Why Dvorak And Colemak Are Not For Me

I’m starting this post after a long day of trying to learn the Colemak keyboard layout. I’m tired. I haven’t gotten much work done. The best speed I clocked after hours of conditioning was sixteen words in a minute – with three errors. Right now I’m relishing the familiar QWERTY patterns as my fingers fly over their well-worn, oh-so-awkward paths to my usual 70-WPM clip. But all of these things are normal, to be expected when one is breaking new ground after years of typing on a standard layout. And none of them is the reason why I’ve decided to give up on alternate layouts.

The problem of QWERTY

Even a cursory glance at any ordinary computer keyboard reveals one obvious fact about the QWERTY layout: It makes no sense whatsoever. The most commonly used letters are scattered around a seemingly randomized field of keys, making the layout difficult to learn and difficult to use.

Contrary to a popular notion, the ancient QWERTY layout was not specifically designed to be awkward and slow for typists. (If it had been, E would be where P is, and Z would replace F under the index finger.) Rather, this awkward layout was necessary to prevent keys from jamming in the early 1870’s typewriters. Key jamming hasn’t been a concern since the development of electric typewriters, but QWERTY shows no signs of going away any time soon. It’s the ultimate self-perpetuating monopoly: Everybody knows QWERTY, so virtually all keyboards are made that way, so everybody learns QWERTY to use the existing keyboards, so everybody knows QWERTY, and so on.

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Various insurgent movements have attempted to replace QWERTY with something easier to learn and use. To date, these efforts have made about the same impact on typing that Esperanto has made on language – that is, almost no impact at all, compared to the vast number of users in the mainstream. The first and most famous such alternative system is called Dvorak for the professor who introduced it in the 1930’s. Backed by significant research and testing, Dvorak claimed to increase efficiency and make typing easier to learn. If QWERTY ever was to be conquered, this would have been the time. Dvorak typists demonstrated the layout’s superiority by winning a series of typing speed contests, but the QWERTY-entrenched world barely noticed (except to ban Dvorak from competition, a grossly unfair move that was soon rescinded).

With the advent of computers, it has become possible – even trivial – for individual users to declare Layout Independence and chuck QWERTY for a high-efficiency option such as Dvorak. Many have done just that, including well-known tech figures such as Apple patriarch Steve Wozniak and WordPress co-founder Matt Mullenweg.

My experience with Dvorak

After thinking about it carefully, I decided a few weeks ago to try Dvorak. I did this not so much because of the purported ergonomic benefits, but because of the increased speed potential. At a peak 80 words per minute or so, I am a relatively fast typist, but my speediest work is pathetic compared to that of accomplished Dvorak users. The Guinness World Record holder for typing speed – a Dvorak typist, naturally – was clocked at a peak two hundred and twelve words in one minute, and could sustain a blistering 150 words per minute. (Needless to say, she was much in demand as a secretary.)

The Dvorak keyboard layout

The Dvorak keyboard layout. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

The idea of being able to type at even 100 WPM, plus the ergonomic advantage, made me willing to at least kick the tires on Dvorak. I installed the layout, which is included with Windows, and ran through some training.

My experience with Dvorak was, in a word, short. Although I pick up new things fairly easily, I had forgotten how many years of concentrated effort were required to achieve my current speed on QWERTY. Getting up to – let alone past – that level with Dvorak would have taken, optimistically, 40 otherwise unproductive hours – perhaps much more. Then there is also the problem of keyboard shortcuts such as Ctrl-X and Ctrl-C, which were designed for QWERTY and are not easy to do one-handed on Dvorak.

On to Colemak

After the short Dvorak experiment, I went back with relief to awkward old QWERTY and continued as before until a commenter on this blog put a bug in my ear about Colemak. I had always assumed that Colemak was just another funky Dvorak lookalike. Upon closer examination, I liked what I saw. Where Dvorak moves nearly everything on the keyboard and makes no allowance for standard Ctrl shortcuts, Colemak is designed to be easily adopted by QWERTY typists and accommodates the most common keyboard shortcuts. Only 17 keys are moved from the standard layout – sixteen letters and Semicolon. The resulting arrangement is impressively ergonomic-looking, with a litany of the most common letters occupying the home row.

Colemak keyboard layout

Colemak keyboard layout. Image courtesy Wikipedia.

After a brief trial which convinced me that Colemak would be much easier to pick up than Dvorak, I swapped out 17 keycaps on my Kinesis Freestyle keyboard and went cold turkey. (Some people recommend against switching all at once, but personally I don’t think I could ever develop the reflexes for a new layout while continuing to type on QWERTY at the same time.) The adjustment period started out approximately like I expected. By the end of the day, as I mentioned above, I was heavily fatigued – extending to back and wrist pain from the tension of trying to rework so many brain wires at once. But I could tell I was making progress. Common key sequences like T-I-O-N and I-N-G were starting to coalesce in my mind, gradually nudging aside the long-ingrained QWERTY reflexes.

So, why am I writing this on QWERTY?

Today I’m back on the standard layout. While I can’t predict the future, I don’t foresee ever toying with alternate systems again. This was not brought on by the adjustment period, which I am confident that I could handle. It was brought on by something I never thought of until I actually started using Colemak, something that has to do with a basic principle of high efficiency keyboard layouts.

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Among other things, Dvorak and Colemak postulate that the most commonly struck keys should be placed on the home row. I always accepted this logical-sounding notion at face value, until I tried it and found that I actually don’t like it. You see, I don’t keep my fingers on the normal home positions while typing. Prompted by an ergonomic trick I read about years ago, I let them stay where they naturally fall when uncurled. This means that my left middle finger, for instance, parks on E instead of D most of the time, and my right ring finger resides on O instead of L. As I grew accustomed to Colemak, I began to realize that my longer fingers were feeling cramped. The layout was doing its job of keeping my fingers on the home row, but the constant curling was doing a job on my fingers.

So here I am, happily pecking away on my 1870’s QWERTY layout, in yet another illustration of the fact that ergonomics is not about following the latest trends. It’s not about doing what some book told you was the best idea. It’s about finding what works for you, personally, for the long term.

In my case, QWERTY works.

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39 comments on “Why Dvorak And Colemak Are Not For Me

  1. Wesley Steinbrink on said:

    Jason,

    What are your tricks beyond what you have shared? What is the next step up to 70 wpm? Here is the link to Sean Wrona who also types Qwerty (very fast) and advocates whatever style feels comfortable:
    http://seanwrona.com/typing.php

    • No real tricks. I learned to type when I was about 14, and have gotten faster by sheer weight of practice. So other than getting a good keyboard (preferably mechanical) my best advice is to get interested in novel-writing. :-)

  2. Wesley Steinbrink on said:

    There are some exceptions to this pattern to be noted:
    You can remember them as follows:

    There have *been* a *large* *number* at the *border*

    been – usually type the N with the right pointer
    large – usually type the G with the right pointer
    number – (actually any word with M or N before a B override all B rules) – usually type B with left thumb.
    border – usually type B with right pointer, but could use left thumb. (left pointer ends up too out of the way for completing the word quickly)
    In any event if I use the “wrong finger/thumb”for B, I continue on smartly.

    Also, the left ring for Z and the left middle for X come from http://www.onehandkeyboard.org/standard-qwerty-finger-placement/

    I find that the Dvorak and Colemak practice typing tutors suit me for practicing Qwerty just fine!

  3. Wesley Steinbrink on said:

    I agree with you on “This means that my left middle finger, for instance, parks on E instead of D most of the time, and my right ring finger resides on O instead of L.” Someone told me again about Dvorak and Colemak – and I tried them also and a couple other for a while. Then realized that why not turn the problem around and find what works the best with Qwerty since it is so ubiquitous. I first noticed that the most frequently used letters are on the top row – the next most frequent are on the bottom row. I found that instead of a home row, that a home position works nicely. The fingers in order from left to right start out on a,w,e,r… u,i,o,p, and thumbs at v and n. This is the starting position really rather than a home position. I find that this is a comfortable way to type. I can approach 50 wpm. This helps especially to reach the number 6 by the way. X and z are hit by the left middle and the left ring respectively. Although if x is after e, then usually I will rotate my left hand and pivot on the e to hit the x with left thumb. Now B is special. At the first of a word I use the left pointer if the following letter is on the right side of the keyboard. If the following letter is on the left side of the keyboard, I use my right pointer. If the B is in the middle of a word and is followed by a letter on the right side of the keyboard, then I use my left thumb. If the B is in the middle of a word and is followed by a letter on the left side of the keyboard, then I use my right thumb. Sounds somewhat complicated, but it works out. I now don’t think that I could go back if I tried. This style makes it easy to type words like minimum.
    One thing I realized in this process was that there are a great many words where one can hit a key, then leave the thumb in that position, and finally move it one key over and hit that key when it comes up in the word. Said another way there are a great many words that contain “X and C” or “C and V” or “V and B” or “B and N” or “M and N”. This becomes very convenient. Like I said, I don’t think I could go back if I tried.

    • Wesley Steinbrink on said:

      There are some exceptions to this pattern to be noted:
      You can remember them as follows:

      There have *been* a *large* *number* at the *border*

      been – usually type the N with the right pointer
      large – usually type the G with the right pointer
      number – (actually any word with M or N before a B override all B rules) – usually type B with left thumb.
      border – usually type B with right pointer, but could use left thumb. (left pointer ends up too out of the way for completing the word quickly)
      In any event if I use the “wrong finger/thumb”for B, I continue on smartly.

      Also, the left ring for Z and the left middle for X come from http://www.onehandkeyboard.org/standard-qwerty-finger-placement/

      I find that the Dvorak and Colemak practice typing tutors suit me for practicing Qwerty just fine! I detest the Qwerty typing tutors – at least where they try to drill the home row into the depths of your brain.

      Another reason for keeping Qwerty is to easily use the Vim editor. H, j, k, and l for motion around a document make more sense that way.

      Also, don’t let people kid you. The record fastest typing speed has been on a Qwerty keyboard.

      “The fastest typing speed ever, 216 words in one minute, was achieved by Stella Pajunas in 1946 on an IBM electric.”

      http://www.ratatype.com/learn/average-typing-speed/

      “Mrs. Barbara Blackburn of Salem, Oregon maintained a speed of 150 wpm for 50 min (37,500 key strokes) and attained a speed of 170 wpm using the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard (DSK) system. Her top speed was recorded at 212 wpm. Source: Norris McWhirter, ed. (1985), THE GUINNESS BOOK OF WORLD RECORDS, 23rd US edition, New York: Sterling Publishing Co., Inc.”

      rcranger.mysite.syr.edu/famhist/blackburn.htm

      There is some report that someone was able to type 226 words per minute on Dvorak, but I am still looking for the name and date – if they exist. In any event similar speeds can be achieved with both – which is more comfortable for you?

      Although not the fastest time – the current champion for Qwerty is Sean Wronka seanwronka.com/typing.php He advocates whatever feels natural also.

  4. Your fingers felt cramped because you were learning a different layout (for the first time), thus your fingers were tense.

    Also, I suspect that you never learned to touch-type properly, hence your struggle with the placement of F and L. I’m not trying to make you feel bad about yourself: if you can comfortably type 80 wpm with Qwerty, by all means stick with it. It seems that some people are simply more gifted when it comes to typing speed, thus we shouldn’t feel bad about ourselves if we can’t match them.

    Before switching layout, you could experience significant improvements in comfort and speed by using a better keyboard, that is: a mechanical one.

    • Your fingers felt cramped because you were learning a different layout (for the first time), thus your fingers were tense.

      That’s possible, but I don’t consider it the most likely explanation. Intuitively, a curled finger is going to feel more cramped over time than a straight one, no? Anyone can experience this by simply making a loose fist for five minutes.

      Also, I suspect that you never learned to touch-type properly, hence your struggle with the placement of F and L.

      I don’t remember, and can’t find, any place in this article where I mentioned having trouble with F or L. I did say that I sometimes have my ring finger on O, but that’s a choice for comfort. In what way do you suggest that I might have learned to type incorrectly?

      Before switching layout, you could experience significant improvements in comfort and speed by using a better keyboard, that is: a mechanical one.

      True. Unfortunately the available selection of ergonomic mechanical keyboards is small – pretty much just the Kinesis Advantage and TECK. Neither of these works for my current purposes.

      • davkol on said:

        True. Unfortunately the available selection of ergonomic mechanical keyboards is small – pretty much just the Kinesis Advantage and TECK. Neither of these works for my current purposes.

        Maltron has been available for about 30 years. Open-source ErgoDox has been available as a DIY kit since early 2013 and even assembled later that year; Axios and keyboard.io were already in the works back then. Not to mention countless more or less vintage Asian ergonomic keyboards… Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

        • Maltron is several times the price of Kinesis, and thus, I think, out of range for most consumers. I’m also not quite sure what it offers that Kinesis doesn’t. Ergodox is interesting, but seems more for hobbyists at this point; same things with Axios. I’m aware of keyboard.io now, but wasn’t then. Will be interested to see where that goes.

          Another new one is the upcoming ErgoPro from Matias – most promising since it’s an established company and not a startup or hobby job.

  5. Julian Pereira on said:

    I’ve tried all 3. And I have to say that Colemak may look like QWERTY, but its the most challenging for me to learn. Maybe its me. But I struggle to make proper words with Colemak sometimes.
    I found Dvorak to be a whole lot better. If anyone has never touchtyped before, I suggest that. Dvorak the accuracy was so much better and the hand alteration felt better.
    Today I’m still trying to persevere with Colemak; simply because I like the positioning of the shortcuts.

  6. I am also trying the Colemak layout now, and it’s definitely an interesting layout, but like you I am so used to my fingers freely travelling so much over the keyboard that the home row key placement actually feels like I have to make too much of an effort not to move around my fingers. Also I am not used to resting my fingers on one row, having not learned in a typing class formally. I guess it’s all down to muscle memory which is so hard to re-train.

    I’ve spent some hours with the Colemak layout now and I feel quite frustrated, even though I am able to touch-type (quite slowly though) without too many mistakes. I can understand why some people prefer it though.

    As to dvorak, no thanks… It feels too much of a radical departure from what I am used to and it wouldn’t probably be worth learning in the long run.

    Good blog post.

  7. Derek on said:

    I used Dvorak for about 2 years. I love most of the placement with one exception: the L key. F was OK, but could have been better. Everything else was great. BUT, Cut/Copy/Paste just doesn’t work in the computer age. In Windows, i had a script that was invoked whenever i pressed ALT, CTRL or WIN keys – if i held those, the QWERTY keyboard came into effect for as long as i held them. AutoHotKeys is what achieved that for me.

    Then i started to dabble in Linux and there was simply no way i could achieve the same thing. I researched it for hours and hours and the only ‘solution’ available didn’t work :( So now i’m back on crappy QWERTY.

    So now i’m curious about Colemak, but having experienced Dvorak, i really, really liked the punctuation placement. Also, the complete lack of a CAPS key in the ‘official’ Colemak implementation is not something i like at all. The new backspace location is very clever, but to completely omit CAPS is a mistake IMO. Maybe the old backspace could be the new CAPS. But i don’t want to have to run hacks in the OS that may one day not work.

    I’m thinking too much about this :)

    • Jason on said:

      Very interesting. Have you considered using a keyboard with dedicated copy/paste keys? The Kinesis Freestyle has those. The Kinesis Advantage Pro also has hardware macros, so you can make it do pretty much whatever you want on any OS.

    • Bill on said:

      Two years with another layout, and you gave up! It would take a lot for me to ditch my investment in typing! It takes ages to become proficient.

      Jason’s remark that it would take 40 or more unproductive hours, to learn an alternative is such an underestimate! It takes about a day to learn the layout – and years to get fast. Though if you already have good touch typing fingering it might be far quicker. But it’s the repetition of bigrams and trigrams and popular words that edges you forward.

      If you want your shortcuts and to keep Dvorak and you have a full sized keyboard, or one with accessible Insert and Delete keys. You can use CTRL+INS, and CTRL+DEL as an alternative to the character based shortcuts. You might actually find you prefer them.

      Under Linux, under Gnome at least you can pick the caps lock behaviour. Some people move the tab there, or place the escape key there. If you like having backspace accessible on the left hand as with Colemak, you might want to use that under Dvorak or Qwerty.

      In Windows 8, you can flip layouts easily with Windows + Space, just like on OSX. It’s still a little unweildy flipping between them. Personally I have never missed those shortcuts, and I actually find them a little awkward too, but others just can’t seem to live without them.

    • Maybe of some use is that there is another standard for cut/copy/paste that as best as I can tell are pretty well supported in programs. In particular, SHIFT+DELETE is cut, SHIFT+INSERT is paste, and CONTROL+INSERT is copy. This does not require any hacks and would work with any of the keyboard layouts being discussed.

  8. I think someone suggested it already but according to this guy having an ergonomic keyboard is more important than the layout:
    http://xahlee.blogspot.com.au/2011/06/keyboard-layout-dvorak-vs-colemak-is-it.html

    • Yeah, which is more “important” kinda depends on your main goal. If it’s just comfort, yes, the ergonomic keyboard definitely wins. If speed, it might be a tossup for some people. Fortunately, you don’t have to choose between the two. There are plenty of ergonomic keyboards with options for alternate layouts. :-)

  9. I’m so glad you got this right. Dvorak, and Colemak both make the wrong assumptions, that is, by typing the popular letters on the HOME-ROW you can type faster. WRONG. THE fingers are of unequal length, to wit, the middle, and index, which tend to want to rest on the top rows NOT the home row. And as you say, the cramping problem.
    QWERTY also allows for rolling the finger to get part of the words, for instance, the word “you”. You can roll the letters o and u, in the top row, etc. it’s very natural
    the the greatest advantage of QWERTY is the unintended consequence of the jamming problems of the early machines.
    by designing the machines not to jam qwerty makes typing into a SEESAW like motion. this allows to have one hand type while the other hand prepare for the next key…with Dvorak many times you type the whole word with one hand. NOT a good idea. i don’t know much about Colemak but my guess it’s just a money making scheme to take money from naive and gullible college students, like Speed Reading.

    • Jason on said:

      Glad you liked my perspective on Dvorak. Yours is very interesting as well. One question, though: Who is making money from Colemak?

    • Bill on said:

      It’s bunkum that you’d type whole words under Dvorak with one hand (unless you are looking at the single hand layouts). The reason being is that the vowels are on the left hand, which pretty much necessitates alternate keying with each hand. Some people really like this, other people like to roll on the existing hand. It’s a matter of taste.

      Qwerty places four vowels on the right hand: Y, U, I and O, which will also introduce some alternation as a natural consequence, but not as much as Dvorak, as it still sites the E and the A on the left hand.

      If you look at the characters on the right hand side of the Qwerty layout, you’ll notice that it holds some infrequently used characters like: J, K and a lot of punctuation. It actually over burdens the left hand, which is at odds with right handed people. Though of course over time we get used to these things.

      If you look at Colemak, I liken it to the child of Qwerty and Dvorak. It’s a layout that favours home row typing, but isn’t a radical departure from Qwerty. It’s for those that already have learnt to touch type Qwerty that want some of the benefits of Dvorak without going the whole hog. It’s a comprimise.

      There are other comprimise layouts that keep most of the Qwerty positions and only change a few keys, like minimak:

      http://www.minimak.org/

      The author claims that a switch of just four Qwerty keys, will give you the most bang for your buck.

  10. deekayen on said:

    I’ve been trying to address the same issues you’ve mentioned in your blog post. None of Workman, Asset, or Colemak felt right when I typed with them. Since I figured none of the other keyboard layout designers were really any more qualified than me, I created my own and called it Norman at http://norman.deekayen.net/. I think it’s right for me, if I can get around to switching to it fulltime that is. Maybe you can create one right for you, too.

    • I applaud your initiative and boldness in rolling your own keyboard layout! It looks very interesting. For myself, these days I am disgustingly content with QWERTY.

  11. “In my case, QWERTY works.”

    In your case, you don’t seem to know how to type properly…

    If you would normally “rest” your right middle finger on the “L” key and extend it to the “O” key, then you clearly must have missed the most important rule of typing. You feel those bumps on the “F” and “J” keys? Yeah, those… they’re usually raised dots or bars, and they’re on virtually every keyboard that’s ever been made. You can see them too if you look. You’re supposed to use those to properly align your fingers; your pointer fingers rest on those keys. They are there to help you find the home row and align your fingers/hands without sight.

    If you have as many fingers as I and most other humans have, then that means your “middle” finger is the next one right of your pointer finger on your right hand. Which means, according to the QWERTY layout, that your right middle finger should be resting on the “K” key and extend to reach the “I” key. How you can type with your right middle finger on L/O is beyond me; I have in the past accidentally rested my right hand on the “kl;'” keys in the same way you describe and I’ll just say, half or more of what ended up on screen was random symbols, with maybe a few letters in between. Pure gibberish.

    The other major keyboard layouts also use the same “home row” setup, with your fingers intended to sit on those same keys. The only difference is that those keys result in different characters being entered.

    • I think you might want to read back over what I wrote. I said that I rest my right ring finger on L, not my right middle finger. Perhaps you confused that statement with the previous phrase, where I referred to the positioning of the left middle finger. Obviously, resting the right middle on L would cause some serious problems.

  12. I switched to Colemak about 2 years ago, while I was in the middle of doing my Masters degree. I touch typed about 70wpm in qwerty, but I found that I was getting soreness & numbness in my hands due to the amount of time that I was spending on the computer every day. My job also requires a lot of typing. It was really awkward for about a week, then it got a little bit better and my speed and accuracy started to improve. I just practiced and learned the layout using a typing program for a little while, while concurrently using it exclusively while using the computer. Now, I probably type about as fast in Colemak as I used to in qwerty, but the difference I feel in my hands and wrists is tremendous; I don’t have any more pain or numbness. I am no longer able to type well in qwerty, and I really struggle when I have to do any work with it.

  13. Andrei on said:

    Hey, thank you for sharing!

    I didn’t realize I actually do not like to keep my fingers on the home row until I read the conclusion of your post. When I read that, I just looked at my fingers, tried to move them to the home row… No way I would want to keep them in that position for a long time.

    I have being surfing around, trying to find out what is needed to type faster and was considering DVORAK first, then found some comments on COLEMAK and thought maybe it is even better.

    Why did I wanted to switch? QWERTY never actually bothered me, I think I can type just fast enough (didn’t do any benchmarks, though), but I thought maybe I’ll find something, which will allow me to type even faster, would be more convenient.

    Another problem you might encounter if you switch to different keyboard layout is keyboard shortcuts, which will move to different physical positions. I *heavily* use them, and I do remember positions, not the characters, as I regularly switch between to layouts. In that case remapping of those shortcuts would be unavoidable.

    Conclusion for me: I’ll stick with QWERTY. But I think I need to change my keyboard, though, ha-ha (that’s yet another interesting topic!).

    • Jason on said:

      It’s always nice to hear when my own experience resonates with another user! QWERTY is so old and awkward that I kind of hate to promote it, but as I wrote, I’ll do what works – whether it’s the latest/greatest/coolest or not.

      I sympathize on the keyboard shortcut problem. That was one of the first issues I encountered during my brief fling with Dvorak. Colemak accommodates the common ones, but if you use a lot of really advanced key combinations, I can see where switching would be very problematic.

      If you’re looking to change keyboards with an eye to increased typing speed, let me suggest that you think in the direction of mechanical keyswitches. There aren’t too many of these when it comes to ergonomic designs, but you might look at the Kinesis Advantage or the Truly Ergonomic keyboard. Both of these feature staggered rows as well as mechanical action. I have used and liked the Advantage, but I can’t really say much about TE as I haven’t even been able to get in touch with the company. I think the units are currently on backorder (again).

  14. Wayne on said:

    Interesting post! I appreciate your effort to look beyond the QWERTY standard to find new alternative ways to type. I have been working on my own system which reduces the keyboard to just ten keys, each acting as shift keys to provide 100 keystrokes with simple combinations. I’ve built a few and we are now attempting to make it wireless but if you would like to try the USB version, contact me. The focus of our device is to make touch-typing easy with one hand or with both hands on small mobile devices. the site is at http://www.in10did.com but here s a short video so you can see how it works. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pBmb4heEsb4
    Regards,
    Wayne

    • Jason on said:

      Sorry for the delayed comment approval; you got stuck in the Spam Machine on a false positive. Your new device looks very interesting and I would love to try it out – I’ll contact you via email to discuss further.

    • Bill on said:

      I’ve seen joypads covered with keys as an alternative input device. But they look unweildy. I like the idea of reducing the key count, but I personally find chording an issue.

      There are also projects like asetniop, that reduce the key count and increase chording:

      http://asetniop.com/

      And probably my favourite interface for simplicity, dasher:

      http://www.inference.phy.cam.ac.uk/dasher/

  15. Wow, some very in-depth observations – thanks for contributing.

    I do see the logic of Dvorak, and I have also heard that it can be learned three times faster than QWERTY, which is a big plus. Put together with a curved-row keyboard for flat-handers like me, the layout would be a real winner – with the usual drawback that keyboards in schools, labs, kiosks and public places use QWERTY almost uniformly. Still, for someone who has never learned to touch-type and plans to do it for a living, I can well see where Dvorak would be the right choice.

    As to your question about why the keys are staggered, my understanding is that this is simply a vestige of a bygone era. Keys on manual typewriters had to be staggered to leave room for their mechanical arms, and this configuration became self-perpetuating – much like QWERTY. Some keyboards have moved away from staggering, though, such as the Kinesis Advantage and the Typematrix 2030.

    Your thought about hexagonal keys is also very interesting. I personally have no idea why keyboard keys couldn’t be made like that, and intuitively it would seem that such a keyboard could have a smaller footprint than the current design. I do think that circular keys used to be found on some manual typewriters, but I have never seen them on a modern device.

    Frogpad, Maltron, Datahand – I’m familiar with all those, but haven’t obtained any samples yet. I see that Frogpad’s website has been fixed since the last time I tried to contact them, so I may give that another go. Maltron is so high-end – and European – that I doubt they send out they even send out units for evaluation. Datahand, unfortunately, seems to be out of production at least for now, but I’d love to give their fingertip-based device a try.

    Thanks again for your thoughts.

  16. I’m a Dvorak user, that never ‘properly’ touch typed under Qwerty.

    It takes years to master a keyboard. Words that you type all the time become easier and easier. It’s a far bigger investment than we care to realise. So changing layout is going to be tricky.

    Colemak is supposed to be easier for Qwerty typists – because it keeps some of the layout (some keys are in the same place, like punctuation.) Dvorak on the other hand is more of a radical departure.

    I do think if you are new to the keyboard – Dvorak is a good choice. Because it divides the keyboard in half. Vowels and common punctuation is on the left hand. The right hand plays a melody. This actually makes it easier to memorise the layout, if you think about it. It also puts more work onto the right hand – which suits right handers.

    Qwerty oddly favours the left hand, which makes switching to Dvorak seem odd.

    I found it hard aligning my fingers to the home row. However if you do curve your fingers. There comes a point where the almost align. Type like this and you’ll find it easier.

    If on the other hand you like to type with your hands flat, you’ll be at conflict with a layout that is heavy on the home row.

    I am surprised we haven’t seen any radical design changes in the physical layout. Why stagger keys, why not have circular or hexagonal keys? Why is the keyboard so asymmetric? It baffles me.

    • Oh and why are they so flat!

      I should add that there are alternative designs. Look at the Frogpad, the Maltron and Datahand, for something a little different.

  17. Then , you may want to read someone’s else’s blog with the similar sentiment on colemak and dvorak but had a different conclusion. :)

    http://viralintrospection.wordpress.com/2010/09/06/a-different-philosophy-in-designing-keyboard-layouts/

    IMO, it may be true that colemak and dvorak’s preference for home row keys might be misguided but it doesn’t mean they’re as bad as qwerty. This guy didn’t like the whole home row either and also made use of the upper row keys (like those for the middle fingers). Based on your observations, you will prolly like his layout. :)

    • Thanks for taking the time to comment and post that link – fascinating stuff.

      It seems to me that the Workman layout was designed mainly to combat lateral finger movement. The designer talks about how little it uses the “center column” – the G and H column on QWERTY. The only major keys I see moving up off the home row vs. Colemak are D and R. While this might help with uncurling the left hand, it seems to leave the right hand pretty much where Colemak has it – firmly planted on the home row.

      I wouldn’t necessarily go so far as to say that Colemak and Dvorak are misguided to love the home row so much. Obviously, those layouts work really well for a lot of people, and if you have a staggered keyboard such as the Kinesis Advantage, there’s no problem with finger curling.

      Given that most people don’t have a staggered keyboard, however, I think the whole concept of a “home row” may need to be rethought. When laid out ready to type, our fingers simply don’t form a “row” – they form more of a cup. Moving up the home positions for the ring, middle, and possibly index fingers does much to accommodate this natural posture.

  18. David Tchepak on said:

    Sorry it didn’t work out for you. Thanks for writing it up. :)

    I’m still struggling away trying to learn Colemak. It’s been about 10 days (mixed with qwerty use), and I can get between 30-40 wpm (down from 100+ with qwerty).

    I’m going to persist with it for a while. I touch-typed from the home row, so I actually find the Colemak layout very comfortable. Much less reaching, and my fingers don’t get as tired. And I’m actually finding the experience of re-wiring my brain really interesting (although somewhat traumatic).

    Definitely agree that finding what works for you is the crux. :)

    • I’m glad to hear that it’s working for you, and I applaud your persistence in sticking with it. I really do think this question has a lot to do with individual typing style, as well as the kind of keyboard you use. If I was on a staggered keyboard such as the Kinesis Advantage or the Truly Ergonomic Keyboard, I might feel quite differently about spending all my time on the home row.

      BTW, thanks again for putting me onto Colemak. It was an interesting ride :)

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  • About The Blogger

    Jason, the All Things Ergo bloggerI'm Jason, a web professional and ergonomic enthusiast. I'm also a partner in a tech business that operates several ecommerce sites, including this site, All Things Ergo.

    I have no particular training or expertise in the area of ergonomics. My views are based on my own personal experience, and what works for me won't necessarily work for you.