March 28, 2011

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On typing in Dvorak

Stefan asks:

I use the “normal” QWERTY-layout but I am thinking to switch over to
Dvorak. I read somewhere that you are using Dvorak. Can you recommend
it for someone who is not a programmer and just types some messages. I
am at 54 WPM in QWERTY. What is your count in QWERTY and in Dvorak. I
am really curious about it.

Short answer: Try it out if you’re curious, but don’t expect miraculous speed gains – typing layout is probably not your bottleneck.

One of my quirks is that I’ve switched my computer to the Dvorak keyboard layout – same keyboard, just different software configuration. I taught myself Dvorak on a whim during the summer of 2002, to see how easily I could reprogram muscle memory. It took a month of typing painfully slowly, and then things clicked. I currently type at about 90wpm on both Dvorak and QWERTY.

I prefer Dvorak, though, because it feels like more even use of my fingers. This is partly because of the layout, which optimizes for alternating fingers when typing English. This is also partly because I learned how to type Dvorak using a computer-based typing program that encouraged me to use the right fingers to press each key. In contrast, I don’t remember ever learning how to type QWERTY. We must have had keyboarding exercises in school, but by then I typed faster than most people around already, and no one minded that I tended to hit keys with whichever finger was already in motion.

Choosing the Dvorak keyboard layout has a few consequences. First, it certainly increases geek cred, as odd computer-related decisions tend to do. ;) It also means that I have to switch the keyboard layout on my computer if anyone needs to borrow it. I can switch layouts, although sometimes starting up – or alternating between computers with different layouts – takes a little more thought. I’ve changed some of my keyboard shortcuts to make them more useful on a Dvorak keyboard. For programs like Nethack, I switch to QWERTY because the shortcuts feel better that way. My inclination towards Dvorak is also dependent on the keyboard size and feel – too small or too big, and I’ll switch to QWERTY. There have even been times when I have most of my windows set to Dvorak and one or two windows set to QWERTY – mildly confusing because of the context-switching, but easy enough to sort out.

Typing layout isn’t the limiting factor for me, though. At 90wpm, I can type about as fast as I need to type in order to write or program. If I want to do things faster, it’s more about thinking more quickly rather than just typing more quickly. My brain is the bottleneck, not the way the keys are arranged. (For example, this post was written at effectively 22wpm, not 90wpm.) When I’m picking up lots of passages from books, I find that dictating into Dragon Naturally Speaking 11 is reasonably fast, and it’s easier on my hands and posture too. So I don’t feel any particular urge to further improve my typing speed, just as my reading speed is fine. I still haven’t gotten the hang of dictating new text to Dragon Naturally Speaking, though. I currently find it faster and less distracting to type new content than to say it.

So:

Whether you’re on QWERTY or Dvorak, you might see a speed boost if you train yourself to type properly – pressing keys with the right fingers, keeping your fingers on the home row as much as possible, and using keyboard shortcuts and automation to reduce the amount of typing you need to do in the first place. Learning a new keyboard layout might be a way to break yourself out of bad habits. Aside from that, Dvorak, Colemak, and other layouts might be worth checking out as an intellectual exercise. Who knows, you might enjoy typing in one of them!

2011-03-28 Mon 21:47