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.


Ross

In my experience Dvorak is a superior keyboard layout to QWERTY. My fingers don't have to move around as much and typing is greatly more comfortable.

I am a software developer and have been using Dvorak for many years. I learned it in University as a curiosity, but eventually switched over full time after experiencing pain in my hands from too much typing. Like many others have stated, I didn't switch for faster typing speeds but for reduced stress.

As for these pro-QWERY folks, I am just guessing they are looking for a reason to cling to the standard they've invested in and would rather bad mouth Dvorak than take the time to learn it.

Dana Albert

Ms. Tourtelot suggests that a minor increase in typing speed isn't worth a month of struggling to type. I totally disagree, at least where white-collar workers are concerned. The PC is the tool we use most, and the keyboard is our primary interface to it. We're all typing for hours and hours every day, year after year. Any decent gain in efficiency is well worth the investment of a month's effort.

I switched to Dvorak because, even at the tender age of thirty, my hands and wrists hurt at the end of each day. My speed hasn't actually increased by much with Dvorak, but I haven't suffered that hand and wrist pain in the ten years since I switched. I would never go back!

Sean

There is also left-handed and right-handed dvorak layouts designed for those with a physical disability.

I do programming and graphic design work and get tired of moving my hand between the mouse and keyboard using QWERTY. So I'm planning on learning left-handed dvorak so my right hand can stay on the mouse more of the time.

Michael Dickens

"And don't even think about using a QWERTY keyboard during your Dvorak training. You'll only undo all the progress you've made."

As someone who has learned five keyboard layouts, I can honestly say that this is terrible advice. If you practice QWERTY for ten to fifteen minutes a day and use Dvorak the rest of the day, you will be able to completely retain your ability to use QWERTY. But if you don't practice QWERTY at all, you will completely forget how to use it.

You can remember two keyboard layouts just as you can remember two languages. But a great way to make sure that people don't remember two keyboard layouts is by telling them not to try.

Victoria

I made the switch (on my home PC) in early 2008, I spent 2 months using Dvorak at home & QWERTY at work. My transition was quite terrible until I switched my work machine to Dvorak. Once both computers were Dvorak, It took about a month to become proficient. I never learned to touch type in QWERTY, so my typing speed and accuracy have increased unbelievably.
The Dvorak keyboard just makes sense... each key is located based on it's frequency of use ('Z' and 'Q' being the most difficult to reach). No such logic can be applied to the QWERTY keyboard.
Using Dvorak on 'public' computers is easy with a small tweak to the regional & language settings.
A Dvorak keyboard will either impress your Office Tech. or cause him great grief. The keyboard functions as an excellent password protection measure; some Windows log-in's only accept QWERTY input, so you will be required to do a letter-for-letter transcription to log-in.
One small problem I have noticed with the Dvorak layout: word processing software can be exceptionally unhelpful. Spell check seems to be good at compensating for finger slips in QWERTY, if my finger slips in Dvorak my spell check results are dramatically different.

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Wendy

If just for the Repetitive Stress Syndrome alone, it seems like a worthwhile investment of time. I guess it depends how much you type, though.

Another example, of luck winning out is the mammogram machine over thermal imaging. At the time they were both invented, computers just didn't have the capability to process the massive amount of info collected by thermal imaging. (Thermal imaging doesn't put any harmful rays into the tissue nor does it squash a potential tumor causing it to metastasize. They also detect tumors much earlier, at the angiogenesis stage, so they sometimes produce what look like false positives). Now, strangely enough, thanks to military research, thermal imaging is more viable, but very few hospitals are willing to switch. And almost no insurance companies are willing to pay for it, despite the fact that is a 100 percent harmless technique competing with a technique that actually causes cancer where it is meant to detect it.

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mark

I always find it interesting to find comments that span a couple of years, and the different perspectives in this thread are actually enjoyable to read.

I switched to Dvorak 4 years ago. I too felt like my mind was being bent during the process. I found it very similar to learning a new musical instrument. I already knew the language (English vs. music), but getting the desired output requires different muscle movements (and for wind instruments breathing techniques). I think my music experience helped in the switch to Dvorak.

It took me about one week to get proficient, and that week was difficult. I'm a programmer by trade so I do a lot of typing. I Googled 'Dvorak tutor' and found some good typing courses that I went through during lunch and for about two hours at night. I could not afford to lose too much productivity for very long.

It took about two more weeks to be able to think/type in terms of words and phrases rather than individual letters. I was back to speed within three weeks of the Monday I switched. Actually I started practicing during the weekend before I switched at work.

I found it to be a fun challenge, and I can feel the difference at the end of the day. My fingers and wrists are not as worn out. Anyone experiencing discomfort when typing should give it a try. Also, check out keyboards that have a column lay out rather than the traditional staggered lay out inherited from the typewriter. My decision came down between the TypeMatrix and the Kinesis Contoured Advantage keyboards. Even if you don't switch to Dvorak, the column layout is a lot more comfortable. My wife uses one now in Qwerty mode.

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180wpm

The greatest typists on the internet, that type arond 180 wpm and 210 wpm on shor texts, at typing contests type QWERTY ! So, I don't know about Dvorak....

aaron

Check out the Workman Layout. There's a visual comparison of the key usages between layouts which is really interesting. Workman shows significant advantages over all of them.

http://viralintrospection.wordpress.com/2010/09/06/a-different-philosophy-in-designing-keyboard-layouts/

Amp

This is dumb, use QWERTY. It's modern.

Dana Albert

Dear 180wpm,

You may be fast, but not that accurate. Your short missive has two typos in it. Many of us still care about accuracy.

I would also like to know on what data you make your claim about "the fastest typists on the Internet." The current world speed record of 212 wpm was set using the Dvorak layout.

JanneM

Dvorak is counterproductive in quite a few cases. As you note, the layout is optimized for the letter frequencies. But those frequencies change depending on the language, so you need a separate - largely different - layout for every language. A layout optimized for one language would be less optimal for another language than Qwerty.

And that means that if you use more than one language (I use three regularly), you need to learn one separate layout for each one. And, of course, remember to switch layout every time you change the language you happen to type in at the moment.

And it means that would Dvorak actually become widespread, you'd come to public internet access points or computers in hotels, airports and wherever, and be faced with a layout that has nothing in common with the one your're used to, rather than the same basic layout with a few frills altered you have now.

econ2econ

I just don't see this having widespread adoption unless schools start teaching the Dvorak keyboard instead of the QWERTY (assuming most people first learn proper typing in school). I didn't find it on first glance of the links, but does it show anywhere the difference in typing speed for someone who once used QWERTY and has now mastered Dvorak?

SAMIam

The reported benefits of Dvorak over QWERTY are not limited to a few words per minute. Dvorak proponents claim their layout reduces repetitive stress disorder type injuries including sore hands and the like. For many that my make the transition worth it.

warcraft maps guy

I'm proficient with both Qwerty and Dvorak.

Two main non-obvious advantages of Qwerty are that 1) the rest of the world uses Qwerty so using different computer doesn't cause any confusion 2) many keyboard shortcuts and typical commands were designed with Qwerty in mind. Typing 'ls' or typical emacs keyboard shortcuts can be a pain in Dvorak.

However, Dvorak is indeed very comfortable and fast for typing large amounts of English text.

jcgoodchild

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.

amitlu

@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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pvenable

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)

jonathank

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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JanneM

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.