Why I don’t recommend DVORAK

On April 5th, 2011 I ended a 17month affair with the DVORAK system of typing. It really was more than an affair as I officially stopped using QWERTY (after some three decades of cold hard typing) and began my first tentative and clumsy keystrokes on a DVORAK keyboard.

I quit QWERTY because DVORAK seemed much faster, more efficient and just plain sexier than QWERTY.

I also liked being different and using DVORAK seemed like a very cool expression of  the Bartist (Business as Artistry) direction I have chosen to take my life.

This article is a (15 month late) fulfillment of a commitment I made to report on my experience when I took on this challenge.  See my original article on my switch to DVORAK here.

I’m also writing this for the few adventurous souls who have heard about the benefits of DVORAK and are considering whether it is worth the considerable time and frustration involved in re-learning a new touch typing system.

I’ll layout the good and bad points about using DVORAK as well as tell you about what it’s like to switch back to QWERTY.

First let me tell you what made using a DVORAK keyboard interesting.

Benefits of DVORAK

DVORAK seduced me with some very attractive promises.  They were:

Easier faster typing

Unlike the QWERTY keyboard which was designed to actually slow typists down, the DVORAK system was designed for fast, efficient and ergonomic typing.

The DVORAK keyboard is laid out so that the most commonly used keys are within easy reach thereby allowing your digits to travel less distance (vs. on QWERTY) to type the average word.

Bottom line is that you should be able to type faster and more comfortably using a DVORAK keyboard.

Reduced risk of repetitive strain injuries

Because the keys are laid out more ergonomically, your fingers do not have to do as much work, and go through less contortions in order to type the average word, this results in less stress to the fingers and hands and therefore results in less repetitive strain injuries.

For a more complete background explaining why DVORAK is though to be better than QWERTY visit Wikipedia or TheWorldofStuff.com/dvorak.There is even an ezine proselytizing Dvorak.

Good points

Here are the good points from my own experience.

Typing did ‘feel’ better

I did have the experience with at least certain words, that my typing was more fluid and relaxed and my fingers did seem to find letters more comfortably than on the QWERTY layout.   But this ‘feel’ good was entirely subjective and not enough to keep me using the layout.

Felt good psychologically

It felt good to know that I was using a keyboard layout that was helping me avoid repetitive stress injuries.

BUT, there was no evidence of this.  I wasn’t suffering from any injuries to begin with, so there was nothing to improve.

I think proper placement of the fingers on the keyboard despite whatever layout you use, proper striking technique, angle of forearms and hands to the keyboard are probably just as important to preventing repetitive stress injuries as the actual layout of the keys themselves.

In any event, the consequence of my good or bad typing techniques may not become apparent for many years to come.  All that I can say is that I have not found this benefit sufficient to remain with DVORAK.

Bad points

And there are some very clear negatives.

Never did achieve a faster typing speed

My typing speed never really improved significantly beyond 45wpm.  This despite spending some months actually practicing and doing DVORAK exercise drills on Powertyping.com.

Not impressive I know, but at the end of this article I provide a hypothesis about why my speed did not dramatically improve; a hypothesis that may also help you decide if DVORAK is worth your while.

The world is structured for QWERTY

Imagine trying to drive on the left side of the road when the entire nation is structured to drive on the right.  Bit of an overkill example, but the idea is the same.

As awkward as the QWERTY keyboard may be, the fact is that the computing world presents us with QWERTY as the computing roadway that we use everyday, virtually everywhere by virtually everyone.

I thought that this would not bother me as I work largely by myself and don’t often have a need to sit at someone else’s keyboard.

The reality is that even for solitary workers like me, there are times when we have to use someone else’s keyboard and the switching back and forth is a pain.

Windows computers, at least pre-Windows 7  do not easily allow the average user  to change the keyboard layout to DVORAK and back again.  This had me hunting and pecking to respond to email etc. whenever I used someone else’s pc.

Even on macs the process can be frustrating, but for a different reason.  While it is very easy to set up a DVORAK/QWERTY toggle, if you forget to switch it back, it can create a frustrating experience for the other person when they return to their computer.

Also on bootup of the computer the keyboard layout is … guess what?

That’s right: QWERTY!

This means that you won’t be able to touch type your password to log on, but must rather very carefully hunt and peck on QWERTY (you will have lost your ability to do this) every time your system is booting up.

It’s a long and frustrating learning curve

It took me three months of daily practice to begin to feel like my fingers knew their way automatically around the keyboard, and even then I still found my fingers sometimes hitting the old QWERTY keyboard.

If you write a lot, there will never be a good time for making the switch, but your decision is a commitment to practice every day, and it is a commitment that will not be rewarded for eight to twelve weeks.

This is a heavy investment and one that I only made because I wanted to have a conscious experience with deliberately practicing something. (More on ‘deliberate practice’ in a subsequent article.)

If it was also good for my health in the long-run (no repetitive stress injuries) that would also be great.

You cannot convert a little at a time

The mere act of typing one sentence will become a laborious affair. You will swear a lot, want to pull out your hair and/or hit someone, but you cannot go back and forth between the two systems. If you try you will make the process much harder.

Your neurons are wired to expect the letters to be somewhere that, with the exception of A and M, they are no longer.  You must go through agonizingly frustrating periods of thinking about each letter and where it is before you type it. There’s no shortcut.

To cope, you will refrain from typing long documents, and will resort to looking at the keyboard for things that you must type to simply get your job done.  The only way through this is daily practice for one to two hours, for the first three weeks.

There simply is no other way to rewire your nervous system to function on the DVORAK system.

Was nowhere near as cool as I thought

Even the guys at Apple looked at me eyebrow askew when they realized I was using the DVORAK keyboard.  I felt like a mythical figure that people talked about, yet nobody had ever seen one in the wild.

What you can expect if you switch back?

There are many people who have switched and will never go back.  Some because they really have experienced a real improvement; others because they don’t want to admit to making a mistake.

Here’s what you can expect if you decide it’s not working out for you and you want QWERTY back.

Your body won’t forget QWERTY

You will need the help of typing application to speed up the process.  I used TypingWeb.

The good news is that your body won’t forget the QWERTY system and you can switch back within a week to two weeks (not months).

Perhaps this was because my constant exposure to the QWERTY system on smartphones and other computers made me in a sense bi-keyboard.

More likely it was because I had used QWERTY for most of my life and my nervous system was able to “remember” QWERTY, rather than have to re-learn it.

The good news is that your cost to return to your old keyboard will not be anywhere near as steep as the cost to learn DVORAK.

The better news is that QWERTY won’t take your silly dalliance with DVORAK personally, and your new relationship can become much more personal that it ever was.  No more cold hard typing for me, I now know and appreciate where every key is, no matter how quirky the position.

In the end, don’t switch to DVORAK

In the end you really have to question your motivation about switching.  I found no real improvement in my typing speed which approached 45wpm under both systems.

This is slow by QWERTY standards and it made me think that my need for faster typing is governed by how fast I think, and the way I collect my thoughts and express them via my keyboard.

This suggests that there is a way to assess whether or not DVORAK is right for you. The speed at which I think and express it on my keyboard is probably suited to about 35 wpm – 75 wpm.

I find that I type at sometimes very high speed for 3 − 5 seconds, then I collect my thoughts for second or two, and then type again.  Like bursts of machine gun fire that average a measly 35 wpm.

So even if DVORAK does facilitate my typing faster, my thought process dose not require it, and the inefficient QWERTY keyboard works just fine at what is my ‘natural’ typing speed.

A reason to try DVORAK therefore is if you already type very fast, probably close to 100 wpm or more and suffer from repetitive stress injury (because you’re typing so fast and having to work against an inefficient keyboard layout to accomplish it).

If you are comfortable with under 75wpm and do not have an issue with injuries, I would not consider switching to DVORAK.  It just is not worth the effort.

What if you’re learning to touch-type for the very first time

This entire article is written from the perspective of someone who already is proficient at touch typing using QWERTY. But what if you’re learning to type for the first time; why not learn to type on a keyboard that is ergonomically designed?

This makes common sense, but again the difficulties with switching back and forth with other computers and computer users who don’t know DVORAK may frustrate this new user.

For this person I really don’t know the answer.  Who knows the benefits you may receive from losing your touch typing virginity to DVORAK instead of QWERTY.

It may well be that starting off here may also influence the way your thoughts are expressed on the keyboard, but I don’t know.

Conclusion

In conclusion, I don’t think the average adult user will gain any typing speed from merely switching to the efficient DVORAK layout that s/he couldn’t get from simply doing drills on typing applications like Mavis Beacon or Typing Web.

If all you’re after is a little more speed, it makes no sense to relearn an entire system, rather that just practice typing drills once or twice a week.

Re-learning may make sense if you already are a fast typer i.e. if your ‘natural’ typing speed is at a level (perhaps >100wpm) where the inefficient QWERTY keyboard layout becomes limiting) AND you are prone to repetitive stress injuries.

3 Responses to Why I don’t recommend DVORAK

  1. I respectfully disagree. While indeed, it’s taken a good while to learn dvorak and make it feel like my first keyboard layout—it’s been almost a year since I plunged into using exclusively—I feel like it has been extremely beneficial. If you truly invest the time and energy into learning the layout, it makes using a keyboard much more of a pleasant experience. I also, like you, started because I thought I would like to have faster typing speeds; however, while my WPM might actually be slower at the moment using dvorak compared to qwerty, my output has fewer mistakes, and is much more of a constant flow of typing than when using qwerty. I know that speed will come only after a matter of time.

  2. I’ll just add a quick comment and say that if anyone’s thumb-typing with a touchscreen keypad, Dvorak is MUCH nicer in my opinion _and_ has the benefit of flattening the learning curve pretty significantly. I’ve found that typing with my thumbs, having an on-average left-right-left-right or left-to-right, left-to-right pattern most certainly increases my speed and accuracy. I’m probably like one of those poor saps in as-seen-on-tv commercials because QWERTY is really clumsy for me and I feel much less at risk of dropping my phone with Dvorak.

    Having gotten used to (and maybe attached to :P) Dvorak on my touchscreen devices, getting used to it on a physical keyboard has been much, much easier. I’d tried Dvorak on my physical keyboard a handful of other times before touchscreens and I always found it hopeless. So, I can say, if I were judging from using a physical keyboard alone, I’d agree it’s probably not relearning the keyboard, especially if you need speciäl chåracters ön your layout.

  3. Great contribution Jason. Never tried on a touchscreen and can imagine it makes a difference. Biggest drawback is going back and forth between machines that have QWERTY and Dvorak. Was really surprised how often I had to do this even though I work outside of a traditional office. Probably would have stayed with it if I didn’t have to switch as often as I do.

Any thoughts? Contributions/acknowledgments welcome.