I have been a Dvorak typist for the last 12 years, and would like to share my thoughts and experiences on using the layout during that time.
What is the the Dvorak layout?
Let’s look at a typical US keyboard layout, the so-called QWERTY layout. It is named for the first five letters on the upper row of the keyboard.
Notice that in the QWERTY layout vowels are spread all around the keyboard, and that the most commonly used consonants (t,n,s,h) are spread all around the keyboard with no particular pattern. There are allegedly two historical reasons for this:
- Some salesmen requested that he be able to write the word “typewriter” using only letters in the top row of the keyboard, presumably so that he could find them quickly when showing the new invention to customers.
- If the most commonly used letters are placed all around the keyboard, it reduces the chance that the typewriter will jam because it will take the typist more time to move their fingers between keystrokes. This naturally slows down your typing speed.
The first reason is rather arbitrary, and the second is deliberately detrimental to typing speed in the modern era of computer keyboards, for which there is no possibility of a mechanical jam.
Let’s compare QWERTY to the Dvorak layout, which was scientifically designed by Augustus Dvorak as part of a study for the US Navy on improving typing efficiency. The Dvorak layout places the most commonly used consonants under the fingers of the right hand, and the vowels on the left. Since most words have vowels somewhat evenly distributed throughout a word, the left hand and right hand frequently alternate keystrokes.
First, look at the eight most common letters in the English language:
Now look at the positions of these letters on the Dvorak layout:
Note how ALL of these eight most commonly used letters are on the home row, in easy reach of your fingers without even moving. The result is significantly less required finger motion and faster average typing speeds on the Dvorak keyboard.
Can you type faster with the Dvorak Keyboard?
Yes. At least, in my personal experience. In fact, I estimate conservatively that I type at least 20% faster than I would otherwise type on a qwerty layout, and my ‘burst’ speed has become much higher — the top speed bottleneck is usually my brain, not my fingers. Let’s quantify that a little in the next few paragraphs.
When I switched to the Dvorak layout (12 years ago…it’s amazing my records still exist!), I had been touch-typing in Qwerty for about five years. Being at least a nominally scientific teenager, I measured my typing progress occasionally because was curious to see how long it would take me to regain my former typing speed.
In the following results, “wpm” stands for “words per minute”, and is usually measured as the number of correct keystrokes per minute divided by five. My methodology was pretty simple: I typed sentences out of a robotics book for about 15 minutes (resting for one minute between 3 or 5 minute intervals), counted the characters in the correct words, and computed my WPM score based on that.
|Dvorak Day 3||11WPM|
|Dvorak Day 7||23WPM|
|Dvorak Day 46||34WPM|
|Dvorak Day 61||37WPM|
|Dvorak Day ~270||48WPM|
|Dvorak Day ~600||67WPM|
|Dvorak Day ~2500||71WPM|
Looking at the above, you can see I’m wasn’t a terribly good touch typist to begin with, only hitting about 4-5 correct characters per second (I wonder how many times I hit the delete key?!). After switching to Dvorak, it took about 2 months to get back to my old speed, and about 9 months later I was only 14% faster.
However, over the years my typing speed has continued to increase, although it is debatable how much of this increase is a result of the layout, and how much is merely a result of increased experience. But I was surprised to take some touch typing tests recently (Day 4300?), and here are the results:
If I don’t make any mistakes, a well-typed sentence will be closer to my maximum speed of about 120-130wpm, which I can only accomplish when writing spontaneously and not copying from another document. For example, this easy quote from Henry Ford is probably close to my maximum copying speed:
I’m not claiming this is exceptionally fast or unachievable by a QWERTY typist, but it is a significant improvement over my original typing speed, and prompted me to write this up as a data point for other people. It would be interesting to see how QWERTY typist speeds improve over the course of 12 years, or what kind of errors they are making. The majority of my errors were mistakes in the ordering of the letters, for example typing “teh” instead of “the”.
What about writing in other languages with Dvorak?
The only foreign language at which I am proficient is Japanese, so I will mention my experiences with that. Briefly, it feels like slightly more ‘work’ to type Japanese than English with Dvorak, but still feels better than the Qwerty layout because of vowel placement.
To be more specific, it is less comfortable to type in Japanese than in English with the Dvorak keyboard because the frequencies of the letters k,j, and z are much higher in Japanese than in English and you start feeling more ‘left hand dominant’ when writing. However, at least the vowels in Japanese are all on the left hand, so I suspect that Dvorak is still superior to Qwerty when using a Japanese input method editor. I can’t speak for other languages, as what little writing I have done in Italian or French has all been at a rudimentary level. Dvorak was optimized for English and it seems reasonable to expect that it may not be as suitable for other languages with different letter frequencies — although it’s hard to do worse than QWERTY’s vowel placement.
Is Dvorak better for programmers?
I’m going to say no in general — for programming, layout doesn’t seem to matter. Coding quickly is generally limited by brain speed, not finger speed. Nevertheless, there is a Programmer’s Dvorak layout, for those interested in having brackets, parenthesis, and braces closer at hand.
What about key chords and shortcuts?
Dvorak loses the popularity contest to Qwerty and it hurts in this case — most shortcuts are designed for the qwerty layout and so are more difficult to type on a Dvorak layout. While Emacs-users may not have difficulty rebinding our keys to use the proper, the fact remains that this is extra work for us, but it cannot be fixed in all cases.
Some people work around the problem by having their keyboards remap to Qwerty when the command key is held, but I have not tried this myself.
What about inconveniences when using other people’s computers?
If you are like me, you spend 99% of your time on your own personal computer, and less than 1% of the time at an unfamiliar computer. Therefore, keyboard layout is something you set once and then completely forget about.
Also, in the vast majority of cases when you have to use an unfamiliar computer, it is about 30 seconds of work to change the keyboard layout to Dvorak, although occasionally a brain-dead administrative policy may prevent you from doing this and you will be forced to use Qwerty for a few minutes.
What happens when other people try to use your computer?
You will enjoy the priceless look your friends’ faces when they try to borrow your computer for a moment and discover the letters are not where they appear. Some particularly obstinate people will try four or five times to type something in before realizing that the layout must be different.
So, Dvorak also works as a simple security measure when combined with the command line — completely clueless users will be unable to change the keyboard layout and be locked out from effectively using your computer for the 5-10 minutes it will take them to figure out how it works.
Can you still type in Qwerty after learning Dvorak?
Yes. It’s strange to me that I have retained the ability to touch-type Qwerty, even after more than 10 years of hardly using it at all. When I am forced to use a public computer or friend’s computer that cannot be remapped into Dvorak, I typically type at a rather slow ~30wpm…but it is still touch typing.
Which is more ‘comfortable’, Dvorak or Qwerty?
Although this is hard to quantify, Dvorak is much more comfortable for writing in English than Qwerty. Some doctors recommend that users suffering from Repetitive Stress Injuries (RSI) such as carpal tunnel syndrome switch to the Dvorak layout because of the reduced finger motion. I have also heard that Dvorak requires 60% less finger motion than Qwerty for typical typing tasks.
Ironically, I have heard some Qwerty typists argue that it is the increased finger motion of Qwerty which helps stave off RSI, but I can only surmise that they have no experience actually typing Dvorak — although no silver bullet, my anecdotal experience is that it is clearly less fatiguing on the fingers and wrists…when combined with a split keyboard, proper arm support, and good sitting posture, of course.
Is it worth switching to the Dvorak Layout?
It was worth it for me as a 17 year old. As a native English speaker who will be spending most of his time writing in English, even a modest 20% improvement in typing speed of my native language will continue to pay productivity dividends throughout my life.