Category Archives: History

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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Biting the handwriting that feeds us

R.I.P. Handwriting. 4127 B.C. – 2011 A.D.

Indiana is the latest U.S state to adopt the Common Core curriculum, an initiative to phase out the teaching of cursive, joint-up or running writing in schools. Instead students will be thought ‘basic’ typing skills, which education officials see as more useful in the modern employment world. But there are some in the education community who think the move could adversely affect the learning abilities of children. Apart from all these possible negative applications who will teach these kids these ‘basic’ typing skills?

Precious few schools still offer basic typing lessons. By and large, most schools across the globe dropped this subject from the curriculum years ago — either due to financial constraints or clueless and untrained teachers just giving up.

Back in the day, touch typing was a manual skill that required several years of intensive rote learning and muscle memory training; aimed at building up speed and reducing errors. Its primary goal was getting less academic girls (and no, I’m not being sexist) a dreary and low-paying job in a typing pool.

The typing pool

Since the advent of the word processing software, the typing pool has dried up. Most executives now do their own typing. Most with no formal training. And most perpetuating a cluster of shockingly unproductive habits:

  • The old “two-finger hunt and peck is fast enough for me” cop-out.
  • The “never look away from the keyboard” insecurity.
  • The “OOPS, I WROTE THAT ENTIRE PARAGRAPH IN ALL CAPS” fail.
  • The “I’ll just backspace over an entire line to fix a single error and retype the entire line all over again” remedy.
  • The “I’ll save when I get to the end” routine.

Who’s gonna teach it? Are we going to assign our unskilled and already over-taxed teachers the futile task of teaching children to become keyboard maestros?

Or in the end, will students be left to fumble about in the dark, developing and habituating a range of downright unproductive habits?

Will we breed a generation of QWERTY ninjas?

Or a generation who can’t write a post-it-note?

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The Ergonomics Myth

Ask most people why why have a scrambled keyboard layout and they’ll unblinkingly say, “Ergonomics” or “Usability”.

When we first encounter the garbled mess that is a QWERTY keyboard, our immediate response is a stunned, “WTF???” followed by an imploring “Why?”

Perhaps we assume it could only be this messed up for a reason. Perhaps it helps us:

  1. Learn the keyboard arrangement quickly and intuitively
  2. Type faster
  3. Type with fewer mistakes, or
  4. Type with fewer injuries or long term damage to our fingers, hands, wrists and arms.

None of these is true.

QWERTY is the sub-standard response to a mechanical design flaw. A design flaw dating from 1878. A design flaw that no longer exists. The ergonomic and usability needs of the billions of poor people forced to use QWERTY were not even considered as part of the solution to this glitch.

The QWERTY “solution” was all about the machine itself: “How do we stop the keys from jamming?” not “How can we make typing, easier, faster, more intuitive and mistake free?”

And the consequences of that “design fix”:

  1. QWERTY takes years to learn and master
  2. It is no faster than any other system that requires years of dedicated practice
  3. Its nonsensical order of the letters proliferates mistakes and has spawned entire industries making products helping us fix these mistakes (think of the Bette Nesmith Graham and her wonderful ‘Liquid Paper’ story)
  4. Its rigid linear layout and confusing letter placement cause millions of crippling injuries every year.

QWERTY more ergonomic? That myth is definitely busted.

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Sorry QWERTY, you’re not my type

Sorry QWERTY. It can’t go on like this. One of us has to go.

It’s not going to be quick. It’s not going to be easy. It’s not going to be pretty And it’s not going to be me.

Don’t take it personally. You served your purpose. You stopped typewriter keys from jamming. In 1873. So thanks for that.

How can I put this? You just don’t make sense anymore. You’re like the alphabet after a 3-day bender. And when you don’t make sense, I don’t make sense. Am I making sense?

Look at it this way: You’ve had an amazing run. For an inconvenient design flaw, you’ve survived, nay, thrived thru 5 evolutions of your species. You’re more than mere legend, baby, you’re a mutant master meme.

Let’s not forget what I put into the relationship. My dogged persistence. My unquestioning dedication. The months of typing classes. The years of striving, hoping, yearning… That one day, I would finally understand your crazy, mixed up ways. That I’d stop having to look at the keys. That I’d use all 10 fingers some day. That the only times I’d hit CAPS LOCK would be intentional.

Nor what I had to suffer thru: The twitches, the spasms, the aches, the pains, The crippling carpal tunnel syndrome.

Sure I made mistakes. Lot’s of them. They’re called typos. And I’d always blame myself. It was never you, was it?

Alright. You better go. Godspeed. Mind the step.

2,400 Comments

Filed under Fun, History