Ryan Yacyshyn

My Experience with the Dvorak Keyboard

By Ryan Yacyshyn | Published Sep 1st, 2014

I've been interested in the Dvorak keyboard layout for quite a few years now and finally took the time and effort to learn it in May of last year. I rationalized that since I'll be typing on a keyboard a lot, I might as well use a layout that has many benefits over the de facto standard, QWERTY keyboards. It's been about a year and three months using Dvorak and I thought I'd share my experience with it, how and why I started, and some tips. I get asked a lot about what the Dvorak layout is, so let's start at the beginning.

Brief History of QWERTY and Dvorak Keyboards

It starts with typewriters. Christopher Sholes and James Densmore invented the first commercially successful typewriter in the 1870s. This typewriter has a typical keyboard and when you press down on a key, a hammer would hit paper and then the weight of the hammer was used to return it back to the original resting position. The hammer would return slower than what a user can type and so this slow recovery became a problem -- hammers could easily become jammed if they're close enough to each other.

Densmore suggested to split up the letters on the keyboard so that commonly used letter combinations were far enough apart so that the hammers wouldn't jam. If you're using the QWERTY keyboard layout right now, you'll see Sholes' arrangement, roughly 144 years ago. Once spring-loaded typewriters were manufactured the keyboard layout was no longer a concern but we still stuck with the QWERTY layout.

Sholes' typewriter Sholes typewriter

Obviously there are no weights involved in todays keyboards so why do we keep using the QWERTY layout? Are there better layouts that can be designed to improve our speed and accuracy of typing or reduce and even eliminate repetitive stress injuries? This is where Dr. August Dvorak and his brother-in-law, Dr. William Dealey come in. They created a replacement to the QWERTY keyboard in 1932 to do just that, and it's called the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard or sometimes referred to as the American Simplified Keyboard. The keyboard was designed so that:

  1. The most commonly used letters in the English language are on the home row, saving your fingers from moving out from their starting position.
  2. Upper row takes next priority after the home row, as it's easier than the bottom row and leaving the bottom row for the least used letters.
  3. Letters are typed by alternating between hands, creating a more even rhythm.

The Dvorak Keyboard The Dvorak Keyboard

Dvorak studied letter frequencies to help determine what letters to place on the home row. The chart below shows the relative frequencies of letters in the English language. Taking a closer look, you'll notice that the top eight letters are all on the home row on a Dvorak keyboard: English_letter_frequency_(frequency).svg

That makes sense to have the most commonly used letters right under your fingertips, and it seems like a waste to have the semi-colon take up such an important spot on the keyboard now, doesn't it? With this new arrangement, 70% of keystrokes stay on the home row and more than 3,000 words can be typed just on the home row alone, compared to about 300 on QWERTY. In addition, if you look at the Dvorak keyboard you'll notice all vowels are placed on the left-hand side. This helps create the even rhythm -- alternating between hands to type letters since the majority of words alternate between constants and vowels. With these improvements to the layout, typing becomes faster, more accurate, and your hands become less prone to RSI.

Barbra Blackburn set the Guinness World Record in 2005 for the fastest typer, maintaining 150 WPM for 50 minutes and peaking at 212 WPM. She used a Dvorak keyboard.

The Dvorak Zine has a great comic that explains and promotes Dvorak nicely. Check it out if you're interested in learning more.

How and Why I Started With Dvorak

After reading the benefits of Dvorak, I was ready to try it and devote the time to learn it. I heard of a couple ways to start, one was to practice Dvorak while still using QWERTY until you are comfortable to drop QWERTY all together. For me I wanted to jump right in as soon as I can. I didn't want to mix up both layouts throughout the day as that would be much more difficult. Starting was similar to how I originally learned to type, doing the most basic exercises that involve keys only on the home row (on Dvorak that would be uu hh ueue htht, etc.), then keys on the upper row, followed by keys on the bottom, then the whole keyboard. I started using Typing Lessons for Dvorak and printed the keyboard layout and posted it above my monitor to refer to. I didn't want to look down at my keyboard, I just didn't want to get into that habit but even if I wanted to it would be useless as the keys on my keyboard are in QWERTY anyway. Studying and memorizing the layout helped.

Once I memorized where most of the letters were and became bored with typing lessons I started to use Dvorak only. Typing was slow and typing was hell. Trying to type what's in my head while my brain is trying re-map all the keys to new positions simultaneously becomes exhausting fast. A paragraph feels like it takes hours and you begin to wonder if your backspace key is going to wear out. Different times of the day had different results. Mornings, when my concentration levels are highest were best and typing at night required more effort, speed and efficiency would quickly diminish. At times you feel like your brain doesn't want to think about location anymore and your fingers begin to randomly peck away at the keyboard until the correct letter finally shows up.

I started to keep track of words that were awkward to type in Dvorak, words such as "joke", "sexy", and "jquery". Possibly because joke is typed all with one hand and two of the letters are on the bottom row, jquery could be for similar reasons. Sexy has a big jump for the left index finger to make going from the bottom row for the "x" and to the top row for the "y". The learning process made me realize that there are must be a lot more words on a QWERTY keyboard just as awkward but we're so used to it after 15 ~ 20 years of typing on QWERTY.

Progress is slow but eventually I've become more familiar and comfortable with the layout. But am I any faster? I'm not so sure. I didn't take a WPM test before I started with Dvorak but I finished a test just now and I came in at 45 WPM.

Some Finding & Tips

I picked up some small tips along the way as I switched to Dvorak. On a Mac, you can use Dvorak while still keeping the keyboard shortcuts as QWERTY. Look for Dvorak -- Qwerty ⌘ in your keyboard input settings. This is important once you find out where the C and V letters are on Dvorak.

Even though you can keep the keyboard shortcuts the same, this is not the case when you need to use Ctrl + [letter] on a Mac. The OS will stick to Dvorak, so terminal commands and editing files in vi will need to be done in Dvorak.

Some programs do not take the Dvorak -- Qwerty ⌘ setting. Apps such as Photoshop and java-based programs (like Logicism) will stick to Dvorak so trying to save a file will bring up the "open" dialog instead.

You can easily toggle between your preferred keyboard layouts on a Mac by pressing [ ⌘ + space ]. This comes in handy when others need to use your laptop or when you feel like playing a game of QWOP.

It was interesting to find that the Dvorak keyboard is available in some versions of the Android OS, like Cynogenmod, and I hear Cydia supports alternate keyboards on iPhones. Although there's really no need to use Dvorak on a mobile device since the benefits that Dvorak offers are not applicable when you're swyping or tapping. I was relieved to find that switching to a Dvorak keyboard didn't affect my use of a QWERTY keyboard on a phone.

Would I Recommend Dvorak?

There are mixed results from people who use/used Dvorak and studies vary as well. One study claims a mere 4% increase in speed while another up to an astonishing 74%. How well a person knows QWERTY prior to learning Dvorak may play a factor in the end result. Barbra Blackburn failed typing class in high school using QWERTY and this inexperience was likely an advantage to her when switching to Dvorak. And perhaps people who are well-versed at QWERTY have a greater difficulty switching.

I can't determine if my speed or efficiency is really any better, if anything though, maybe it is a little more comfortable to type.

If I had zero typing skills and was starting fresh I would definitely choose Dvorak and recommend it to others. It would be great to see that tipping point where Dvorak becomes the de facto standard and have Dvorak taught in schools but unfortunately the time and effort required for the world to switch seems a greater burden than the inconveniences we have with QWERTY.