Technology

The Geeks Who Use Alternate Keyboard Layouts

30 Sep 2018 9:00am, by

When you look at the life of programmers, they spend a lot of time on their keyboards. But there are hundreds of thousands of people who’ve abandoned the traditional “Qwerty” layout — and are searching for something better.

Matias dot ca - promo photo for Dvorak keyboard - Dvorak_header_1

A Canadian company named Matias sells “fewer than a thousand” physical keyboards that are already pre-configured in the Dvorak layout

In May the BBC noted the Dvorak layout “has a cult following.” Steve Wozniak likes the Dvorak layout. It’s used by the fastest typist in the world (as reported by the Guinness Book of World Records). “Qwerty is a pile of garbage from the 1800s and you shouldn’t use it,” says Alec Longstreth, the co-founder of a Dvorak keyboard fanzine, adding “It’s bad for your hands.”

Screenshot of The Dvorak zin

“He eventually gave up trying to spread the word,” notes the BBC, “because he found it tiring being a technological Cassandra, forever shouting at deaf ears in online forums.”

But Frederik Dudzik re-started the conversation this month with a post on his software development blog. Its title? “Don’t use Dvorak.”

Dudzik made the switch to the alternate “Dvorak” layout five years ago, reporting that it took him a full two months to get used to his new layout — and that it was hard. “Learning a new layout is one of the most frustrating experiences that I’ve had so far. Muscle memory built up from touch typing on a QWERTY Layout for years meant that during the learning phase, I would constantly press the wrong key. My brain didn’t like that feeling — this is what I imagine a stroke victim must feel when relearning a basic skill.”

In addition, “This made me aware of how often you use other people’s computers.” Once you’ve trained yourself to type the U key with your right hand, it’s always a shock to use a keyboard where it’s tucked in the home row under your left.

But worst of all, switching to the Dvorak layout didn’t seem to be radically improving his life. “I didn’t notice typing speed to be a limiting factor in my programming anyway.” He acknowledges that it might help fight repetitive stress injury — at the very least because you type slower for the two months that you’re learning the new layout.

Arizona-based tech geek Joel Hans wrote a rebuttal to Dudzik Wednesday, noting “I was surprised at how thoroughly I disagreed with his points, and how different my experience has been.”

Eight years ago he’d switched to Colemak, another alternate keyboard layout, calling it “the weirdest, most difficult to explain, and perhaps the most productive change I’ve made in my computing life. It’s well worth the learning curve. Plus, it’s a great way to prove your nerdiness — if that’s been a concern of yours, at least.”

He doesn’t remember why he did it — and he wouldn’t say he types faster now, “but I feel more comfortable.” He applauds Colemak for filling the “home row” (under your fingers) with more commonly-used letters, and adds that “using Caps Lock as a backspace key has been a revelation.” But even he ran into one familar problem. When he sat down to take the GRE — a crucial part of his graduate school applications — he realized he’d have to answer an essay question…on a QWERTY keyboard. “Cue panic, frustration, lots of hunt-and-peck, and a terrible essay. In the end, I still got into my dream school, so, disaster averted.”

He acknowledges that “QWERTY forgetfulness has been the most significant downside of learning Colemak,” but since it happens so rarely, “the damage is limited.”

He offers one last bit of advice to his readers. “Enjoy the journey to, hopefully, a weird and surprisingly comfortable way to make your computing day-to-day better.”

But the discussion didn’t end there. Earlier this week, Dudzik discovered his article had triggered a big discussion on Hacker News, where it attracted over 140 comments. Dan Fabulich, who co-founded a company that writes Interactive Fiction, posted that he uses Dvorak 99% of the time. “I can still use QWERTY, somewhat slower than before I learned Dvorak, but not much.”

Another user complained that the Dvorak layout didn’t eliminate the problem of repetitive stress injury. “I really ended up just moving the problem rather than fixing it (mostly to my right pinky),” reported James Gregory, the co-founder of a Whereoscope, a smartphone app that lets parents track their children. But instead of switching back to Qwerty, Gregory had tried yet another alternate keyboard layout — Colemak — and reported that it was “life-changing.”

And another commenter concurred. “I firmly believe that any differences or gain that people attribute to Dvorak is attributed to finally learning how to properly type.” They were convinced that Dvorak isn’t any more ergonomic.

Shai Coleman, who invented the Colemak layout, estimates that 100,000 people are using it. But he acknowledges to the BBC that “For most people, the switching cost won’t actually be worth it.” Shai agrees that it is easier to know where the keys are when you have to use somebody else’s computer and that old-fashioned Qwerty still works better than Colemak on a smartphone.

Dozens of other commenters on Hacker News shared their own experiences, creating a spontaneous colloquium about the pros and cons of alternate keyboard layouts. I counted over 40 different users who said they’d tried using Dvorak. 35 of them were still using it — at least three had been using it for over 20 years, and several more had been using it for at least a decade.

And one commenter even posted that they’d used the Dvorak layout their entire life, and never learned how to type on a QWERTY keyboard. “While my typing speed is higher than average, it’s not so much higher that I can confidently credit the use of Dvorak, and in any case, I have never found that typing speed has any significant effect on programming productivity.”

“Contrary to this author’s experience, however, I very rarely need to do any serious typing on anyone else’s computer, so the fact that I become an absurdly clumsy two-finger typist in front of any machine but my own is nothing more than an occasional source of amusement for my coworkers”

But there were also seven commenters who said they’d tried the Dvorak layout, but eventually gave up and switched back to the QWERTY. Someone remembered learning Dvorak in college but complained that “on a work computer, where other people should be allowed and able to do some minor operations on your machine, it’s too much of a hassle.

“I will add that the initial learning period was infuriating but more than anything a pretty fun challenge. ”

Someone else had even started using Dvorak in high school — though they eventually stopped because of the “hassle” of other machines setup with QWERTY layouts. “Using Dvorak can be a conversation starter. You’ll get lots of nerd cred from the right people but plenty more weird looks from everyone else.”

It was a theme echoed by other comments — one called the difficulties in switching back to non-Dvorak keyboards “a show-stopper.”

But for some people, that’s actually an advantage. One commenter remembered a prankster at work trying to mess with his machine — only to be thwarted by the Dvorak layout of the keys. “Also makes it harder to capture your passwords by looking over your shoulder…” added another user. Another Dvorak user agreed that a non-standard keyboard layout makes “a good security device”

And several others reported they were able to switch easily between Dvorak and Qwerty, making them, in effect, keyboard layout bilingual.

So what does the science say? The BBC cites “at least half a dozen scientific tests conducted using human subjects between the 1930s to the 1970s.” The consensus? Dvorak was faster — though in some cases by only a small percentage. “The General Services Administration’s assessment was possibly the most damning. It suggested that if a business or government department trained a worker on Dvorak, they would be absent for four hours every working day for five weeks. At the end of it, they wouldn’t be any faster.”

Another 10 commenters on Hacker News said they were using Colemak — though a few others shared bad experiences.

It’s just not just a matter of personal preference. I was surprised how many commenters said they’d tried alternate keyboard layouts specifically to help avoid repetitive stress injuries by reducing the amount of work done by their fingers. There’s even another alternate layout called CarpalX — and it’s not the only keyboard layout that’s offering a better future.

And then there’s Martin Krzywinski’s layout TNWMLC, which the BBC describes as “pure typing torture. It puts all five vowels on the bottom row. It prioritizes words with the letter z, while common letter combinations require serious finger gymnastics.” Krzywinski works in scientific data visualization at the British Columbia Cancer Agency in Vancouver and calculates that it’s 87 percent more difficult than QWERTY.

It seems like we’re living in a world where hundreds of thousands of people are bravely experimenting in a quest to find better ways of doing things. But not everyone’s been successful.

“Must be just me but when I tried to learn Dvorak I got literally nauseated,” remembered one commenter.

“Never felt so sick from doing something so simple/hard.”


WebReduce

Feature image via Pixabay.

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