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switching to dvorak; worth it?

October 1, 2016

About a year ago, my computer keyboard broke and I started looking for a new one. Those of you who know me could have predicted what happened - I fell down the rabbit hole and went real deep. I found out about not only mechanical keyboards, but the different types of switches, types of key shapes and different plastics used for the keycaps (love me some PBT now), actuation forces, tactile feedback, touch typing, various ergonomic keyboards (check this bad boy out!), and different keyboard layouts. I figured that I spend at least 5-8 hours a day using my keyboard, especially as I'm learning to code, so I should try and get something that is better for my hands. In the end I went with a Topre board, the Happy Hacking Keyboard Pro 2. I also decided to switch from the standard QWERTY keyboard layout to Dvorak. So, now that I'm about a year in... was it worth it?

 

My HHKB Pro2. I custom dyed the keycaps to make it look like The Dark Side of the Moon. Blank keys ensure that even looking at the keys provides no help while typing, forcing me to learn to touch type.

 

First of all, though, you might ask why the switch? I use my hands a lot: whether I'm putting pressure on them cycling, playing jazz piano, typing for hours on end.... I'm very aware of the various injuries that can arise from Repetitive Stress Injuries to Carpal Tunnel to fatigue. So I'm constantly taking breaks, stretching my tendons, etc. Now, QWERTY was invented by the man who invented the typewriter and its purpose was to spread out the most commonly used letters or letter combinations so that the hammers of the typewriter, which at the time used gravity to return to their resting position, wouldn't jam when typing quickly. Which was all well and good until manufacturers improved the design with springs so the hammers didn't rely on gravity. Thing is, that layout didn't account for typing comfort or efficiency. At that time, an educational psychologist named August Dvorak started developing a keyboard layout  that was more effective and, after much research, came up with what we know today as the Simplified Dvorak layout. Unfortunately, by then, QWERTY was so ingrained in the American subconscious that manufacturers and educators and companies didn't want to change something that already worked. Fast forward to today where we still use QWERTY on almost all our input devices. Even though it makes no sense!

 

So what are the benefits of Dvorak?

  • Ease of learning: Non-typists learn Dvorak in approximately 20 hours compared to the 55+ hours it takes them to learn QWERTY.

  • Less Repetitive Stress Injury: All the vowels and the most commonly used consonants are on the home row in a manner that forces your hands to alternate as you type. This also ensures that you spend almost 70% of your typing time on the home row vs. QWERTY's 65% typing time spent awayfrom the home row. Less movement is just better for your hands overall. Consider, also, that on Dvorak you have over 3000 words you can write with the home row alone, including the most commonly used articles like "as",  "the", "and", "it", and so on. Compare that with QWERTYs mere 300 words for the home row.

  • Less mistakes, more speed: Because you spend more time on the home row, you spend less time reaching. This reduces potential mistakes because your fingers are more sure of where they are landing. Meanwhile, the alternating nature of the layout ensures you can type faster. Try it: tap the table with your left index finger repeatedly, as fast as you can. Now do it with both the left and right index fingers. Which one's faster?

So what's my experience with Dvorak been like? First, I should mention two things: One: I learnt to type like most people - the "hunt and peck" method. Being a child of ICQ and MMO heydays, I adapted and learnt to do a faster version of that, a mix between that and proper touch typing (typing without looking at the keyboard) - it was the peck without the hunt. But I always needed to look at the screen to see what I was typing or if I was correct. Two: testing myself before making the switch, I was typing at an average of 50 words per minute with a top speed of 70 wpm.... not too bad, but far from good.

 

I was worried about a few things before making the switch: Would it be worth it? Was it going to be difficult to switch between layouts in day to day life? And would it take long to learn?

 

So I made the switch. I switched everything - I changed my Macbook Pro's keys (above), I changed my iPhone's keyboard, my WinPC, too. And the first few days were horrendous! I was barely typing at all. It was slow, cumbersome, foreign. But then I started practicing with a few free online touch typing courses. Every day, I'd have three 5-10 minute practice sessions, morning, afternoon and night. That's beside all the other typing I was doing. By the second week, I was at a moderate 20 wpm. The third week was the absolute worst. I knew where everything was but I'd still have trouble finding it. Worse, muscle memory, much faster than active thought, would kick in and hit the corresponding QWERTY key. That instinct was the hardest to retrain. A month in, I was churning about 40 wpm. A year later, I am typing comfortably at a steady 70 wpm with my top speed so far being 94 wpm - though I definitely feel like I am straining when I'm going that fast. And while I certainly won't try to become a speed typist, having that skill is fun.

 

Is it difficult to make the switch back to QWERTY? Well, yes and no. Let's face it, the majority of the world is on QWERTY, so I still need to be able to use it. And I can. It takes about 5 minutes to adjust and then I can type reasonably well. I tested myself on it for this article and I am typing at about 30-35 wpm - which is just below average typing speed (40 wpm). Decidedly slower than I was before. But I'm not worried because anywhere I go where I'm going to be doing serious typing, I can just turn on Dvorak from the system menu in about 20 seconds. No problem. Either that or I bring my own keyboard (like I do at work). 

 

My WinPC keyboard is a Novatouch TKL - a cheaper, but still great, Topre board. I changed the caps to have a 1970s Space Invader theme. Seeing people trying to use my blank keys is fun because it's so infuriating for them.

 

So was it worth it? The answer is an enthusiastic yes. I definitely think Dvorak is a superior layout. My hands are noticeably less tired and I like the feel of how smooth typing is, with the exception of "F" which is in a bit of an awkward position. My fingers generally move less and in a more natural way compared to my old form of typing, which involved a lot of hand movements. As a coder, I find myself wishing a few of the keys were in different places because I use them so frequently but I'm going to refrain from creating and building my own custom keyboard layout. In the end, I'm glad I made the switch, as difficult as it was.

 

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