Many of you have probably seen me floundering in front of a standard QWERTY keyboard over the past couple of months and thought me an idiot or illiterate or something worse. Friends, fret not for my mental integrity; I switched over to the Dvorak layout in December, and naturally, my QWERTY fluency has taken a hit. But now that I have more or less perfected my Dvorak (I can sustain 150 WPM for a few seconds, but average around 110), it’s time to settle, once and for all, which layout is superior: Dvorak or QWERTY?
Contrary to popular belief, the QWERTY layout was not designed to address the mechanical failures of early typewriters—namely, keys jamming when keys on the same side of the keyboard were hit in rapid succession. It was not invented to slow typists down, or even to separate common digraphs (two-letter combinations) on the keyboard. Two Kyoto University researchers tracked the evolution of the typewriter keyboard in a 2011 paper, concluding that QWERTY emerged as a result of how it was used, and not the mechanics of the typewriter. Telegraph operators who needed to quickly transcribe messages found the first alphabetical layout confusing for translating Morse code, and the paper suggests that QWERTY developed as a result of input from these operators. This was the layout that the five largest typewriter manufacturers adopted as the standard back in 1893 .
Decades later, alternatives to QWERTY began emerging, the most prevalent of which is the Dvorak layout. It was invented by Dr. August Dvorak, who researched the letter and sequence frequency in the English language for a decade and then designed the Dvorak layout with the goal of increasing typing efficiency. He claimed that his layout took less time to learn, was much more accurate, and was significantly faster than QWERTY. He attributed this to the fact that the most common digraphs could be typed with the stronger fingers, and with a minimum of “hurdling” (hopping over keys as if they were hurdles). Dvorak also estimated that where the fingers of a QWERTY typist would travel between 12 to 20 miles, a Dvorak typist’s fingers would only travel about 1 mile with the same text .
I assume everyone knows what QWERTY looks and feels like, so I will only outline the design principles of Dvorak. The layout looks like this:
Note the location of the most frequently used letters in the English alphabet. They are mostly in the home (or middle) row, the row on which your fingers rest when not typing. Statistically, 70% of all keystrokes are in the home row for Dvorak, while for QWERTY only 30% are in the home row. This means Dvorak typists’ fingers travel less distance from the home row. All of the vowels are on the left side of the keyboard (in the home row), and all of the common consonants are on the right side. Because vowels and consonants often alternate in the English language, this supports the use of alternating hands, which many people find faster and more comfortable. But on QWERTY, many words must be typed with only one hand, requiring hurdling or else ridiculous flexibility.
But what does all of this mean for the average typist? We may compare Dvorak and QWERTY more meaningfully with respect to five factors: learning time, speed, comfort, accuracy, and convenience or compatibility. If you cannot touch type (a truly vital skill) and want to learn how, the time it takes to learn each layout might interest you. Many people claim it takes about a month to reach the same fluency on Dvorak that they had with however many years of experience on QWERTY; though of course it varies by individual. It took me two months to surpass my QWERTY speed of about 100 WPM (but if you have that speed on any layout, I don’t recommend switching). If I’m not credible enough for you, there was a small study at the Assistive Technology Research Institute that supported the assertions that the Dvorak layout allows for faster and easier learning .
As for speed, Barbara Blackburn, the fastest typist in the world according to the Guinness Book of World Records, achieved her speed on a Dvorak keyboard. However, online competitors have apparently beaten her record on QWERTY keyboards . So the difference in speed at a competitive level is inconclusive (and irrelevant to mediocre typists such as ourselves, I might add). Mediocre typists usually see a small increase in their speed after switching from QWERTY to Dvorak. I certainly did.
Dvorak is generally more accurate when touch typing, which is one advantage of having 70% of all keystrokes on the home row. Types of errors differ between layouts, too: Dvorak typists are more likely to switch two letters in a word (“editorila” instead of “editorial”), while QWERTY typists are more likely to hit an entirely wrong key (“edit0rial” instead of “editorial”) .
Comfort, however, is no contest. Regular computer users such as programmers often suffer from various forms of repetitive strain injury, a blanket term that refers to musculoskeletal disorders including carpal tunnel syndrome and tendonitis. There are a few keyboarding solutions, such as remapping frequently used keys or switching keyboard layouts altogether. Professor of computer science Matt Might suggests switching to the Dvorak keyboard layout to alleviate any typing-related discomfort faced on QWERTY, in addition to purchasing a high-end ergonomic keyboard .
The most compelling argument to not switch is simply that QWERTY is the standard. The five largest typewriter companies settled on it in 1893, and we are stuck with it. While Dvorak is superior to QWERTY on a number of points, optimizing systems just because they can be optimized is inconvenient and impractical. There are better problems to solve. (I am suddenly reminded of the time I tried to learn Latin—a beautifully logical language, but dead nonetheless.)
Should you switch to Dvorak, then? Well, imagine lending your Dvorak-configured laptop to someone. They open a new tab, click a couple times, and bring their hands to the keyboard to type. This is the moment you’ve been waiting for—their touch typing is weak, so they type in a sentence or two without looking at the screen. When they finally look up, they see gibberish. They turn to you looking utterly confused and betrayed. If you enjoyed that, that feeling of power, then Dvorak is for you.