The Dvorak keyboard layout is an alternative keyboard layout designed by August Dvorak (pronounced duh-VOR-ack, not like the composer’s name) in the 1930s, which is intended to make typing more efficient and comfortable.
Table of Contents
- A Brief History of QWERTY
- Key Diagrams
- Principles of Well-Designed Keyboards
- Advantages of the Dvorak Layout
- Typing “Demons”
- Problems with / Disadvantages of Dvorak
- Opposition to Dvorak
- Compatibility Notes
- Similar Efforts in Other Languages
- Using Dvorak / Switching Layouts
- Switching to Dvorak
- Being Alternate Keyboard-Friendly
- Could We Do Better?
- Further Reading and Links
“I’m tired of trying to do something worthwhile for the human race—they simply don’t want to change!”
Dvorak’s complaint, made shortly before his death, seems to be echoed throughout history. You have to wonder how much better the world could be today if people didn’t mind change. But the sad fact of the matter is that nothing can be done about it—for numerous reasons, people like to stick with what they have, and, unfortunately, this tendency can cause a superior idea or product to never be accepted.
Such is the case with Dvorak’s “Simplified Keyboard,” today usually known as the “Dvorak” keyboard or occasionally the “DSK” (Dvorak Simplified Keyboard). Dvorak spent years studying the keyboard, the typewriter, and the way our hands move most efficiently. As part of all this research, which eventually became his and three other co-authors’ book, Typewriting Behavior, he compiled a list of the most frequently used words and sequences in the English language and designed a keyboard that actually made sense. (The usual QWERTY layout was designed to meet the mechanical needs of early typewriters, and even back in the 1930′s was long obsolete.)
A Brief History of QWERTY
The standard QWERTY keyboard layout, designed by Christopher Sholes, was designed to get around the mechanical limitations of early typewriters. He initially arranged the keys in alphabetical order, but he found that the machine kept jamming, because it relied on gravity to get the keys back to rest positions (newer typewriters use springs). So he rearranged the keys until the machine stopped jamming.
Some claim that he attempted to “slow the typist down” while doing this. If you read a lot of articles and information about keyboards, you will find much disagreement and debate about whether he intended to slow typists or whether it was merely a side effect of his efforts. We can certainly say that he would have had an interest in slowing the typist down, for this would make the machine less likely to jam. But whether he specifically intended to do so is unknown. In the end, though, this is immaterial—what matters is the result, a poorly designed keyboard that became obsolete around the turn of the twentieth century.
If that’s not enough proof, consider that Sholes himself felt that his initial attempt was bad and created another, more sensible layout after the original mechanical problems were solved. But this layout was rejected by typewriter manufacturers and the public, who saw no reason to change when they already had a keyboard that seemed to work perfectly fine.
|‘ , . p y f g c r l
a o e u i d h t n s
; q j k x b m w v z
|q w e r t y u i o p
a s d f g h j k l ;
z x c v b n m , . /
Principles of Well-Designed Keyboards
Dvorak used the following principles to design his keyboard:
- Typing should alternate between hands when possible. This is partly because you can get ready for the next keystroke while still typing and partly because your fingers don’t move completely independently (try putting your hand flat on the table and raising only your ring finger). Of course, if you follow up the use of one hand with the other, this is not a problem anymore.
- Typing should be kept on the home row when possible. This obviously saves a lot of movement since you don’t have to move your fingers at all to reach eight of the home row keys and you have to move a lesser amount for the other two. QWERTY does very poorly on this one—only 32% of keystrokes are on the home row. On the Dvorak layout, fully 70% of keystrokes are made on the home row.
- When typing cannot be on the home row, it should be on the top, because the bottom row is the most difficult to reach.
- If successive letters are typed with the same hand, adjacent fingers moving outward should be avoided (i.e. “fd” on the QWERTY keyboard). These are some of the more difficult sequences to type.
- Typing should go from the outside to the inside of the keyboard (that is, towards the center of the keyboard, like ‘as’ or ‘kj’ on the QWERTY keyboard). This is known as inboard stroke flow, and it’s much faster to type that way than the other way. Try drumming your fingers on the table both ways; at least for most people, it’s much faster and more comfortable that way. (In fact, modern research suggests that inboard strokes are actually faster than alternating hands—try it.)
- Using the same finger for two letters in a row should be avoided whenever possible, for obvious reasons.
- The load between hands should be kept fairly even, with a slight emphasis on the right since most people are right-handed. (Note: There is a layout called “Dvorak Left-Handed” available on many operating systems—this is not a Dvorak layout to be used instead of the normal one if you are left-handed, it is for typing with only your left hand.)
- Words should not be typed with one hand while the other remains idle. Particularly egregious examples of this on the QWERTY keyboard include ‘minimum’ and ‘greatest’. This effectively halves your typing speed, as well as overworking that hand.
- “Hurdles,” where the hand has to jump over the home row to reach the top and bottom rows in sequence (or vice versa), should be avoided whenever possible. This problem is greatly reduced on Dvorak layouts by both making sure far more keystrokes are on the home row and by encouraging hand alternation. An example of a bad hurdle on the QWERTY layout is ‘minimum’ (yes, again—it’s a nasty word). There are far fewer hurdles in Dvorak.
If you look at the layout table in the previous section, you’ll notice that all the vowels are under one hand and all the common consonants are under another. This greatly helps alternation of hands because it makes right-hand-only words (or right-hand-only syllables, for that matter) impossible. Furthermore, most of the consonants are on the right, so the number of left-hand-only words is under 500.
Advantages of the Dvorak Layout
From the above section, it should be pretty clear that the Dvorak layout is more logically laid out. Here are some of the effects:
- Dvorak is more comfortable. Since your fingers have to move shorter distances and there are fewer awkward reaches, nearly everyone who has used both QWERTY and Dvorak reports that Dvorak is more comfortable. Some people have reported that switching to Dvorak has helped their RSI (Repetitive Stress Injury) and other typing-related pain issues as well.
- Dvorak is faster. Some people never surpass their QWERTY speeds after they switch, but most do. (Ironically, some of the best QWERTY typists end up doing poorly on Dvorak, simply because they’re already so good on QWERTY.) It is often disputed whether Dvorak is really faster than QWERTY, and many people who like and use Dvorak are really more concerned about comfort than speed, but much evidence does suggest that Dvorak generally allows faster typing speeds. Barbara Blackburn, the fastest typist on record, failed her high school typing class (which taught QWERTY, of course), then went on to break records on Dvorak keyboards and reach an amazing speed of 212 WPM.
- Dvorak is easier to learn. In the few experiments that have been done, new students learned Dvorak far faster than QWERTY. In fact, in one study, the average typing speed of Dvorak typists after two semesters of classes was greater than the average speed of QWERTY typists after six semesters. There are always doubts raised about the accuracy of such studies, but with the massive advantages for Dvorak shown by these studies, it’s pretty hard to imagine that there was a large enough bias that QWERTY would be better.
- Dvorak just plain makes more sense. There’s a reason for all the letter placements, and it was designed scientifically for ease of typing, rather than for now-unimportant mechanical reasons.
Another interesting indicator of Dvorak’s superiority is a list of the most frequently misspelled words (link opens in new window) on both layouts. A quick note about the accuracy of this list: The list of Dvorak demons has unexpected patterns—even though the words are organized in order of frequency, chunks of the list appear in alphabetical order. This table was very poorly explained in the book where it originally appeared (Typewriting Behavior), but one logical explanation might be that that the errors in these sections all occurred with the same frequency, which likely points to a small data set. A small amount of data, however, is not surprising and certainly not deserving of conspiracy suspicion; after all, there can’t have been many Dvorak typists to pull data from.
Regardless of any possible bias, it’s very interesting to compare the lists. The QWERTY list includes such words as “the,” “to,” and “that.” (“The,” in fact, is the most frequently misspelled word on QWERTY, which if you think about it is really rather absurd, given its frequency.) The Dvorak list, on the other hand, is mostly longer words, like “beautiful”, “arrangement”, and “husband.” Only one (“new”) is shorter than four letters.
Problems with / Disadvantages of Dvorak
Of course, anybody who thinks anything is perfect is a fool, a salesman, or both. Here are some of the problems Dvorak users may have to deal with:
- Many of the shortcut keys have moved. A typist who switches will have to learn new keystrokes and redevelop her muscle memory for shortcuts such as cut, copy, paste, save, undo, and so on. In general, this is a small problem—most people get used to it fairly quickly. Some people are especially upset about no longer having cut, copy, and paste within easy reach of their left hands (good so that when they’re editing, they can have one hand on the mouse and one on the cut and paste keys). On Dvorak, C and V are too far to reach with the left hand alone, although some people report learning to move to the right side of the keyboard and using the right Ctrl key instead. There are a couple of solutions. Some people use certain software programs to remap the ;qjk keys to ZXCV when the Control key is pressed. If you buy a TypeMatrix ergonomic keyboard, you’ll find it has dedicated Cut, Copy, and Paste keys right about where you’re used to having X, C, and V. Another possibility is to get used to using the right-click menu to cut and paste in such situations. Personally, I mix using the right-click menu and making inconvenient reaches (of course, when I’m using a TypeMatrix, I use the provided shortcut keys).
- It’s less compatible than QWERTY. Nearly everywhere you go, at least in the US, there will be a working QWERTY keyboard. (Some other countries have similar but slightly different keyboards, like the German QWERTZ or the French AZERTY.) Not so with the Dvorak layout.
- It works its best only in English. Dvorak designed the DSK for English, but other languages obviously have different letter frequencies. Nevertheless, Dvorak is often still better than QWERTY in many languages. What really needs to happen is for someone to get a project together that analyzes each language the way Dvorak did (with the aid of a computer, to make it a bit easier and more accurate). There have already been some limited efforts for other languages. It’s worth checking them out, although you should note that they won’t be accessible from nearly as many computers as US Dvorak will be, so you may have to live with the default when you use other computers or carry the keyboard map on a flash drive.
- Some Unix commands are optimized for QWERTY and will be awkward in Dvorak. (Try typing LS and pressing Return, one of the most common commands.) Chances are that you don’t even know what UNIX commands are, and if you do, it’s generally not a deal-breaker, just something to be aware of. (Some people move their hands out of the normal touch-typing position for these commands in order to make them less awkward—for instance, they use their ring finger to strike the letter l in ls. Personally, I just set my finger down on the l and swipe onto the s, and I usually use a keyboard that has Return somewhere other than the right pinky.)
- Many programming languages use a lot of symbols like brackets, braces, and semicolons, many of which are in awkward positions in Dvorak. To be honest, though, this is really a problem with nearly every keyboard layout, not just Dvorak. It should be noted that there is a layout called Programmer Dvorak, which keeps all the letters in Dvorak’s positions, then reverts the numbers to Dvorak’s original layout (7531902468) and places the numbers in the shifted position (caps lock works on the numbers if you need to type extended runs of digits). The final result has most of the braces, brackets, and other symbols on the numerical key row, so you don’t have to overuse your pinkies to hit them.
Opposition to Dvorak
Some people claim that Dvorak is no better than QWERTY. My general response to this is nonsense. There are three primary reasons why they (or you) might think this:
- You don’t want to believe you aren’t typing the most efficient way possible.
- You read an article that presents poor information.
- You tried it, didn’t like it, and decided that meant it was useless for everyone.
There’s a frequently referenced article called “The Fable of the Keys,” which presents a number of reasons why Dvorak isn’t better. There’s also a similar article that was published in Reason magazine by the same guys. But it’s not exactly an unbiased article. It was written by two economists who thought that it contradicted their free-market theory (it’s impossible that it was really better, because if it was it would have caught on). So they decided that the way to deal with this was to jump on it and make things up to claim that Dvorak was an urban legend. (Okay, maybe I’m being a bit harsh, but the point is that the reasoning behind the article was not science related to typing.)
If you read the article carefully, you might notice that it’s based on circular reasoning—few people use the Dvorak layout because it isn’t better, and it isn’t better because few people use it. Of course, besides the scientific evidence, there’s the fact that, according to a survey taken in the 1980s, over 100,000 people use Dvorak (by now it must be significantly higher, due to the rise of computers and easy remapping of keyboards), and it’s hard to believe that they are all using Dvorak if it’s just an “urban legend,” as the article claims.
Another frequently cited study undertaken by a U.S. government agency under Dr. Earl Strong claims that Dvorak showed only a slight advantage over QWERTY (the study measured only the direct WPM speeds of two groups). However, the study had some serious problems—for one, tired and newly retrained Dvorak typists who had just gone through an exhausting course were measured against fresh QWERTY typists who had not been doing any training at all. (It is extremely common for typists who have not recently been training to experience a sudden burst of speed when they begin working again.) When other researchers were uncertain about Strong’s conclusions, they asked him for his raw data, only to find that he had destroyed it. Furthermore, Strong was known to be a personal enemy of Dvorak’s, and once said, “I have developed a great deal of material on how to get this increased production on the part of typists on the standard [QWERTY] keyboard…I strongly feel that the present keyboard has not been fully exploited, and I am out to exploit it to its very utmost in opposition to the change to new keyboards.” As Marcus Brooks says, “I think that quote just about says it all, don’t you?”
Even if the study contained no bias at all, it’d be a real stretch to claim that the results apply to new typists, rather than just people switching layouts.
Rather than repeating more perfectly good information here, I’ll encourage you to visit Marcus Brooks’ page on the topic if you’re still interested.
Another reason that people sometimes don’t want to use Dvorak is the difficulty they say you have using other keyboards after switching layouts. First of all, there are a number of ways to use Dvorak on another computer. Secondly, people who use both layouts regularly often have no difficulty at all switching between layouts. You’ll find plenty of skeptics who claim that familiarity with multiple keyboard layouts is impossible, but I’d be quite happy to demonstrate placing a QWERTY keyboard and a Dvorak keyboard side-by-side and switching between them multiple times in the same sentence—without even pausing for longer than it takes to physically move my hands.
All this said, potentially biased scientific studies don’t have to be the only way to figure out if the Dvorak layout is any good. Science is great, but sometimes personal experience is worth a heck of a lot more. Dvorak costs nothing to try for yourself, so feel perfectly free to draw your own conclusions about whether you think it’s really better. But if you don’t like it, promise me one thing: don’t go around parading that Dvorak is utterly worthless just because it didn’t work for you. Plenty of other people use it regularly, and it works great for the majority of them.
- Most mobile devices don’t support Dvorak. Fortunately, it’s rare to find a mobile keyboard that you can truly touch-type on, so it’s not a particularly big deal. The iPod Touch/iPhone/iPad support Dvorak when using external keyboards, but they only support QWERTY touch keyboards.
- Dvorak typewriters do exist, but nowadays they’re pretty hard to find. (Searching eBay for “dvorak typewriter” got me exactly one hit at the time of this writing, and searching again a few months later I got zero.) If you’re a big keyboard fan and are willing to spend some money, though, you can probably get your hands on one. It’s also possible to modify QWERTY typewriters to type in Dvorak if you have some electronics know-how; a while back there was a guy who was selling instructions for converting IBM Selectrics, but he unfortunately seems to have dropped off the face of the earth now (along with his instructions).
- Some really old dumb terminals don’t support Dvorak. (If you don’t know whether you use one, you probably don’t.)
- You may have problems with dedicated kiosks, library catalogs, and so on; then again, this is rarely much of a problem since you don’t use these types of computers for very long.
- Some really annoying and recalcitrant programs enjoy ignoring the operating system’s keymappings. The best thing to do here is usually to replace the program. You can also use or purchase a hard-wired keyboard.
As a side note, a website called Dvorak Anywhere (http://www.theworldofstuff.com/dvorak/dvorak.html) will take QWERTY keystrokes and convert them to what they would be in Dvorak, allowing you (in effect) to type Dvorak on a QWERTY keyboard. This can come in handy on other computers when you can’t switch the layout (or it would be a waste of time because you’re only using it for a couple of minutes) but you want to type in Dvorak.
As I mentioned earlier, the Dvorak keyboard was designed for the English language. It still works better than QWERTY for many similar languages, but all languages have different letter frequencies. To my knowledge, nobody else has researched as extensively as Dvorak did, but several small projects have created Dvorak-like keyboards, which you can find with a bit of Google searching.
It should be noted that you can make your own layouts if you have a small amount of computer skill and a will to mess around. The Windows tool for this is the Microsoft Keyboard Layout Creator. Other operating systems have their own, which you can once again find with a bit of research. In addition, certain high-end keyboards like the Kinesis Contoured let you remap the keyboard on a hardware level.
Using Dvorak / Switching Layouts
So what can you do if you want to use Dvorak on an ordinary computer with a QWERTY keyboard? And for that matter, how can you switch your own computer?
- Convert the computer. Every modern operating system includes an option to use the Dvorak layout. As long as you aren’t locked out of the control panel (which may be the case on some public computers with paranoid administrators), you can change it and switch back when you’re done with the computer. (Obviously, don’t forget the last step if it’s not your computer or you’ll wind up making quite a few enemies when subsequent users find that the keyboard doesn’t work right for them.) See Marcus Brooks’ page for instructions, or try a Google search if the operating system you use isn’t listed. There are, however, a few programs that like to ignore your keyboard settings; if you’re unlucky enough to use one, your keyboard will revert to QWERTY. The solution is to buy a hard-wired keyboard (#2).
- Get a hard-wired keyboard. A number of keyboards are wired to send Dvorak keystrokes, including the TypeMatrix (see the Keyboards section), which has the added convenience of being small enough to be easily tossed into a laptop bag, briefcase, or backpack. If there’s a visible USB port and no crazy lab supervisors, you can plug it in and you’re ready to go. There is also a device called the QIDO (http://www.keyghost.com/qido/), which works like a hard-wired keyboard but plugs in between the keyboard and the computer. Obviously, this is more portable, but it also requires you to fool around with cables.
- Keep practicing QWERTY (or learn it if you never have). This is obviously more appealing if you knew QWERTY and then switched, because otherwise you’re spending your time learning an inefficient and poorly designed keyboard. Most people find QWERTY to be pretty uncomfortable after a successful switch, too. That said, many if not most people can keep both layouts in their head and type on the QWERTY layout when they encounter a computer that doesn’t have Dvorak. (Warning: Some people find that they are unable to continue typing in QWERTY, so be ready for the possibility that you may be stuck with Dvorak.) It should also be noted that, unsurprisingly, if you stop using QWERTY, you’ll lose speed and eventually forget it. On the other hand, if you use the layout at least occasionally, you’ll probably be able to keep it going. (I simply use QWERTY anytime I’m not working at my own computer, and I’ve never had any trouble picking it up when I need it.) Another thing that helps some people to keep the two layouts straight is to type Dvorak on some sort of ergonomic or otherwise unusual keyboard and QWERTY on a “normal” keyboard. (I can happily switch from a Dvorak ergonomic keyboard to a QWERTY standard keyboard on the same desk in the middle of a sentence with no difficulty whatsoever.)
A lot of people (like me) use QWERTY, hear about Dvorak, and want to switch. A few notes:
- If you never learned to touch type on QWERTY, or you’ve never been good at it, you’ll probably love Dvorak. If you’re pretty good at QWERTY, you may be frustrated for a while as you lose your typing speed, but chances are good you’ll recover it after a bit of training and be quite happy with it.
- If you can already type QWERTY at around 90 WPM or greater without any discomfort, think long and hard before you switch. You may do better and enjoy the change, but many fast QWERTY typists don’t do so well on Dvorak, simply because they’re already so good. You will almost certainly be more comfortable (even though you won’t have any idea how uncomfortable QWERTY is until you try Dvorak), but don’t count on a speed increase.
- While you’re retraining, don’t type QWERTY at all if you can help it. You’ll be much less frustrated that way, even though your typing may be infuriatingly slow for a while.
- Try to limit your work outside of training, and definitely don’t do it in QWERTY! For this reason, it’s best to wait until you can get some time off from work if you can help it.
- If you don’t want to lose your QWERTY skills, it may be helpful to type just a few lines in QWERTY every couple of days so you don’t forget the layout entirely. Then again, that might confuse you, and plenty of people type in only Dvorak for days while retraining and are still able to use QWERTY when they’re done.
- Consider switching to a keyboard with a different feel when using Dvorak—it helps many people to keep the layouts separate. Of course, if you pick a significantly different keyboard, making that change at the same time as you change the keyboard layout may be a recipe for frustration, so it may be better to start your Dvorak training and then switch keyboards a few days in.
I personally heard about Dvorak for the first time in the summer of 2008, and thought it would be cool to try to learn, since I do a fair bit of typing. I downloaded a tutorial and completed it, learning the positions of most of the letters. But I wasn’t ready for how slow I would have to go (going from 80 WPM to less than 20 is really painful), so I ended up going back to QWERTY a lot, which probably contributed to my failure to learn Dvorak. By the end of the summer, I was back to QWERTY. Once or twice, I tried typing Dvorak again, but I never did anything particularly serious in it. I tried to justify the failure to myself by saying that surely some new input method like voice recognition was coming soon, and we wouldn’t have to worry about typing any more. (Some people may say this, but I personally do not believe that voice recognition will completely replace keyboards for the next fifty years, if ever. The technology just isn’t good enough, and there are practical problems with editing and noise levels to deal with as well.)
At the beginning of last year (early 2010), something inspired me to try the switch again. And this time, my progress amazed me—working for only an hour or two a day, within a week I was up to 40 WPM! (Another testament to the ease of learning Dvorak, I suppose.) By early 2011, I was at a 60 WPM average on typing tests, and by late 2011 I could maintain a speed of 108 WPM for three minutes. I can still touch-type in QWERTY (at 60-80 WPM), although it feels awkward and uncomfortable compared to Dvorak, and I prefer to change the layout for extended periods of use.
Would I make the switch again? Absolutely. It was not an easy thing to do, and I certainly put in many hours of practice, but every minute of work was worth it.
You could take the step of moving to a more ergonomic layout while continuing to type on a $5 keyboard, but it’s certainly not ideal. A lot of Dvorak users have very strong keyboard preferences; a few notable keyboards are listed below. If you just want a completely normal, non-ergonomic, new keyboard that actually costs some money, heading out to a local store and trying out keyboards will get you one that works well for you.
- IBM Model M: Many people swear by the Model M, which was made in the eighties and clearly goes down in history as one of the sturdiest keyboards ever made (it weighs over 5 pounds fully assembled, which makes it stay put on your desk). See this PCWorld article for an interesting analysis. Many of them are over 20 years old, and people still use them daily. It doesn’t have any ergonomic features, but it has a great no-nonsense design, without shortcut keys that get in your way (if that’s what you like), and it has a great feel. Some sell for over a hundred dollars, but IBM made enough of them that they occasionally show up in dumpsters or at garage sales for $2. If you spot one, it’d be a good thing to grab and try out. You’ll probably need to pick up some converters, since most of them use the really old DIN keyboard connectors (remember those big round plugs?) or PS/2, which many modern computers lack. I’ve never gotten a chance to try one of these, but if I ever come across one I certainly will, given the reputation that surrounds them. (Available used only.)
- Northgate OmniKey: This keyboard is very similar to the Model M. Some models reportedly have switches, accessible by popping off the logo panel, that let you convert the keyboard to Dvorak. I have also not used this keyboard. (Available used only.)
- TypeMatrix: A fairly new entry to the high-end keyboard market, the TypeMatrix is a design that combines straight key columns with a compact design and separated hands. Straight columns are more comfortable—the standard angled ones force an uncomfortable tilt in the left hand, since the keys lean to the left as you go up. (Dvorak noted this fact in his book Typewriting Behavior and suggested sitting slightly to the right of your keyboard to compensate.) The compact layout allows all the functionality of a standard keyboard, limits the distance you have to reach for the mouse, and makes it easy to toss in a travel bag. The keys depress a fairly short distance, similar to a laptop’s keyboard, which some people like and some people hate. (However, they do feel much more sturdy than those of a laptop keyboard.) The Backspace, Enter, and Delete keys divide the middle of the keyboard, simultaneously allowing you to hit these keys with your stronger index fingers and splitting your hands up a bit further so they don’t have to lean so far towards the center of the keyboard. All TypeMatrices have a hard-wired Dvorak mode activated by hitting Fn-F1. (Annoyingly, you must do this every time you plug in the keyboard or turn on the computer, but it’s a small problem that you get used to quickly.) I use my TypeMatrix frequently at my desk; I also often throw it in a bag when I expect to need to type an essay at school or work on someone else’s computer for a couple of hours. ($110–$120, http://www.typematrix.com)
- Kinesis Contoured: The Kinesis Contoured is a keyboard with split key sections (your hands are a good foot apart), concave wells to fit the natural shape of your hands, a set of thumb pads which let you get more use out of the strongest fingers you have (instead of just the spacebar, you hit Backspace, Enter, Control, Alt, Windows/Command/Super, Delete, Home, End, Page Up, and Page Down with them), and tremendous programmability (you can remap any key to another or set any key to trigger a macro). There is also an optional foot pedal (which you can program to do whatever you want) and a QWERTY-Dvorak switchable model with dual-legend keys. This keyboard looks like it comes from outer space, and it’s a great conversation-starter—anybody who comes upon you using it is bound to ask “What’s that?” Despite the strange look, it’s extremely comfortable to use (after an initial few days of puzzlement and typing errors), and the way that the keys are placed in concave wells can actually increase your typing speed because your fingers have a shorter distance to travel between keys. I own one of these as well, and I use it for any serious writing or work at my computer. ($299–$325, http://www.kinesis-ergo.com/)
If you use Dvorak, you’re likely to have some trouble with using your preferred layout, especially on a shared computer. If you don’t use Dvorak, it’s nice to help people who do, and you should at least ensure access.
If you are in charge of a computer lab, make sure the keyboard layout settings can be changed. Provide easy access to a USB port for keyboards (or flash drives for that matter). Instead of locking down the control panel for security, which prevents people from using the keyboard layout of their choice, accessing accessibility features, changing the speed of the mouse, or making other perfectly harmless and useful setting changes, consider a security program that instead simply resets the machine to its previous state when rebooted. This accomplishes exactly the same thing (with some added protection against malware) without annoying people.
If you use Dvorak and others occasionally need to use QWERTY on your system, things may get a bit more complicated. Microsoft Windows allows users to set their own keyboard preferences, and leaves the login screen at the default QWERTY. Unfortunately, this apparent simplicity often disappears if you switch users without logging out, in which case it will stick on the most recently used layout. Experiment with this and figure out what you need to do to switch back so that others can log in. If there’s only one user account shared by multiple people, things are a bit easier; you can just hit the keystroke that switches layouts (Alt-Shift is the default on Windows).
One simple way to get around the login problem is to use passwords consisting of only the characters a, m, A, M, 0-9, and the special characters on the number keys—these characters are in the same place on both QWERTY and Dvorak.
As for letting people know how to switch layouts, you can make a sign and post it next to the computer, like so:
This computer uses two keyboard layouts (QWERTY and US-Dvorak). If you are not getting the characters you expect, press Alt-Caps Lock to switch layouts.
If you want to advertise a bit, you could do that:
This computer defaults to the Dvorak keyboard layout, a significantly easier and more comfortable way to type. If you prefer the QWERTY layout (or the computer is currently in QWERTY mode and you want Dvorak), press Alt-Caps Lock.
Obviously, if QWERTY is the default, you need to change it up a bit:
This computer defaults to the QWERTY keyboard layout. If you prefer Dvorak, an easier and more comfortable way to type (or you use QWERTY and Dvorak is currently selected), press Alt-Caps Lock to switch layouts. For more information about Dvorak, see <local Dvorak user>.
If the environment permits it, you can be a bit more clever and satirical:
This computer uses the home row keys AOEUIDHTNS. If you prefer the nonsensical series ASDFGHJKL; or you are getting nonsense when typing, you might try pressing Alt-Caps Lock.
And so on.
If you use Dvorak on a computer that’s basically just yours and you use some sort of hard-wired Dvorak ergonomic keyboard (like a Kinesis Contoured, say), it’s nice to keep a cheap QWERTY keyboard plugged into your computer in case a QWERTY user (or IT staff member) comes into your office and wants to use your computer.
Sometimes Dvorak users may run into a situation where they cannot access the Dvorak layout—perhaps someone has disabled access to the control panel, or no USB ports are accessible to plug an alternative keyboard into the computer. The best thing to do in this case is probably to find the system administrator or the person responsible for the computer or lab, and respectfully explain the problem and ask for access. Chances are very good that the administrator was not trying to block you out, but has simply never heard of Dvorak and did not think about the problem. You might even convert another Dvorak user!
Occasionally, you might run into a boss, administrator, or someone else who is actively opposed to your use of Dvorak. In this case, you should probably talk to a more sensible superior (if applicable). If you have a private office or nobody else ever uses your computer, you may also be able to get away with using it without telling anybody. However, sometimes these people’s dislike of Dvorak may be because they were fooled into thinking that Dvorak’s superiority is a myth (most likely by two economists by the names of Liebowitz and Margolis), in which case you may be able to change their mind by pointing them to “The Fable of the Fable” or something similar.
In a few cases, like when taking the GRE, you may simply be out of luck. In that case, you may just have to go back to the old keyboard (or hunt-and-peck if you never learned it). I took the Indiana ECA standardized test using my TypeMatrix and nobody blinked an eye, although it was proctored by a teacher who had seen me using it before—if someone else had been in charge, I might have had a bit of explaining to do.
Fortunately, all of these situations are few and far between today, with the advent of computers and switchable keyboard layouts (and hard-wired keyboards like the TypeMatrix), so it’s unlikely to be a serious issue.
Could We Do Better?
Every user on every keyboard layout has some little problem with their layout (or a big one, on a bad layout). The most common complaints on Dvorak include the position of u rather than i on the home position, when i is more common than u, and the use of the right pinky, one of the weakest fingers, for the two common letters l and s. Dvorak didn’t publish a log of all the keys he moved around and why, and he’s not alive to ask today, so we can only guess. One possible explanation for the u is that ou is one of the most common letter sequences, while most of the sequences involving i contain consonants (so you have time to reach over for the i while on the other side of the keyboard). Obviously, if all five vowels are going to be under one hand and on the home row, one has to be a small reach, and i seems as good a choice as any: a, o, and e are used too often, and u seems to be better in home position for reasons already discussed.
As for the l and s, I can only say that Dvorak must have had a reason. He certainly attempted to put more frequently-used letters under stronger fingers, but there are many more things that he considered besides finger strength—my guess is that he probably just had to put it there because it seemed to work better for another reason.
Some people try to move some of these letters around. While you’re free to do this, you should keep two things in mind. First, the Dvorak keyboard is a very carefully balanced layout, and moving one letter might well have a domino effect throughout your entire keyboard and make other keystrokes more difficult. Secondly, nearly every computer has the standard Dvorak layout (it being an ANSI standard), but your customized layout may be really hard to use on any other computer.
There are some projects that claim to have produced better keyboards than Dvorak’s. Many of these do achieve slightly lower movement, at least in statistical tests. I’m personally more than a bit skeptical that “lowest possible movement” is the only thing that is important to optimize for in a keyboard layout, but I’m no keyboard scientist.
I did put Colemak, probably the third most popular layout for English, to a simple test, typing some of the most common two-letter sequences in English (ou, th, and so on), and found many of these to be quite awkward. It’s possible that this is merely because I’m not used to the layout, but I am a bit skeptical—I certainly don’t recall any “well, this keystroke is awkward” moments while I was learning Dvorak.
I’m not saying that Colemak is a piece of junk, or that I can scientifically prove that it is not better than Dvorak; rather, I feel that Dvorak is good enough, and given how far we are from universally adopting a half-decent keyboard layout, any splits in the users who do use alternative keyboards are probably harmful. And Dvorak is already an ANSI standard and well-accepted as the alternative keyboard layout for English text—you will find it as an option on nearly every computer. (On the other hand, if you already use Colemak or believe it to be a better layout for your needs, go right ahead and use it—I’m not trying to force anyone into using my favorite keyboard layout.)
In the future, it may be possible to do definitively better than the Dvorak layout, particularly with the aid of a computer to redesign the layout. But once again, getting people to switch to using Dvorak is enough of a challenge without throwing yet another keyboard layout into the works. A century in the future, English may have very different letter frequency. But we can’t predict that; if the time comes that it becomes necessary, someone will (hopefully) do it. And we don’t even know for certain that typing will still be commonplace in 2111.
Typing is a major part of most people’s lives today. Most of it is done with the outdated and horribly inefficient QWERTY keyboard. Even worse, new typists are being trained on this layout every single day when we have modern, improved ones that are accessible on any computer and have been scientifically and anecdotally shown to be significantly better.
The keyboard remains popular as an input device, however difficult it is to learn well, because it is cheap and has a versatility that any other input device has yet to match, allowing one to easily enter text, activate commands in programs, and play games. It can also be used (slowly) by somebody who has no training whatsoever, and can be mastered in a relatively short period of time. Devices like the stenotype (used for court reporting) record shorthand at amazing speeds (the world record is a blazing 375 words per minute, and most experienced users routinely reach 200), but require a great amount of training. Other options include things like voice recognition, but they all have some sort of disadvantage that generally leaves the keyboard standing as the best option.
If everyone had switched to Dvorak when it was developed, chances are that there would be fewer computer-related discomfort issues, less frustration with learning to type, and more efficient work. But with the old layout so common already, switching will be even harder today than it was when Dr. Dvorak initially developed his Simplified Keyboard. I’ve heard a number of suggestions for getting people to use Dvorak, including radical options such as legislation to require a way to switch layouts on all public computers or both Dvorak and QWERTY legends on new keyboards. I would personally be in favor of any laws protecting and/or encouraging use of Dvorak, provided that they do not mandate anybody to switch layouts (forcing anybody to go through a keyboard layout switch is totally wrong in my book). But I’m not optimistic about the chances of getting such a law even introduced, let alone passed.
So we’re stuck in a vicious circle: poor compatibility discourages people from using Dvorak layouts, while there’s poor compatibility only because few people are using Dvorak. But I think it can be broken. Part of the problem is that many people who would benefit and would be willing to switch simply don’t know about it. As more people learn about Dvorak (and spread the word to others), the number of people using Dvorak layouts (or similar layouts in languages other than English) will hopefully increase and eventually reach a point of critical mass where enough people are aware of it and using it that compatibility should become a given.
I’m an optimist, of course—I don’t claim that this is certain to happen. But I think even people who don’t use or care to use Dvorak hope it will—the advantages of using it over QWERTY are difficult to ignore (unless you choose to go the route of junk science). Maybe we can overcome our reluctance to change and finally accomplish what Dvorak hoped we could years ago, and it will only be too bad that he wasn’t alive to see his pessimism proven wrong.
Further Reading and Links
- A Dvorak Zine, very funny and informative at the same time.
- Marcus Brooks’ excellent Dvorak portal, known especially for its “Dissent” page.
- List of QWERTY and Dvorak Typing Demons.
- A website with really poor grammar and bad design, but interesting information.
- An online Dvorak typing course.
- ABCD (A Basic Course in Dvorak), another online typing course.
- TypeMatrix, a compact and comfortable keyboard with a Dvorak option.
- Kinesis Ergo, a company that makes a few ergonomic keyboards, including some with built-in Dvorak.
- Dvorak Anywhere, which converts QWERTY keystrokes to Dvorak.
- The Wikipedia page for the DSK.
- An old article about the Dvorak keyboard.
- Altkeyboards, a mailing list about alternative keyboards, which frequently discusses Dvorak.
A Note About Sources
I wrote this article after many long hours of casual research and reading in my spare time, in large part while going through the process of learning the Dvorak keyboard layout. Unfortunately, this means that I don’t really know where I got all the information on this page from. Some of it is my opinion; a good part of it came from some of the websites in the Further Reading section. Some of it came from two books, The Dvorak Keyboard by Randy Cassingham and Typewriting Behavior by Dvorak (and three co-authors, whose names I can never remember because nobody ever talks about them in the context of the Dvorak keyboard). Still other parts of it are my personal experience.
Some of the sites I have read (and thus, at some level pulled information from) would not be considered particularly reliable in an academic setting. However, this is the point of research: I’ve read at least twenty-five different sources and combined information from all of them, and if I see that there’s something in a single one of them that’s never mentioned anywhere else, it’s probably plain wrong. I’ve noted where things are disputed or anecdotal, and so I believe this article can be considered accurate (to the extent that anything can; I’m sure there are at the very least some typos).
I hope I didn’t make anything up that appeared to be fact. Someday if I have spare time I may try to source more of this information officially; for now, if you notice something you believe to be false, send me an email and I’ll back it up.
December 23, 2011: Updated to reflect more experience with Dvorak.
April 2, 2012: Reformatted and updated in the course of moving to WordPress.
August 4, 2012: General updates for clarity and other stuff.