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. JanneM says:

    One thing – the benefit of Dvorak over Qwerty is when _touch_typing_. Something most people never learn. And if you hunt-and-peck, or type at a decent speed with your own, non-standard non-formal finger stance you just won’t see much of an improvement in either speed or comfort, and you’ll still have all the drawbacks of a nonstandard keyboard.

    If you want to increase productivity, don’t change to Dvorak. Just learn to touch type at all; that’s where the big savings could come from.

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  2. JanneM says:

    One thing – the benefit of Dvorak over Qwerty is when _touch_typing_. Something most people never learn. And if you hunt-and-peck, or type at a decent speed with your own, non-standard non-formal finger stance you just won’t see much of an improvement in either speed or comfort, and you’ll still have all the drawbacks of a nonstandard keyboard.

    If you want to increase productivity, don’t change to Dvorak. Just learn to touch type at all; that’s where the big savings could come from.

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  3. goinglikesixty says:

    Very interesting discussion.
    JanneM: I think most people who spend a lot of time on keyboards are touch typists.

    As a country we never did fully adopt the metric system.
    The educational system would fully adopt the Dvorak keyboard.

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  4. goinglikesixty says:

    Very interesting discussion.
    JanneM: I think most people who spend a lot of time on keyboards are touch typists.

    As a country we never did fully adopt the metric system.
    The educational system would fully adopt the Dvorak keyboard.

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  5. jezsik says:

    Luck winning out over innovation? I know another keyboard example, the various ergonomic keyboards. A standard keyboard is not designed with the human in mind but countless millions of identical devices were introduced. As soon as a contoured keyboard came out, I was sure people would flock to it, but no. Sure, it’s a bit odd at first, but it’s so much easier on your wrist and hand. Why not change to the superior form? Why not indeed!

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  6. jezsik says:

    Luck winning out over innovation? I know another keyboard example, the various ergonomic keyboards. A standard keyboard is not designed with the human in mind but countless millions of identical devices were introduced. As soon as a contoured keyboard came out, I was sure people would flock to it, but no. Sure, it’s a bit odd at first, but it’s so much easier on your wrist and hand. Why not change to the superior form? Why not indeed!

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  7. Josh Millard says:

    Futurist speculation: I don’t think we’ll see any mainstream adoption of a non-Qwerty layout until keyboard devices start coming with some sort of dynamic keycap displays standard.

    I think the ubiquitousness of Qwerty is insurmountable under the current circumstances, essentially: the life cycle of the keyboard loop is a long one, and conditions have to be right to make it worth it to the status quo to endure a whole life cycle to make a mainstream change. That’s a lot to ask of the general computing public, and there’s no way to accomplish this with fixed-layout devices without thrusting an unfamiliar layout in the face of the computing public.

    (I know that keyboard configurations can be changed with relative ease, but the physical keyboards cannot be: for most folks, the folks who don’t know DVORAK from Adam and aren’t going to learn a new layout recreationally, the keycaps are the layout. It’s not even Qwerty, in the layout-discussion sense; it’s just How Keyboard Are. So, for the moment, a Qwerty-capped keyboard is a Qwerty keyboard, period.)

    Qwerty gets taught because Qwerty is how the keyboards in schools are shipped, how home computers come set up, how what electric typewriters still get sold are configured. It’s what the computer at work, and at the library, and at the internet cafe uses. Using DVORAK, or any other layout, in the wild? Hard. Hard things like that aren’t going to just happen without some tremendous incentive. People won’t want to learn it, manufacturers won’t want to sell it, workplaces won’t want to install it.

    So how do you get that new layout out there?

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  8. Josh Millard says:

    Futurist speculation: I don’t think we’ll see any mainstream adoption of a non-Qwerty layout until keyboard devices start coming with some sort of dynamic keycap displays standard.

    I think the ubiquitousness of Qwerty is insurmountable under the current circumstances, essentially: the life cycle of the keyboard loop is a long one, and conditions have to be right to make it worth it to the status quo to endure a whole life cycle to make a mainstream change. That’s a lot to ask of the general computing public, and there’s no way to accomplish this with fixed-layout devices without thrusting an unfamiliar layout in the face of the computing public.

    (I know that keyboard configurations can be changed with relative ease, but the physical keyboards cannot be: for most folks, the folks who don’t know DVORAK from Adam and aren’t going to learn a new layout recreationally, the keycaps are the layout. It’s not even Qwerty, in the layout-discussion sense; it’s just How Keyboard Are. So, for the moment, a Qwerty-capped keyboard is a Qwerty keyboard, period.)

    Qwerty gets taught because Qwerty is how the keyboards in schools are shipped, how home computers come set up, how what electric typewriters still get sold are configured. It’s what the computer at work, and at the library, and at the internet cafe uses. Using DVORAK, or any other layout, in the wild? Hard. Hard things like that aren’t going to just happen without some tremendous incentive. People won’t want to learn it, manufacturers won’t want to sell it, workplaces won’t want to install it.

    So how do you get that new layout out there?

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