Saturday, July 08, 2006

Mt kgmd ,gkj kjd h.soav vdtnsaoh

So, three years ago I invested three weeks in becoming a proficient user of the Dvorak keyboard.

Why? I was a very proficient typist on Qwerty, as someone who spends a minimum of 50 per cent of her useful hours (and plenty of the non-useful ones) in front of a keyboard can hardly help being. I didn't need any of the extra speed reputed to be possible with Dvorak. And I could hardly spare the time, that pre-tenure summer.

But I'm a fan of good design, and the Dvorak is a very well-thought-out tool. (The Qwerty keyboard was too, but its design goal wasn't to promote efficient typing -- it was to prevent the keys of a manual typewriter from jamming.) Plus it has a geek coolness factor that seemed attractive. Plus I'd just been reading about how trying to execute well-rehearsed behaviors in some unusual way (e.g. with your off hand) is good mental exercise, promoting cognitive flexibility that can stave off symptoms of senility. I went around doing things left-handed a lot that summer. I figured that learning a new keyboard layout could be worth an extra three months of lifetime cogency. Finally, having your keyboard produce gibberish when a stranger sits down to it is a pretty good security feature (until they switch it back).

Some of the features of the Dvorak keyboard include distributing the work better between the left and right hands, placing the most commonly used keys on the home row, and planning for the efficient typing of common English digraphs. All the vowels are under the fingers of the left hand: a-o-e-u-i, rather than a-s-d-f-g. The 't-h' sequence is placed where the 'k' and 'j' are in a normal keyboard--very easy to type.

I've enjoyed being a member of this exclusive club, and I certainly was able to achieve typing speeds equal to or better than my old times with the Qwerty keyboard.

But -- I'm switching back, this summer. This may be permanent, or temporary, depending on whether my right arm finds it relaxing or not. I've started to find that my right forearm tendons are acting up. I'm thinking that my right hand already had enough to do in the other parts of my life, and the Dvorak layout, with its increased workload for the right hand, may have just pushed it over the edge. I had noticed while learning that my right arm got tired, when it really never had before. That went away with proficiency, but came back after prolonged typing. (Probably it's not rational to think that Qwerty will help, slince Dvorak is in fact thought by its proponents to be more ergonomic than Qwerty).

There are a couple of other reasons, too. When I'm visiting a foreign keyboard, or looking over someone else's shoulder and want to lean in and type a password or something, it's inconvenient to have to go into the relevant control panel and make my special keyboard layout available (and on some networked machines access to such things can be limited anyway). But if I don't switch it, it's pretty sad to be hunting and pecking and explaining defensively about how I'm actually a good typist on the Dvorak keyboard ("The what?"). (My cognitive flexibility did not extend to maintaining proficiency on two keyboards at once, sadly.)

So now I'm re-training on Qwerty (this post is typed in it). I'm progressing a bit faster than I did when learning the other direction, but not as fast as I would have thought, considering that I spent the first 20 years of my life typing in this keyboard! I think it's because the Dvorak layout really is way more sensible, linguisticaly and functionally. My fingers have a hard time reaching for all those commonly-used letters that used to be right underneath them.

So far it's not helping out with my right forearm — all this laborious conscious thinking about the correct motions is leaving it as tired as ever. It may be that I'll just have to ration my typing, like a normal repeitive stress injury victim. If that's the case, maybe I'll switch back. But it probably won't be worth it, really.

But — if I was handing out advice to someone learning to type for the first time (how young on average would I have to catch them these days, I wonder?), I'd still absolutely recommend just skipping qwerty altogether. Go straight to Dvorak. It really is a better system, and I think anyone'd find it more sensible to learn and more efficient to use, starting from zero. And if enough people go for the gusto, then the visiting keyboard inconvenience will ultimately be a non-issue.

The Ten Thumbs Typing Tutor is my teaching software of choice, by the way. It works great.

15 Comments:

Blogger Joe Clark said...

The business about QWERTY’s being designed to avoid keyboard jamming is an old chestnut. Hidden in the recesses of my files is a(n) historical review of QWERTY that found no evidence for that theory and proposes that the QWERTY layout is largely alphabetic, which you can see clearly on the home row.

Dvorak keyboards don’t have a significant advantage when tested against QWERTY with subjects who’ve never typed before, according to what I’ve read.

12:38 PM  
Blogger Andrew said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

1:31 PM  
Blogger Andrew said...

This may be the file Joe was referring to:
http://home.earthlink.net/~dcrehr/whyqwert.html

A

1:34 PM  
Blogger hh said...

Hmm -- in the description it says, "QWERTY's effect, by reducing those annoying clashes, was to speed up typing rather than slow it down."

That's what I said the design was for -- to eliminate key clashes & jamming. It was a good design for doing that! I didn't say it was designed to slow typists down. But it wasn't designed to speed them up, either, in the sense of increase the speed at which typists can strike the keys in a given sequence. Dvorak (I think!) was intended to do that. Whether it actually does that is another question...

2:04 PM  
Blogger Claire said...

Heidi, do you use your mouse with your right hand? I have a dodgy left wrist (break + reconstruction) and a lot of mouse use with my left hand (I'm left-handed) is guaranteed to produce tendon pain.

2:58 PM  
Blogger hh said...

Hi Claire!

Thanks for the thought! I do mouse with my right hand, but I have switched to the left occasionally; I'll do it again. I have been remembering to do it with my trackpad on the laptop.

Hey, that reminds me, I've been meaning to ask -- does anggarrgoon have an RSS feed? I read nearly all my blogs via RSS these days but I can't seem to find a feed button on the website (going to check again just to be double-sure... nope, can't find it). No worries if not, of course -- happy to keep up the normal way.

:) hh

10:12 PM  
Blogger Claire said...

Hi Heidi,
hmm, it *used* to, but I just went to find the feed address and it wasn't showing up. I changed templates a while ago and it may not be part of this template. I'll fiddle around a bit and get back to you.

8:57 AM  
Blogger Claire said...

ok, that ended up being easy. Should be there now.

9:01 AM  
Anonymous The Tensor said...

I'm pretty strongly right handed, but there was a period several years ago when I was playing first-person shooters, fencing, and taking drawing classes, and my right wrist just about exploded. I switched more-or-less permanently to left-hand mousing, and that seems to have helped a lot—my right wrist isn't as bad, and my left wrist only hurts a little.

12:59 AM  
Blogger sleekblack said...

I am amazed! We are going thru the same thing, you and I!

I've been on Dvorak for 3 months or so and it was torture to learn. I have not done a lot of typing tutor programs, mostly learned on-the-job, as it were, but I have never gotten near my Qwerty speed. I can do about 27 wpm Dvo vs. 60 wpm on Qwert.

I quit qwerty cold turkey to increase my speed and it did, but I still am stuck below 30 WPM. And I totally lost my qwerty.

I also still have occasional RSI problems, so it feels like a lose-lose.

As I await my mail-order kinesis keyboard, I am trying to decide what to do when I get it:
1) change back to Qwerty
2) stick with Dvorak
3) change to something really radical like arensito, capewell or colemak in an attempt to maintain the comfort but improve the speed.

I'm starting to wonder if the whole hand-switching-each-time-improves-speed theory is flawed. I think that rolling across consecutive keys is faster than switching hands.

And in closing I should mention that I began this post in Qwerty then wimped out after two sentences and went back to Dvorak. I'm pathetic.

11:57 AM  
Blogger hh said...

hey sleekblack!

My sympathies! The whole thing is a pain, isn't it? Switching back is still not completed for me yet, but almost. I'm up to about 40 wpm, still lower than my normal 60+ on qwerty (or, formerly, dvorak), but I'm confident I'll get there.

For speed, I found that actually using the typing tutor was a good help -- it reminds you to try and type slowly to avoid mistakes; then when you speed up your fingers remember where to go. I think the idea is that when I just try to type fast, making a lot of mistakes, my fingers aren't learning as well, because they're spending a lot of time going to the mistke keys as well as the right ones. In the typing tutor I remember better to try to only go to the right ones.

Anyway, good luck with it! My right forearm still hurts, btw -- don't know if switching back has helped it much. I'll let you know how the symptoms go.

12:12 PM  
Anonymous russell said...

I have an interesting situation. For the five years that I've been using Dvorak, it's mostly been on laptop keyboards. However, I've also been working most of that time on a workstation with a Sun keyboard, and I was forced to use Qwerty on that computer. So basically I'm used to typing with different layouts on different keyboards (in general, shallower keyboards make me think Dvorak). Recently at work we switched to Linux, and so I could start to use Dvorak, but it felt extremely strange at first (and due to some technical difficulties I'm back to qwerty for now).

But I think if I had always used dvorak at work, my qwerty skills would only have been used when using others' computers, or public terminals, and so would be rather poor. As it is I'm faster with dvorak, but not as fast as I was when I only knew qwerty. (but I almost never need to type fast enough for it to make a difference)

9:02 PM  
Anonymous Sleekblack said...

So how'd it go? Are you back to qwerty?

After 9 mo and lots of typing tutor progs, I'm still at 30 wpm.

I'm ready to give up on dvo... are you glad *you* did?

4:26 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Now that's strange. I guess, it is a nice idea, then, to spend some time with a tutor. I had done it and had no wrist problems at all. I find Dvorak much, much more comfortable to use.

I had the keys exchanged and at the time I switched. And being able to touch-type QWERTY, I switched the layout for a while, when I needed something fast. Maybe that helped. Then after a while I could touch-type both. Now I almost forgot QWERTY, because the acrobatics are simply painful and I'm using almost exclusively Dvorak.

Did the switch-back help the right hand?

9:08 PM  
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7:28 PM  

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