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.
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the QWERTY-entrenched world barely noticed (except to ban Dvorak from competition, a grossly unfair move that was soon rescinded).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 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.
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.
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.