It’s a relatively well-known fact that I am a Dvorak typist, and have been for about four or five years now. Just an introduction for the uninitiated, the Dvorak keyboard layout is just a different arrangements of letters purposively chosen because it is more efficient for typing the English language. For example, instead of my left hand resting on the letters ASDF it rests on the letters AOEU. There have been studies both ways saying it is or is not faster than QWERTY, and frankly I think most of them are useless. Logically you can see that if the letters you use most are right under your fingers, ultimately you’re going to work less while typing.
Why did I switch? If I remember correctly, I was surfing around the website of columnist John Dvorak and on some page he mentioned the Dvorak keyboard layout and linked to a site about it. Several web searches later, I had read all about the layout I could find on the web and I was ready to switch. Some of my motivation was that I wanted to be as fast as humanly possible, but it was mostly that I spend a tremendous amount of time typing and I often got pains in my hands and wrists. Switching did not seem like a big obstacle simply because it seemed very similar to learning to play a new instrument, something that as a musician I could relate to and didn’t seem too challenging.
I know now that some of my reasons for switching may have been hype on the part of the websites I read, I can offer what I have found in my personal experience to be true.
Switching is not as hard as people make it out to be. Even if you are already quite proficient at QWERTY, it’s not too hard to switch. You don’t need to buy a new keyboard, in every operating system there is a mechanism for switching what’s called the “keymap” or the mapping between the physical keys on your keyboard and what the operating system prints out. So if you switch your keymap to dvorak you can immediately begin typing dvorak in all your applications. However it can be confusing to press the button labeled T and get a Y, so it is generally better, at least while learning, to give yourself some visual aids. What I did was print out letters on a piece of paper and then stick them to the keys using double-sided tape. Of course I was 14 or 15 and had a lot more time on my hands. For some people it might be enough just to have a printout of the layout by their monitor or keyboard, but there is something to be said for being able to look at the key and seeing what you’re going to type. What I do now, if I want to physically switch a keyboard over, is actually pop off the keys and put them back in the Dvorak positions.
This is much easier than it sounds, and probably takes about ten minutes. Of course be careful because sometimes the keys literally pop right off and might jump behind a desk or something, speaking from personal experience. The main disadvantage to doing this in that your home keys no longer have ridges on them and because of the bizarre way that keyboards are manufactured, on every keyboard I’ve done this two the hook on back of the guide keys (usually F and J on your keyboard) is sideways to every other hook for every other key which means that to put those keys someplace else you’d have to put them sideways, and whatever key you put in that position will also have to be sideways. This isn’t as bad as it sounds because it actually serves as a new guide mechanism, but it looks a little funky. I can’t think of a way to do this with a natural keyboard. You can buy keyboards designed for Dvorak, but for me it has never been worth the bother. I don’t want to have to special-order my keyboard, I just want to pick up whatever is the coolest at the computer store.
My writing speed did not increase significantly. Although I could type faster than ever, the limiting factor in my writing speed is and was the way I formulate sentences in my mind, often thinking of several different ways to say something. However in situations where I can type without thinking too much, for example taking notes in class or at a conference, it has been a huge benefit and often I can keep up almost in real time with what’s being said. Of course if I stop to consider something or participate in class discussion I get behind but I think the advantage of actively participating in the class or conference outweighs whatever benefits I would get from having a transcription of it.
The big thing for me is comfort. I can now type for long periods of time with no fatigue at all, and that isn’t even an issue I think of anymore. I can’t point to anything scientific that says for every person Dvorak will be more comfortable, I just know it’s been a major improvement for me.
One advantage I don’t think I have seen mentioned before is the security aspect. On my laptop in particular there is now a device with all of my personal information on it that might be in the hands of anyone. Lets say that you knew my password, if you picked up my laptop you still would have trouble getting in simply because you wouldn’t know how to type the password in Dvorak. In the grander scheme of things this might only be a minor deterrent, but it’s enough. In situations where I want other people to use my laptop I can configure a keyboard shortcut to switch between the two layouts transparently, but more often I don’t even have the QWERTY keymap installed, simply because I don’t want to switch back and forth accidentally.
It would be overly biased of me not to mention some of the disadvantages though. Nearly every problem I’ve run into isn’t so much a problem with the layout itself, but rather being a Dvorak user in a QWERTY world. Non-configurable keyboard shortcuts are often designed to be convenient on QWERTY and so when you’re under Dvorak they can be awkward. The most notable is X, C, and V, which in most applications becomes cut, copy, and paste when used with CTRL, are no longer right next to each other and are instead all over the keyboard. I’ve found it to be not that big a deal. Though I am still alright with typing QWERTY, I am often self-conscious while at other people’s computers, because as someone who is supposed to be computer savvy it must look bad to have to hunt and peck. Of course I may just be blowing it out of proportion. If I use QWERTY for anything more than a minute or two it comes back to me and I can at least partially touch-type again, but usually my exposure to it is much shorter than that. There might be something else that has slipped my mind, but those are the only two drawbacks I can think of.
I suppose it might be significant that I am the only person I know that uses Dvorak. At some point or another, I know that many of my friends and family have given Dvorak a try, but none have stuck with it. There are hundreds of possible reasons why, but I suspect with most is they didn’t feel like investing the time. For my it was a no-brainer because I knew that however long it took me to learn it would be incrementally paid for by the increased productivity and comfort in the future. Part of it may have been incentive though, and to make things interesting I’m willing to spring for a prize.
I will buy a Logitech Elite Keyboard for the first person who switches from QWERTY to Dvorak (and sticks with it!) as a result of this post.
The judging is completely subjective, but using Dvorak exclusively for more than a couple of weeks is good enough for me.
Funnily enough, this whole thing started out as a simple link/commentary post that was supposed to be about twenty words. Getting to that, there’s an article at Kuro5shin called An Argument for Dvorak that makes some good points. The comments, on par, are mostly useless or misinformed so I wouldn’t weigh them too seriously.