I’ve heard from several friends who spotted me in the Wall Street Journal today. It was just a tiny mention in an article about the Dvorak keyboard, an ergonomic alternative to the common “Qwerty” layout that you probably use.
Qwerty was designed in the 1800s by the inventor of the first commercially successful typewriter, and there’s a reason it’s a bit convoluted: Christopher Latham Sholes’ invention had a big problem with key jamming. The type bars didn’t have springs on them (like typewriters had in the 1900s), and fell back with gravity. So the mechanism was sluggish, and it was easy to get fast enough on the machine — even when typing with two fingers, as Sholes expected everyone to do — that the bars would often jam.
His solution: move the most-used letters away from each other so they were less likely to jam. So yes, the keyboard you use today is that way to accommodate the lousy mechanics of a late-1800s invention. “Adapt the humans to the machine” is pretty much the definition of anti-ergonomic, but that’s the way things were done then.
A Better Way
In the 1920s, a team at the University of Washington, led by Dr. August Dvorak, was inspired to make things better after hearing about how inefficient Qwerty was from Drs. Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, the pioneers of time and motion studies — efficiency! (You know them from the book/play/movie Cheaper by the Dozen.)
Dvorak’s team spent 12 years (oh for a decent computer to crunch the data!) to come up with their “Simplified Keyboard” design, now referred to as the Dvorak keyboard. I literally wrote the book on the layout in 1986 — my first book. (Like most of my early work, it’s in dire need of revision, but I’ve been kinda busy lately!) It’s now out of print.
The Dvorak team took a lot of things into consideration: typing “should” be done from the home row, where your fingers normally rest (though only 32 percent is done there on Qwerty). By putting the vowels on the left home, and the most-used consonants on the right home, Dvorak allows 70 percent of typing to be done on the home row.
It’s easier to reach up than down, so the next-most-used keys are a rank up. The lowest rank is reserved for the least-used keys, like Q and X.
By having the vowels and consonants laid out like that, there tends to be a back-and-forth motion with Dvorak. While one hand is typing the first letter you need, the next letter is most likely to be typed by the other hand, so it can get ready to strike it: that’s one big reason Dvorak is notably faster.
It Gets Deeper
Then, they studied letter pairs and triplets. For instance, words with “T-H” are common in English, so that pair (and dozens of others) were accommodated to make them easy to type.
How? Drum your fingers on the table: it’s easier to go from your pinky in than from your pointing finger out, right? That “inboard stroke flow” is designed right in to Dvorak. The T-H? Right hand: the T is under your middle finger, the H under your pointing finger — outside in. Easier to do that than the other way around.
So in addition to being designed to accommodate English (and it does a decent job for other languages based on the Roman alphabet), it’s also designed to accommodate your hand: in short, it’s ergonomic.
Yet schools still teach kids Qwerty, even though it’s (as you can probably see!) significantly easier to learn and type on Dvorak (you may remember the horror of learning how to type!) Yep: we’re still causing kids pain because of the mechanics of an 1890s machine when something better has been available for generations.
My Generation Too
Despite being born a couple of generations later, Qwerty was thrust on me, too: there was no choice.
I learned to type in high school (teacher Benjamin Stein probably still has nightmares about me: rather than practice random garbage, I used my class time to write him letters, like the one from the typewriter dealer saying the school had missed a payment, and a man would be there in the morning to repossess the machines. Yeah, I was a wise-ass right from the start.)
I switched to Dvorak in college; I wanted to be a writer, after all, and I knew that I’d be typing a lot. I had hit a plateau of 55 wpm on Qwerty, which is pretty darn fast for average people, but wanted to go faster. I now type well over 100 wpm, thanks to Dvorak.
And despite all the writing I do, working 8-12 hour days, 7 days a week, I’ve never developed carpal tunnel syndrome (or even tendinitis) from all the keyboarding involved during such workdays.
Anyway, the WSJ had an article about the layout today, with an amusing angle: sure, Dvorak is built right in to Windows and the Macintosh operating systems, but what about the poor schlubs who have to text and email from their smartphones? They’re all Qwerty! The reporter interviewed me for a good 45 minutes, but only used one brief quote from me, which is fine: I didn’t really support his thesis.
Yes, I think “soft” keyboards like the one the iPhone projects should be configurable to Dvorak. But unlike a “real” keyboard, phone keyboards can’t be used for touch typing: you have to look at them and use one or two fingers. There’s no advantage to ergonomics in such a situation, so whatever the user is used to is best. And as far as looking at a keyboard, I actually prefer Qwerty on my phone, since I don’t look at my Dvorak keyboard when I type, since touch-typing is so easy — I don’t need to!
While my Dvorak book is no longer available, Dr. Dvorak’s scientific study of keyboarding from 1936, Typewriting Behavior, which I used extensively in my research for my book, is! I ended up with the Dvorak family’s entire stock of his book after his widow died; I had the honor of meeting Hermione Dvorak just before my book was published, and corresponded with her for several years. So her husband’s book is available via my shopping cart.
The number-one question from people who saw the WSJ article: can someone touch type on both? Yes, if you use both regularly. It’s not a big deal: many “touch type” on a touch tone phone and on calculator or “num-key” pads, even though they’re very different: the phone has 1-2-3 along the top, the calculator/keypad has 7-8-9 along the top.
You may never have even consciously noticed, but you can do both, right?! But I haven’t kept up with Qwerty, and have lost the ability to touch type on it: I have to look at the keyboard and type with two fingers. If I look away, I revert to my over-100-wpm Dvorak typing.
(Want proof Dvorak is fast? I whipped this page out in about 45 minutes. 🙂
Also see my mini-site on the Dvorak keyboard.