A colossal failure

Few people seem to realise it, but the keyboard in front of you was literally designed to slow down your typing. This has always really irritated me – keyboard layout is the sort of thing you’d expect to have been fixed a century ago with at least some modicum of logic applied.

The QWERTY board in front of you (see first letters on top left) was designed in the late 1800s by an American called Christopher Scholes. At the time everyone was using mechanical typewriters, for which jamming was a major time limiting and document destroying problem – you would only find out the keys had jammed after you took out the page. 20-30 words per minute was considered excellent, roughly equivalent to writing speeds. Mr Scholes designed the layout with these jams in mind – and came up with something staggeringly inefficient, that managed to become the global standard.

The failures are many

A logical keyboard would:

  1. Place the most common letters on the home row, where your fingers naturally rest. QWERTY has only about 30% of strikes hitting there and only 100 words can be written without moving your fingers.
  2. Weight the keys to the right, since most of us are right handed. Not the case either – an unappreciated advantage of being a leftie in the contemporary world.
  3. Alternate hands as much as possible, as language typically consists of alternating vowels and consonants. More than 3000 common words use only the left hand, while around 300 use only the right: a double QWERTY fail.

The failure of QWERTY to adhere to these simple principles has been noted for quite some time. A fellow called Dvorak decided to improve the design, and did so.

Compare

He designed a keyboard with:

– 70% of strikes on the home row, 22% above, and 8% on the irritating lower row – QWERTY has 30% home, 50% top row, 20% below.

– consonants and vowels on separate sides of the keyboard, substantially increasing alternation, accuracy and speed.

– the right hand dominating, crunching out 56% of the work – QWERTY puts the first (E) second (T) and fourth (A) most common letters on the left hand – and E and T on the top row.

The effect

On a typical typing day a competent QWERTY typist covers about twenty miles, while one of the DVORAK school covers one. QWERTY typists make more mistakes than DVORAKs, and need an average 56 hours of training to reach 40wpm, with DVORAKs requiring a more manageable 18. All in all the world and its billions of typists would be far better off if Scholes had the foresight of Dvorak.

It almost happened

The US Navy experimented with retraining QWERTY typists, and in the subjects found accuracy increased by 68% and speed by 74%. They ordered thousands of DVORAK machines, but the order was cancelled by the US Treasury – probably the closest DVORAK has come to developing a substantial user base. QWERTY continued to dominate and entrench itself throughout the computer age.

The failure of society to adopt a change that just makes so much sense is mildly depressing, even (or perhaps particularly) in a case so seemingly trivial yet staggering in scale.

Dvorak must have died a bitter man, having spent decades developing and decades more promoting a technology that would have so drastically improve the lot of men, only to see it ignored while the keyboard Establishment become more and more entrenched with every new unwitting adherent.

Could it change?

If the switch happened we are not talking small differences.. huge swathes of the global population type every day at work, not to mention in our personal lives, and on average typing speeds would nearly double. All the world typing records were struck using a DVORAK keyboard

Every day the switch doesn’t happen makes it more expensive and less likely. The only way I can see it happening is if a small group of people commited to the keyboard, and a following slowly developed, until the point where new computer users could legitimately consider learning DVORAK. At that point perhaps the inherent advantages of the alternative layout would draw more and more to it and a widespread switch could accord.

An experiment

As much out of curiosity as anything else I decided to give DVORAK a spin. First I timed myself typing on the first google result – 82 words per minutes. I then spent about two hours using a DVORAK keyboard.

I ended up reaching 8-9 wpm, but the advantages were at least anecdotally evident, though I have to say I was annoyed to find the punctuation keys were all in a different spot. I think a week or two of a cold turkey approach to the comfort of QWERTY would be enough to get fast, but I’m sceptical I could reach the same pace without a fairly strong commitment to annoy myself to no small degree for at least a month but probably longer.

If you want to try, making the actual change couldn’t be easier – it’s a setting in most Macs and PCs (changing the keys on your laptop is a little less trivial).

The price

It seems the status quo is here to stay, save perhaps for the particularly nerdy or odd.  We are thus doomed by the Way These Things Work to spend our lives in front of a computer interface designed to slow down our 19th century counterparts. Your typing will forever be limited to the speed dictated by QWERTY.