A Decade With Dvorak

Friday, August 5th, 2011

Introduction

We are committed to [the qwerty keyboard], even though it was designed to satisfy constraints that no longer apply, was based on a style of typing no longer used, and is difficult to learn.

Donald A. NormanThe Design of Everyday Things

I developed an interest in the Dvorak keyboard something like ten years ago now. The exact date that I decided to go cold turkey on qwerty is fuzzy at this point, but an article entitled, "Roughly Nine Or Ten Years With Dvorak," just didn't have the same ring to it. So here I am, ten years later, still annoying my friends and colleagues when I forget to swap their software key mappings back to qwerty when I'm finished borrowing their computers.

This article addresses my experience with the Dvorak keyboard over the course of the last ten years. It does not aim to convince you that one keyboard is better than another. This is the story of my journey as qwerty keyboard user toward Dvorak keyboard curiosity, competency, and expertise.

The Curiosity

College has the reputation of being a great place to experiment. New surroundings, new friends, new freedoms, and new software key mappings are all factors in a young co-ed's formative collegiate experience.

Coincidentally, an assigned reading in a UI class that I was taking at the time was Donald A. Norman's, The Design of Everyday Things. This fascinating book would become pivotal for me as I began to notice and critique elements of design in our world. I credit it with heightening my awareness of the things surrounding me everyday, and in how I interact with those things.

The Design of Everyday Things also served as my introduction to the Dvorak keyboard. How did it peak my interest? Norman's case history made me think about the origin of the keyboard sitting right there in front of me.

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The typewriter has a fascinating history. As a machine, it is a compelling engineering solution to a problem faced by all societies with written language. It has evolved from what are now nearly unrecognizable mechanical forms to the familiar skeuomorphic touch screens that many of us walk around with in our pockets every day.

The problems that the typewriter set out to solve remain similar to those which modern keyboards face. No one would consider the computers before us today to be typewriters in the classical sense of the word, but we expect much of the same from each device. We press keys and characters appear. Why has the typewriter evolved radically as a machine, yet its interface has remained comparatively consistent?

Arriving at this question probably had more influence on furthering my investigation of the Dvorak keyboard than did anything else I had come across during my research.

Constraints

Typebars.jpg

Specifically, the constraints that Norman is referring to are the inherent bounds of mechanical typewriters as machines. Jamming typebars, advancing the printer ribbon, returning the carriage and advancing the line at the end of the current line are all facets of mechanical challenges that typewriters must solve. Computer keyboards need not concern themselves with such things.

By lifting these mechanical constraints from a keyboard designer's shoulders, what solution would he or she arrive at? This was one of the questions that the creators of the Dvorak keyboard set out to answer with their research and another question which truly interested me.

Typing Style

Upon first introduction to a keyboard, most people extend an index finger or two and after scanning the rows of keys in front of them, begin slowly poking away. "Hunting and pecking" is clearly the most obvious and natural typing "style" for new users. Chances are good that you may know at least one person who is not new to a keyboard yet still uses or even prefers this method.

Touch typing, typically performed with all ten digits while not needing to search for keys visually, is much more efficient than hunting and pecking. It does require that you know that keyboard through practice, though.

If you don't know any keyboard, there is little difference in typing speed among a qwerty keyboard, an alphabetic keyboard, and even a random arrangement of keys.

Donald A. NormanThe Design of Everyday Things

The interesting thing regarding touch typing is that it was conceived of sometime after the invention of the qwerty keyboard. The qwerty layout was created sometime during the 1870s by Christopher Latham Sholes. The following article is from the New York Times and was published on August 2nd, 1888.

nyt-touch-type.png

TYPEWRITERS CONTEST FOR A PRIZE.

A speed contest for typewriters, open to all operators using any machine having upper and lower case, under the auspices of the Metropolitan Stenographers' Association, was held last night at the rooms of the association, 208 West Twenty-first-street. Of many operators who had entered only four contestants - two ladies and two gentlemen - appeared. The matter written was dictated by a reader selected by the association. The time allowed to each writer was five consecutive minutes, deductions being made for errors.

The first prize of $25 was won by F. E. McGurrin, who wrote 479 words, Miss May S. Orr following with 476 words, and Miss M. C. Grant with 469 words. At the conclusion of the contest Mr. McGurrin gave an exhibition of writing blindfolded, making the extraordinary record of 101 words to the minute.

The New-York Times, Vol.XXXVII, No.11521 (August 2, 1888), p.2, l.4.source

The last sentence in that article is very interesting. It is the earliest mention of touch typing that I could find. The apparent air of astonishment lends credibility to it being reported as a then (ca. 1888) recent phenomenon. It is unlikely that the qwerty keyboard was developed with touch typing in mind. Short of stenotype and chorded keyboard input styles, touch typing is one of the most efficient styles of keyboard typing.

Does this mean that qwerty can't succeed as a touch typing keyboard? Probably not. There are most likely millions of people happily and efficiently touch typing all day long on qwerty keyboards; nevertheless, this question led me to yet another.

Is a keyboard designed after the invention and widespread adoption of touch typing a better keyboard?

My Experiences After Ten Years

I've outlined how I originally discovered the Dvorak keyboard, and some of the reasons that it intrigued me. I can't pretend to be a keyboard efficiency expert, and in this article I'm not attempting to reignite the qwerty vs. Dvorak debate. There are many resources which make the claim that the Dvorak keyboard improves typing speed. Popular search engines return well over 100,000 results for the phrase, "qwerty vs. dvorak". It's easy to read all about the debate, if you'd like to.

Debate aside, I would like to express that after switching to the Dvorak keyboard ten years ago, I still love using it. Here's what I've learned.

For me, the Dvorak keyboard is more comfortable.

It's been a long time, but I can remember how sore my wrists would be after a long day in front of the qwerty keyboard. Ever since I began using the Dvorak keyboard I have not experienced a single day of wrist or hand pain related to keyboard interaction. For me, that's the most dramatic and resounding cheer that can be made regarding the Dvorak keyboard. As a professional software engineer I spend a large portion of my day typing. Freeing myself of chronic or even occasional pain is not about efficiency as much as it is about quality of life.

This is the first response I give to people who want to know why I don't use "their" keyboard.

I am more effective typing on a Dvorak keyboard.

I did endure qwerty touch typing lessons when I was young and in middle school. I had had little keyboard experience before then and I was firmly planted in the qwerty hunting and pecking camp of typing style. It wasn't until college that I began to spend significant amounts of time in front of a keyboard. Subsequently, I had relatively poor qwerty typing skills and plenty of bad habits.

Dropping qwerty altogether and focusing on Dvorak allowed me to focus on learning to touch type on an easy to learn keyboard. The process also instilled in me a satisfactory feeling of knowing that I was making an investment in myself and my upcoming profession. If I could improve my typing efficiency whilst lowering my chances of suffering repetitive strain injuries throughout my career then the sooner the better.

Additionally, I didn't have to unlearn my poor qwerty habits to learn Dvorak. The slate was clean, and beside the chore of memorizing the new layout, I saw all upside in my Dvorak endeavor.

Using a Dvorak keyboard can be inconvenient.

As is true often times for folks in the minority, simply being different can be a challenge. Until only recently when I began a new job, I had never met another colleague who used the Dvorak keyboard. That meant that if I needed to use someone else's keyboard, I either had to fall back onto my less than mediocre qwerty skills or swap the software key mapping in their OS. All popular operating systems support the Dvorak keyboard so in practice this is rarely a difficult process, but it can still serve as a point of confusion if I get up and forget to swap their key map back to qwerty.

Very few things are as entertaining to a Dvorak keyboard user than watching a colleague struggle with the mysterious effect of their clearly labeled keyboard producing incorrect characters, save for a and m. Sadistic, I know. Satisfying, nonetheless.

If a friend or colleague needs to borrow my keyboard, they are faced with a similar dilemma. Personally, I wouldn't trade these inconveniences for the improved comfort and efficiency that I have experienced throughout my years as a Dvorak keyboard user. It's a great way to keep people off of your machine, too!

Typing on the Dvorak keyboard is fun.

This is clearly subjective, but I think that the Dvorak keyboard is just more fun to use. I find that the fingers of both of my hands naturally settle into a pleasant rhythm. Each hands' fingers drum comfortably outside-in from pinky to index in an alternating left, right, left, right pattern. Rarely do I feel like my fingers stray from the home row, and when they do they are never straining to reach for the desired key.

The Dvorak keyboard makes me feel like I'm playing a musical instrument.

At first I had to practice, but now I simply play all day long, riffing and jamming effortlessly as I develop software or write prose.

The Dvorak keyboard has made me faster at typing.

Disclaimer: I was a lousy qwerty keyboard user prior to switching to the Dvorak keyboard.

I experienced a tangible typing speed increase as a direct result of teaching myself to touch type. This really had very little to do with the Dvorak keyboard and very much to do with focused determination to achieve that goal. Perhaps some of the claims surrounding the ease of learning the Dvorak keyboard were to thank, I don't know for certain.

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Additionally, as a software engineer, I find little value in actually being able to type really, really fast. As a friend and colleague once created stickers proclaiming, Typing is not the bottleneck. I find all of the arguments regarding perceived or actual WPM increases to be inconsequential.

The last time I couldn't get code written as quickly as I could dream it up I was, well, dreaming.

In Summary

There is a lot of data out there regarding the qwerty, Dvorak and other keyboards. The qwerty vs. Dvorak debate gets particular attention in nooks of the Internet where geeks congregate. A majority of the English speaking world is using the qwerty keyboard in styles ranging from slow and ineffective hunting and pecking to fast and efficient touch typing.

Ten years after deciding to become a part of the minority and learn to use the Dvorak keyboard I am still very happy as an engineer and a keyboard user in general. My wrists and forearms are comfortable, my accuracy and speed are improved, and I continue to have a lot of fun each time I sit down to type.

Reference & Further Reading