Sep 212011
 

Rather than the more traditional QWERTY key layout, I use DVORAK. I’ve been typing with DVORAK for just over a decade, so I no longer remember my original intentions for switching. However, DVORAK has long been recommended as a replacement for QWERTY – partially for typing speed improvements, but also to reduce ergonomic strain on the typist. Studies conducted by psychologists have suggested perhaps a 5% speed improvement for DVORAK, but the ergonomics have not been thoroughly studied (estimates based on finger travel distance suggest a potential ~40% improvement). I argued for the efficiency of DVORAK by analyzing keyboard layout efficiencies for several different types of documents.

When I purchased a Kinesis contoured ergonomic keyboard in 2000, I discovered there was a learning curve before I could use the new keyboard effectively – Kinesis contoured keyboards arrange the keys in straight columns. It made sense to make the switch to DVORAK at the same time and re-train myself entirely. This lead to several weeks of frustration, but I was determined and thankful that I stuck with it (much like when I completely uninstalled Microsoft Windows from my first computer).

Photograph of Kinesis Contour Keyboard

For the majority of these last 11 years, I’ve had a DVORAK keyboard at home and QWERTY at work. Within the last two years, I’ve been able to use DVORAK for both. I now perform almost everything on a Kinesis contoured keyboard with DVORAK layout.

People often ask how I cope when I happen to sit down at a QWERTY keyboard. The truth is that there is no problem at all. When I sit at a traditional keyboard my fingers automatically know to go QWERTY. Similarly, when I sit at a Kinesis keyboard nothing makes sense but DVORAK. Although I didn’t fully consider the ramifications until recently, I have inadvertently trained my brain to be capable of both keyboard layouts. But each layout is strongly associated with a specific physical keyboard design!

I am not a psychologist, but I was curious to learn how well my skills would transfer. Am I able to use QWERTY on a Kinesis keyboard? How effectively would I work if I sat down at a traditional keyboard that had been remapped to DVORAK? My hypothesis was that I’ve so strongly associated the physical Kinesis keyboard with DVORAK that I would be unable to perform satisfactorily with any other layouts. Similarly, attempting to use DVORAK on a “standard” keyboard would fail. I found the results to be surprising…

Performance Test Set Up

There are a lot of factors involved in typing: speed, accuracy, fatigue, etc. For this test, I chose to perform multiple 60-second typing tests. Each trial tracked speed and accuracy. Fatigue was not specifically gauged, although it would likely appear as a reduction in speed and/or accuracy.

A simple but effective typing test is available at typingtest.com. I elected to use the same typing text “Astronauts” for all tests. Repeatedly typing the same document multiple times could cause some bias – typing scores could increase each time through the passage as I became more familiar with the sentences. However, being familiar with the document would allow me to focus on the best typing performance. To reduce the effects, I began with my preferred configuration: DVORAK on the Kinesis keyboard. If any bias were present, it would most negatively effect the Kinesis.

DVORAK and QWERTY Test Results

For each keyboard configuration, I conducted 15 typing trials. I then plotted the sequence of trials – the shaded area represents words per minute (wpm), while the red points indicate the total quantity of words typed (including errors). The higher the red dot, the greater the number of errors. When the red point matches the shaded area, I made no errors. No trial had more than 4 errors.

DVORAK typing performance on Kinesis Contour Keyboard

Clearly, DVORAK on a Kinesis keyboard is my preference. The scores ranged between 70 and 90 words per minute. Once I was familiar with the passage used in the typing test, all scores were above 80 wpm.

QWERTY typing performance on Kinesis Contour Keyboard

Just as expected, my QWERTY skill on a Kinesis keyboard is abysmal. Even after 15 trials, I barely scored above 20 wpm. There are almost no typing errors because I couldn’t touch-type at all – I was looking at the keys the whole time!

QWERTY typing performance on standard keyboard

Not surprisingly, I am competent when typing QWERTY on a standard keyboard. This was the first type of keyboard I learned to use and my scores were fairly consistently above 70 wpm.

DVORAK typing performance on standard keyboard

The most surprising results came from typing DVORAK on a standard keyboard. Although I expected to perform poorly, my skill increased as the trials went on. After just 10 minutes of typing, my scores were between 50 and 60 wpm. It also appears that my performance would continue to increase if additional trials were conducted.

Conclusion

I’m not a psychologist, so I doubt I’m qualified to actually draw conclusions from this test. It’s mostly a curiosity. For some reason, I was able to quickly adapt to a new key layout on a standard keyboard. On a Kinesis keyboard, I made essentially no improvement after 15 minutes of typing.

Certainly I would be able to learn QWERTY on my Kinesis keyboards, but it would apparently be a long process. For standard keyboards, the learning curve was quite short. It may be that DVORAK is deeply embedded from a decade of use. My use of QWERTY is currently less than 5% of all typing, so the connections in my brain may be weaker for QWERTY. This could give DVORAK an advantage no matter what type of keyboard I tried.

Finally, I should mention that I was originally concerned this test might ruin my typing skills. Over the years, there have been a few occasions of “brain freeze” during which I couldn’t get the key layout straight in my head. I would accidentally switch to the other layout mid-sentence. What would I do if my DVORAK and QWERTY skills were mashed together? There were a few moments of pause after conducting these tests, but thankfully everything settled down quite quickly and my typing does not seem to be compromised.

  5 Responses to “Brain Coordination: Using DVORAK and QWERTY Keyboards”

Comments (5)
  1. What an interesting experiment! As a musician I have experienced the physical memory associated with a keyboard! Is there a Kinesis keyboard labeled for Dvorak? I don’t know if my old brain could learn Dvorak without that. Would the Kinesis keyboard help with thumb and wrist fatigue? I wonder why the Qwerty typing on the Kinesis was so difficult-because you only associate Dvorak with that keyboard, or perhaps it is even more difficult to type the Qwerty configuration on the Kinesis? More testing required. . . .

  2. I can recall when you originally started learning DVORAK. You may not remember why you originally switched, but I certainly remember your response when I asked why. “If someone sees me typing my password, they never know that I’m using a different keyboard configuration.” ……or something very similar.

  3. Heh. Awesome. Security Through Obscurity

  4. I have been using the Dvorak system on a Kinesis keyboard for many years. I LOVE IT. I type very fast and don’t have any hand or wrist problems. I am thinking of getting a laptop or an I Pad and am not sure if there are any applications for either of them. I have no idea why the Dvorak system didn’t take off, it’s is so efficient and easy to learn. I used Mavis Beacon Teaches Typing to learn after years of not typing at all. I love new things, especially when they are so effective.

    • For the laptop: you can typically change the keyboard layout in software. In other words, you go into the accessibility settings and tell Windows or Linux that you want a DVORAK layout. It’s not the keyboard making the change, but the operating system.

      For mobile devices, such as Android and iOS, I don’t know if there are any good DVORAK options. I have to use QWERTY enough for work reasons that I have no issues switching back and forth instantaneously.

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