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Keyboard Optimization

posted Jan 3, 2014, 5:28 PM by Sean M. Messenger   [ updated Jan 3, 2014, 9:26 PM ]

Background

Ever stopped and thought about how fast you are typing on a computer? Perhaps played a racing game? Maybe wishing you could type faster? Or even wondered about the origins of the universal, modern-day keyboard (layout)

Long story short, the modern keyboard (QWERTY) is designed in an inefficient and slow way. There are alternative key layouts that are easier on your hands or support faster typing. I use an alternative called Dvorak. As a preface, I type at over 70 WPM with either Dvorak or QWERTY. See Conclusion for more quantifiable analysis.

Unfortunately, we are stuck with QWERTY just as we (in the U.S.) are stuck with imperial units (as opposed to everyone else in the world using metric). It is a standard, and will likely remain so for a long while. 

I will present a brief overview of the topic, and will leave further investigation[1] (and experimentation!) to you. You can adopt a new keyboard if you want! It's easy. Apart from changing muscle memory, that's the hard part.

QWERTY

The QWERTY layout was not designed to be slow, per se, but it was designed to space out frequent pairs (digraphs) of letters[2]. For example, TH shows up frequently in the form of the, this, these, that, et cetera. This actually increases the speed you can type in some ways, but slows it down in others. It definitely increases finger travel distance while typing, and has resulted in a keyboard that realistically makes no sense in the modern age. Try typing "stewardesses" or "mommy you ok" on QWERTY. In both cases, one hand does the entire phrase. That's not good!

Typewriter Image

We are moving fingers much more than necessary, there is hardly any scientific backing to the layout that is still relevant on modern computers (let alone cell phones), and there are alternatives available that are easy to install.

In QWERTY layout, only 32% of characters typed in English are on the home row.[1] The following heatmap shows which keys are most commonly used based on a large sample word set based on SAT reading passages.

Heatmap showing frequency of use of certain keys.

Alternatives

I will highlight three alternatives that I have tried or done extensive research about. There are others, but these are the most prominent and frequently adopted I have found.

  
QWERTY and Dvorak keyboard layouts, respectively.

There are many comparison discussions and comparison applets available online, try some of them out! 

Dvorak

This is my favorite. In general, it remaps every single key on the keyboard to optimize typing speed while reducing errors and finger travel distance. These are all accomplished by putting the most commonly used characters (in English) in the home row, next most common in the upper row, and least common in the bottom row. Additionally, all vowels are on the left side of the home row, leaving the most commonly used consonants on the right side of the home row.

It is generally easier to reach up with fingers to the upper row than to curl and reach below. Dvorak also distributes the use of right and left hand much more evenly than QWERTY. Dvorak comes pre-installed on Windows systems nowadays.

This layout has 70% of typing being done on the home row, compared to QWERTY's 32%. Additionally, only 300 words can be typed on the home row in QWERTY compared to 5,000 in Dvorak.[1]

Heatmap in Dvorak of the same input as for the above QWERTY example.

Colemak

The Dvorak keyboard is a massive change to QWERTY and takes a long time to get used to. Colemak is more of an incremental change making it easier to learn than many other alternatives. Arguably, it is more efficient than Dvorak, but that depends on the metrics you use. Both Dvorak and Colemak are huge improvements on QWERTY and their differences are almost negligible. Some people really like it, but since I adopted and love Dvorak don't think I will regress to Colemak. That being said, Colemak would be a much easier transition than going straight to Dvorak.  

Workman[3]

This layout was designed by someone who tried both Dvorak and Colemak, but found neither one of them quite satisfied his needs. This looks to be a great compromise, and is one I have been trying out on and off.

Struggles Adopting

It is hard to change. Very hard. I tried a few times and always reverted back to QWERTY. Eventually, in the summer of 2012, I removed QWERTY from my computer entirely and made Dvorak the only option. I had a reference sheet showing the key mappings, but I typed slower than hunt-n-peckers on QWERTY! It was terrible! I dreaded receiving any emails, because then I'd have to write responses! 

In the end though, I think that was the best time and way to make the transition. I had no imminent deadlines such as papers or reports, no stress from homework, and made a hard transition. If you give yourself excuses to go back to QWERTY, you will not adapt entirely! It's all about retraining your muscle memory. Passwords will be very annoying, as will common shorthand and shortcuts you are used to. I would estimate it took about 40 hours of typing to regain my old speed after making the transition. I just didn't type that often when I made the transition -- you could easily be fluent in an alternative layout in a week.

To actually change your keyboard on Windows, go to the Control Panel > Regional and Language Options > Language Tab > Click "Details" Button > Click Add > Select Keyboard Layout "United States - Dvorak". Once you learn how to use the keyboard fluently, you can easily switch between Dvorak and QWERTY with Ctrl+Shift. That shifts between keyboards on the current application.

To make your life easier, try doing online racing games, tutor applets, et cetera. One good one I found was made by Michael Capewell called Typing Tutor Program. It is at the bottom left of the page.

Further Variations

I would also like to point out there are variations on all these alternatives I presented. There are Left Hand Dvorak, Right Hand Dvorak, Programmer's Dvorak, Programmer's Workman, and more. The one-hand versions I used while tagging pictures. So I turned on Left Hand Dvorak and had my right hand on my mouse. That sped up the process significantly, compared to moving my right hand between the keyboard and mouse.

Similarly, the Programmer's variations generally make it easier to write code. This means optimizing the placement of special characters. In Dvorak, the numbers are rearranged. In Workman, you effectively are in caps lock for the numbers (symbols come by default, shift gets you to numbers). This is motivated by the prevalence of symbols and general lack of common use of numbers (except constants 0 and 1 and the original declaration of constant variables).

Maintaining QWERTY Speed

If you do make a transition, remember: QWERTY is not going away! You are stuck with that on every computer you use except your own (unless you customize more). You need to stay proficient in it. Personally, I can type in both Dvorak and QWERTY -- but much prefer the former. I am slower with QWERTY by about 10% from when I started using Dvorak. Considering how rarely I actually use QWERTY, that's not bad. 

Conclusion

I used to have a respectable typing speed of 70 words per minute (WPM) on QWERTY. When I started Dvorak, I slowly gained from 12 WPM (sooo slow at the beginning!) up to 90 WPM at the end of summer. After 3 weeks stranded with Dvorak, I obtained a speed significantly faster than with QWERTY -- 90 WPM. Over the course of the past year and a half, I further increased my speed to around 100 WPM. I attribute this to using the keyboard more frequently than I used to, and that this transition gave me motivation to try and type faster. Realistically, research shows Dvorak results in 5% faster speeds for the average user.[1]

This is drastic improvement in my mind! I type faster, my fingers are less sore, and with all that I type I have never had carpal tunnel or sore wrists. Plus, I don't have to worry about people seeing my type my password! Haha. 

Do some research and decide for yourself if you want to transition!

Also, read a comic about keyboard history (and Dvorak specifically)!

References