists, and you go side to side more than up and down.

    I actually got into it because I was curious how muscle memory was related to language, and whether or not typing was a certain type of language, too. I figured a lot of basic speech is training your mouth to make certain sounds in succession to form words. What I noticed when learning Dvorak was your fingers go through the same type of training. The first day or two, I was hunting around the keyboard for the right letters, but once I started getting routine groups of letters (“ing,” “.com,” “the,” “wh,” etc.), I really sped up. The remaining three weeks or so was just getting the intricacies down.

    I’ve switched back and forth in the past few years. It takes me a couple days to get my “fluency” back; longer with QWERTY than Dvorak, funnily enough.

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  4. amitlu says:

    @2 – I switched over a couple years back. I typed around 70 words per minute using QWERTY, and I’ve been able to hit around 90 using Dvorak. The majority of the speed increase is in longer words, because having to bounce between hands for vowels and consonants gets more efficient the more you do it, I think.

    It took me about a month to get going, and the first week or so actually WAS painful. You end up using your hands a lot more than your wrists, and you go side to side more than up and down.

    I actually got into it because I was curious how muscle memory was related to language, and whether or not typing was a certain type of language, too. I figured a lot of basic speech is training your mouth to make certain sounds in succession to form words. What I noticed when learning Dvorak was your fingers go through the same type of training. The first day or two, I was hunting around the keyboard for the right letters, but once I started getting routine groups of letters (“ing,” “.com,” “the,” “wh,” etc.), I really sped up. The remaining three weeks or so was just getting the intricacies down.

    I’ve switched back and forth in the past few years. It takes me a couple days to get my “fluency” back; longer with QWERTY than Dvorak, funnily enough.

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  5. pvenable says:

    I took the Dvorak plunge about a year ago. As others have said, the first month was painful, but now I never want to go back. My primary motive for switching was not speed (though that is a nice benefit) but reduced risk of repetitive stress injury (i.e. my wrists were bothering me). So I simultaneously switched to a contoured keyboard and the Dvorak layout. (more details on my blog)

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  6. pvenable says:

    I took the Dvorak plunge about a year ago. As others have said, the first month was painful, but now I never want to go back. My primary motive for switching was not speed (though that is a nice benefit) but reduced risk of repetitive stress injury (i.e. my wrists were bothering me). So I simultaneously switched to a contoured keyboard and the Dvorak layout. (more details on my blog)

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  7. jonathank says:

    I switched many years ago because it reduces the amount of finger travel. I can still type in Qwerty. Switching back and forth is not seamless, but if I need to use a Qwerty keyboard I rapidly become proficient. One trick: I use Qwerty shortcuts because that keeps the Qwerty locations fresh in my head.

    Why? As noted above, to reduce pain from too much typing. Also to see how long it would take, what it would feel like to learn a new version of an old skill and how well it would work versus Qwerty. Answers were: took a fairly long time to get very fast, felt very weird like my mind was being bent, and it works very, very well for both speed and reduced strain.

    The mind bending feeling was worth the effort. It’s rare one gets an opportunity to subject one’s self to an experiment like this. Comparables are probably more hard-wired: changing hands for throwing or writing, changing legs for kicking a soccer ball.

    I was probably drawn to trying Dvorak because I was born left-handed and was forced by an accident to switch. I can still write leftie and do many things leftie and I know that my brain and my body respond differently when things are done by one side or the other. Some “things” are physical: for example, my eyes are set up as a left-hander with a dominant right eye, so I was a natural left-handed batter. Some “things” are hard to quantify, as in the way my writing content changes when I use my left hand.

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  8. jonathank says:

    I switched many years ago because it reduces the amount of finger travel. I can still type in Qwerty. Switching back and forth is not seamless, but if I need to use a Qwerty keyboard I rapidly become proficient. One trick: I use Qwerty shortcuts because that keeps the Qwerty locations fresh in my head.

    Why? As noted above, to reduce pain from too much typing. Also to see how long it would take, what it would feel like to learn a new version of an old skill and how well it would work versus Qwerty. Answers were: took a fairly long time to get very fast, felt very weird like my mind was being bent, and it works very, very well for both speed and reduced strain.

    The mind bending feeling was worth the effort. It’s rare one gets an opportunity to subject one’s self to an experiment like this. Comparables are probably more hard-wired: changing hands for throwing or writing, changing legs for kicking a soccer ball.

    I was probably drawn to trying Dvorak because I was born left-handed and was forced by an accident to switch. I can still write leftie and do many things leftie and I know that my brain and my body respond differently when things are done by one side or the other. Some “things” are physical: for example, my eyes are set up as a left-hander with a dominant right eye, so I was a natural left-handed batter. Some “things” are hard to quantify, as in the way my writing content changes when I use my left hand.

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