Computational Science and Data Science

Hans Fangohr

The Dvorak keyboard - what, why and "really?"

Where does the QWERTY keyboard come from?

I have read (quite some time ago) that the very first type writers (which were mechanical, of course) had the letters arranged not in QWERTY layout but in alphabetical order. We could call it the ABCDEF layout. Thinking about it, this is an order that makes sense: everybody is familiar with the alphabet, thus the keys are easier to find if they respect the same order.

The well-known QWERTY keyboard layout was "designed" a little later, as a response to the type writing machines jamming: the hammers entangle if they are engaged too quickly after each other. As the hammers are more likely to entangle if they are used in quick succession - as they need a finite amount of time to travel to the paper and back into their rest position - one solution is to slow down the type writing process. (Another one is to arrange the hammers more cleverly.)

I don't know whether this meant that hammers were arranged to optimise the mechanical process or to slow down the typist by arranging letters in positions that are particularly awkward to reach and to operate with the human anatomy. Probably both strategies were used.

In any case, it is fair to say that the QWERTY keyboard layout emerged from mechanical constraints. And that this was making the existing user interface (the ABCDEF layout) worse, as the keys were now arranged in what appears random order. And possibly the order had been chosen to slow typists down.

The mechinal constraints have disappeared in the age of computers, where the connection between the pressed keys and the letters that appear on the screen is dealt with by software. We can thus change the keyboard layout, and optimise it to best support the typist.

What is the Dvorak keyboard layout?

Dvorak (yes, apparently related to the composer, but not the same person) researched the letter frequency and sequence frequency in the English language for a decade, and developed a new keyboard layout (the so-called Dvorak keyboard) which aims to make typing english words on it particularly efficient. Efficient probably means painless and fast. Here is the layout (pdf):

Dvorak keyboard layout

Small red letters show the QWERTY layout, and black letters show the Dvorak keyboard layout.

We can see a number of design principles in the layout:

  • the most frequent letters are all located in the middle row. If you touch type, your 8 fingers (except the thumbs) rest (or hover) over the middle row of the keyboard. To use these letters, the fingers thus do not need to travel away from their rest position.

    The statistics are such that about 70% of all keystrokes are in the middle row for the Dvorak layout. For the QWERTY keyboard, only 30% of the keystrokes are in the middle row.

    The base positions of the little finger to index finger of the left hand are on the keys for a, o, e, and u. The fingers of the right hand rest on h, t, n and s.

  • Vowels are all grouped together in the left hand (all in the middle row), whereas the most common consonants are grouped together in the right hand (also in the middle row). In many English words there is a sequence of vowels and consonants alternating, leading to alternate use of the left and right hand. Many people find that more ergonomic than having multiple keystrokes with fingers of the same hand. Think of this like a drummer using sticks an alternating hands if they need to be fast.

  • Within these design consideration, thought has gone into the precise order of keys. For example, if we have to use multiple keystrokes from the same hand, most people consider it easier to subsequently tap all four fingers of one hand starting from the small finger, then the ring finger, then the middle finger than the index finger. Doing the reverse motion (index, middle, ring, small) is generally experienced as more awkward and carried out slower. This has been taken into account, for example, in the arrangement of the keys t and h, which occur a lot as a pair in English (for example in "the").

Is it really worth learning this?

I think so. The world record in speed typing is held on a Dvorak keyboard (at least this was the case when I researched the topic about 15 years ago), and there are multiple reports from RSI sufferers that their pains and problems have disappeared or reduced after they switched to the Dvorak keyboard.

From personal experience (I learned touch typing on a QWERTY keyboard, then learned touch typing on the DVORAK layout), I find that the Dvorak keyboard feels more pleasant. I think this relates to most keystrokes being in the middle row and much less stretching of the fingers being required.

What if I type somewhere else?

If you need to use a QWERTY keyboard, and you normally use a DVORAK layout, the QWERTY keyboard will feel odd and awkward, and you will be slow(er) using it.

On the positive side, your (Dvorak) keyboard is a very good protection from people inappropriately taking your keyboard and using your computer (unless they know the layout as well, but that's pretty rare).

There are people who have learned both layouts and can switch between them instantaneously.

Can I learn two layouts?

There are people who have learned two layouts (i.e. Dvorak and another one, typically QWERTY in English-spoken countries) but it appears that it is important to use both regularly to maintain that skill. The typical set up here is that somebody uses the Dvorak layout at home and is forced to use the QWERTY layout at work (due to a lack of administrator rights, for example).

How do you recommend to learn the Dvorak layout?

I took the keys out of my keybord and re-arranged them to resemble the Dvorak layout. In hindsight, I would recommend not to do that. Instead, I would print the Dvorak layout and put it next to the keyboard. Then try to recall the position of a character, and if you can't find it, look it up on the paper.

The reasons for the paper approach are:

  • you don't need to physically tamper with the keyboard you have
  • it is portable (just take the paper with you)
  • if you need to look up a key, and you need to look at the keyboard for this, you need to lift the hands up from the keyboard. This interferes with the touch typing philosophy that the fingers rest above the keys.

Do you really just change the layout and start?

Err, probably not; somewhat depending on how high your frustration tolerance is and what your mental abilities are.

The normal approach to learning how to touch type is to practice with an increasing set of letters (starting with just two), in the same way that somebody learning piano or flute will play some notes first, and increase the repertoire of notes over time.

There are online touch typing courses, open source and commercial applications (for example this) that provide exactly such exercises of increasing complexity. Many of those allow to choose the keyboard layout one wants to learn, and provide appropriate exercises for that layout.

Such a course would probably be a good starting point. Complemented with using the new layout for a few days for normal work, this may establish the desired layout in the muscle memory relatively promptly.

How long did it take to learn it?

My background was that I had been able to touch type on a QWERTY keyboard for nearly 10 years when I attempted to switch to Dvorak. I had no intention of maintaining the QWERTY typing skills.

The first week was pretty grim, and the next month felt slower than I could type before. After that it felt like an improvement. So about a month I would say.

It's a great project to be attempted during Phd studies, where there is a lot of freedom to invest into methodology to be more efficient in the long run.

Is it worth learning touch typing at all?

Yes, irrespective of which keyboard layout you learn. Being able to touch type is of particular value if you anticipate a career that requires use of computers; be it for coding, report/paper writing, minute taking or dealing with email. The efficiency savings over decades are significant, and - despite smartphones and tables - the keyboard is still the main interface to digital communication and document creation in professional settings.


Thanks go to Jacek Generowicz for the suggestion to learn using the Dvorak keyboard layout at the same time. For historical purposes: this must have been around the year 1999 or 2000.