Monthly Archives: October 2011

Keyboard Wars: Clunky QWERTY crushes dextrous Dvorak

The QWERTY keyboard layout was a somewhat necessary invention in the early days of the typewriter: keys placed in a certain order so they wouldn’t jam or get stuck. There was no ergonomics or usability involved. Just a jumble of letters, rearranged to fix a mechanical design flaw. The one exception perhaps, was the letter ‘R’, which was placed in the top row so that their salesmen could type the word ‘typewriter’ with one row of keys. Perfect for sales demos. Not so great to those who had to type anything else.

So in 1936 when Dr. August Dvorak — after careful analysis of physiology of the hand, and analysis of letter frequency — patented his eponymous keyboard layout, it seemed logical that people would welcome it with open arms. But in the 90 years since its invention, widespread adaption has never looked remotely likely.

The Dvorak Layout

Dvorak identified many key issues users had with QWERTY and, along with his in-depth usability findings, based his layout on these conclusions:

  • Letters should be typed by alternating between hands, allowing the typist to build a rhythm to gain speed and accuracy. i.e vowel-consonant-vowel-consonant etc.
  • Most people are right-handed, so the right hand should do most of the typing. A little unfair to lefties but coldly logical nevertheless.
  • For maximum speed and efficiency, the most common letters should be the easiest to reach. So these keys are placed in the middle (home) row.
  • The least common letters should be on the bottom row, which is the hardest row to reach.
  • The most common letter combinations should not be typed with adjacent fingers.

With these improvements, Dvorak keyboard converts claim:

  • reduced finger motion and less finger, hand and wrist strain. 5,000 high usage words can be typed on Dvorak’s home row. QWERTY? A mere 300 — mostly non-high usage.
  • increased typing speeds
  • drastically reduced error rates compared to the bog standard, QWERTY.
  • They also claim it’s faster the learn. Most telling me it takes less than a month to aclimatize.
  • and that it’s nothing but a pure joy thereafter.

This video (breathtaking in it’s tedium) shows what 117 words per min looks like on a Dvorak keyboard:

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Ergonomic Nirvana! And oddly musical in its rhythm. Looks and sounds amazing right? Should have been a no brainer. So what where Dvorak’s major barriers to adaption?

First, there’s the “network effect”. This dictates that it’s not the best technology that wins, but other factors such as cost, availability, speed to market and critical mass. Dvorak was up against three powerful network effects – manifested via education, manufacturing and distribution.

Education: QWERTY had the first mover advantage. It had millions of white-collar serfs in typing pools who’d already spent years of their lives and vast sums of their own money ingraining the uncomely QWERTY system into the very fibre of their being. Who would pay for the retraining? Employers? They didn’t have to pay the first time, so why would they cough up this time?

Manufacturing:  The cost of setting up a a second assembly line and machining a whole new set of parts gave the dominant player a distinct lead and the latecomer immense costs of entry.

Distribution: By this stage, the world’s entire typing pool would need to be given a second typewriter. This cost would have to be borne by the employer. Enough said.

IMHO, the real reason Dvorak failed to fly was this: While it’s obviously a more effective design, it’s still, at first glance, a mad jumble of letters. Think back to that sinking feeling when you first encountered QWERTY. That realisation that you were about to face an excruciating learning curve paved with blood, sweat and tears. One doesn’t just have to relearn the alphabet into some seemingly random sequence, but also assign one of ten fingers to each key. It requires a complex conversion of cognitive and spatial memory via rote learning and endless repitition into instinctive muscle motor memory.

Now, have someone tell you that you have to go thru that all over again. If it was so painful the first time, who but a crazy person would put themselves though it a second?

So obsessed was Dvorak with logic and efficiency, he lost sight of intuition. It sounds like a good idea. It just doesn’t look like one.

Any Dvorak users out there who can share their experiences?

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Filed under History, Usability