Standard Keyboards are Designed to Slow You Down

January 24, 2011 at 2:00 am 8 comments

By Kyle Kurpinski

It’s no secret that you will probably spend a significant chunk of your lifetime prodding at a keyboard, but have you ever considered why keyboards are designed the way they are? Logic would dictate that the layout of the keys should increase typing efficiency and maximize your output. Reality, however, is not always logical, and the vast majority of modern keyboards are actually designed to make you type slower.

The basic QWERTY layout – the default keyboard layout you’re probably using right now – is a remnant of the very first typewriters. As a kid I used to play with my mother’s typewriter and I would frequently jam the machine by pressing too many keys at once. The same thing could happen if a proficient typist hit two or more keys in rapid succession. Due to the mechanical nature of the typebars, jams were increasingly likely with faster typing speeds. The QWERTY layout (named for the six letters at the left side of the top row) was specifically designed to space out the most common letter combinations, thereby reducing jams by stunting the user’s output. By the time newer devices made typebars obsolete, QWERTY had already cemented itself as the primary standard layout. So if you’re using this archaic configuration today (which I admit, I am), you’re actually making yourself less efficient and potentially increasing your risk of a repetitive strain injury like carpal tunnel. Fortunately, there are other options available.

In 1963, Dr. Augustus Dvorak and his brother-in-law patented the (you guessed it) “Dvorak Simplified Keyboard,” which is one of the more commonly used keyboard alternatives. And no, it’s not just for engineers or computer scientists (or at least, it shouldn’t be). Take a look at the Dvorak layout below and compare it to your QWERTY keys. Note how many of the most common letters in the English language – T, N, S, vowels, etc. – are located in the “home row” where your fingers normally rest. This allows you to type the majority of letters with minimal hand movement. Less common letters like Q, X, and Z reside in the bottom row where keys are the most difficult to reach. On a Dvorak keyboard, approximately 70% of the keystrokes will occur in the home row compared to only 32% on a QWERTY layout.

Other alternative configurations are also available, including one-handed keyboards for people who like to type and use a mouse (or other peripheral) simultaneously, but Dvorak is probably the place to start if you’re looking for a quick way to increase your word-processing efficiency. Yes, it will take some vigilance to re-learn how to type on a completely different layout, but the results could very well be worth it. Besides, doesn’t it feel a little funny to willingly use a device designed to handicap you?

If you do decide to make the switch, the software to run Dvorak is already included with all major operating systems and can typically be activated with a with a simple change of preferences. You won’t even need to buy a new keyboard – Dvorak decal sets are available online (usually for a couple bucks) or if you’re ready to scrap QWERTY altogether you can manually remove and rearrange the keys yourself.

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8 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Nikola Malesevic  |  January 24, 2011 at 6:25 am

    I’m definitely going to disassemble my old keyboard, rearrange the keys and give it a try. Thank you for sharing, Kyle! I hope all of your future secrets will be useful as this one is.

    Reply
  • 2. Patrick  |  January 25, 2011 at 10:18 am

    Tried to switch a few years back and my diligence eventually wore off. I am now typing on a qwerty, same as ever.. :(

    Reply
  • 3. Kristen  |  January 26, 2011 at 8:37 pm

    great post Kyle. Welcome to Broken Secrets

    Reply
  • 4. Darlene  |  January 27, 2011 at 4:17 pm

    Wow, that’s a lot of deprogramming one would have to do. Fjfjfjfj is part of my DNA now!

    Reply
  • 5. Ryan  |  January 27, 2011 at 5:37 pm

    I had no idea! Thanks for the info! By the way…your book “How to defeat your own clone” is awesome! Keep up the good work.

    Reply
  • 6. Kyle  |  January 28, 2011 at 12:30 pm

    Thanks guys! Glad to be here (and glad you enjoyed the book, Ryan). I’m looking forward posting more!

    Reply
  • 7. Unintentional Housewife  |  March 15, 2011 at 11:47 pm

    THAT MAKES SO MUCH SENSE! I’ve often wondered why my lame left hand is responsible for such things as “e”, “r”, “s”, and “a”. Of course, the fact that I can sometimes type faster than I can think (definitely faster than I can write longhand) means that I’m unlikely to learn a new system. But at least I know why my keyboard doesn’t make any rational sense. Thank you!

    Reply
  • 8. Kyle  |  March 24, 2011 at 3:53 pm

    For every argument, there is a counter-argument. It has been brought to my attention that in one sense, the QWERTY layout actually increased overall typing speed (at least on a mechanical layout), by reducing the frequency of jams. Less jams means more time spent typing. However, there is clearly some debate as to whether this is optimal for a non-mechanical layout. See the link for a counter-argument: http://www.utdallas.edu/~liebowit/keys1.html.

    If you’re interested in Dvorak (or any other alternative layout), you should give it a try and decide for yourself. At the very least, you’ll have quicker access to your vowels. Cheers!

    Reply

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