The Dvorak Layout

How Long it Takes to Learn a Dvorak Keyboard (One-Year Empirical Study)

If a Dvorak keyboard sounds like a quasi-sci-fi tool for nerds, you’ve pretty much got the idea. In brief, a Dvorak keyboard is an alternate layout (where the keys are placed in different spots) meant to maximize efficiency. You don’t need any special hardware to switch, and any computer can be configured to use the Dvorak layout.

I was curious about the supposed benefits of a Dvorak keyboard, so I decided to switch… and I religiously kept a typing-speed-test journal for the first year, to show exactly how long it took me to learn (and if the benefits are really all that great).

 

The Supposed Benefits of Dvorak

First, a quick history lessen: the “normal” keyboard we all know and love is called a QWERTY keyboard, because the top letters from left to right read QWERTY. It was designed way back in the typewriter days, because it helped to prevent typewriters from jamming. Unfortunately, this means that the QWERTY layout is not optimized for typing comfort or speed.

This is where the Dvorak layout comes in. It was scientifically designed to equally spread effort between the two hands, reducing “tracking” so that the fingers move as little as possible. Among the supposed benefits are faster typing, less stress on the hands (pain), better accuracy, etc. In fact, the fastest typist in the world uses a Dvorak keyboard to maintain 150 WPM (words per minute) for nearly an hour on end. The peak speeds on Dvorak and QWERTY are clocked at 226 WPM and 192 WPM, respectively.

 

The Dvorak Layout

The Dvorak Layout

Some people claim that the Dvorak keyboard takes only 1 month to learn (to reach the same proficiency as QWERTY). I decided that I wanted to put all these claims to the test, and took the plunge to set myself up with a Dvorak keyboard.

 

How to Set Up the Keyboard

Mac (OSX) users can simply open the “Language & Text” section of the Preferences pane. From there, the Input Sources tab allows you to choose from a few types of Dvorak keyboards. I chose “Dvorak – QWERTY ⌘” for the reason that it preserves the “normal” hotkeys. In other words, ⌘+C still does a “copy” hotkey, exactly like a QWERTY keyboard (you don’t have to find the C character on the Dvorak layout).

 

Changing the input source on OSX

Changing the input source on OSX

 

Here are some good guides for Windows and Linux users (and Ubuntu). There’s also a good application for installing the Dvorak + QWERTY  in Windows / Linux.

 

Of course, the down side of this is that your physical keyboard doesn’t change. This means you’ll probably need a cheat sheet for the first few weeks, until you get used to the layout.

 

My Progress

Before beginning my use of a Dvorak keyboard, I had an average typing speed of 100 WPM (words per minute) on a standard QWERTY keyboard. My baseline goal, then, was to at least reach this level of proficiency with Dvorak. I frequently used an online typing test, and recorded the results for a full year before I finally reached my 100 WPM goal:

The first year with a DVORAK keyboard

The first year with a DVORAK keyboard

  • I used Typist (OSX application) for the first 30 days, for 30 minutes per day, because it is a good typing tutor with explicit support for Dvorak. Even though any typing tutor would help, Typist has lessons designed to help learn Dvorak.
  • I did not use the Dvorak keyboard full-time until I had been training for 12 days and reached 30 WPM (which was still excruciatingly slow, by the way — I remember friends on chat wondering what was taking me so long)
  • After this first month of training, I simply used Dvorak naturally in my day-to-day life as a computer programmer and blogger. In retrospect, I wish I had used the typing tutor more diligently in order to form better habits (though, thankfully, I did not develop any terrible habits)

 

Is It Worth It?

It depends on how you look at it. Obviously, I found the claim that “QWERTY typists can switch to Dvorak and regain their old speed in about a month” to be wildly overblown. I worked for a full year to achieve this feat, and though I had years of QWERTY experience behind me, I was only 23 years old when I started — with plenty of room for neuroplasticity.

A year after the fact, I was finally up to speed (100 WPM). All should be good, right? Well… not so fast. There are some infrequent headaches for Dvorak users. First, Dvorak – QWERTY ⌘ hotkeys don’t always work quite as well as I’d like (sometimes I find myself guessing at hotkeys in the terminal; sometimes the QWERTY key is used and sometimes Dvorak). Next, the iPhone/iPad does not support Dvorak, so when texting/etc. I was forced to use QWERTY (I wonder if this hurt my progress?) Finally, there’s the hassle of using other people’s computers: my QWERTY speed has dropped significantly, leaving me hunting and pecking when using a friend’s laptop.

On the other hand, I do believe that the Dvorak layout means that my hands are moving less, creating less stress. It also feels like this should hypothetically mean, eventually, I will become faster than I was with QWERTY (I plan to re-examine this at a later point). There’s also a certain cool/nerdy factor. As one friend humorously pointed out: even if someone knew my computer’s password, they would not be able to access it.

The verdict? Switching to Dvorak was a fun experiment and I plan to keep using it, but I wouldn’t recommend it for the average computer user. It takes a lot of effort to learn, and unless you really care about a few extra WPM and a little less stress on your hands, you probably won’t get much out of it.

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Zane Claes
I've compiled everything I've learned about happiness and productivity. You might enjoy the posts about craftsmanship or experimentation. Below are some of the most popular posts to get you started. If you have something to share, I'd love to hear from you. - Zane
  • donpdonp

    Thanks for promoting alternative key layouts. My hands thank me every day for learning dvorak a decade ago. It took me fully two years to learn it.

    That being said, there is no reason to promote dvorak! Dvorak does crazy-ass things with the non-alphabet keys. The benefit of an alternative layout comes from one thing – the vowels are on home row and the most-used consonants are on home row and the upper row.

    If I wanted to switch layouts today, I would not pick dvorak. A newer layout, which also had good operating system support, is colemak (colemak.com). It has the alphabet repositioning benefits without the crazy symbol key relocation.

    • http://LifeByExperimentation.com/ Zane Claes

      Thanks for dropping by, Don. I completely agree that the positioning of non-alphabet keys in Dvorak are strange, and as a programmer it bugs me a lot. I was unaware of the other alternatives when I started this experiment (about 2 years ago now!) and I guess I’m a bit committed to Dvorak at this point… unless I started afresh, again!

      • donpdonp

        I’m in the same boat, I dont think I have the energy to relearn a keyboard layout. I have the muscle memory of dvorak now. One thing that I wonder if its true for others is my brain could switch back to qwerty in a moment. I could type for 6 months on dvorak and when I walk up to a qwerty keyboard, its no problem to type in that layout. For people who havent switched yet, I hope they consider colemak.

        • http://LifeByExperimentation.com/ Zane Claes

          Hmm… I wouldn’t say that I could switch back “in a moment,” but I certainly haven’t completely forgotten QWERTY. Its weird when I do use a QWERTY keyboard, there are moments when I seem to remember it completely, and other momonts where I’m hunting and pecking…

        • Grant Gardner

          With Colemak, I employ the “look/no-look” strategy. I already knew how to touch-type in Qwerty before I learned Colemak, but when I started with the new layout, I wanted to retain my abilities with the old standard. I knew I would be sitting down to other computers that wouldn’t have Colemak available

          So, when touch-typing, I only use Colemak. On Qwerty, I look at my hands. Just seeing the letters under my fingers is enough to trigger some of the old muscle memory and I can type reasonably quickly and accurately with Qwerty. It’s a bit of a problem if I’m trying to transcribe something where I have to look at something other than the keyboard, but that’s not often. And I’m willing to pay that price for the lessened hand effort.

          Perhaps something similar can be employed with other layouts like Dvorak?

  • Grant Gardner

    As someone who had tried Dvorak in the past and then was needing to find something that still caused less hand fatigue, I ended up switching to the Colmak layout. Faster to learn, shares many of the same hotkeys/shortcuts as QWERTY, but I have found it to be much more balanced for my hands.

    I surpassed my Qwerty speed (though we’re only talking in the mid 40s – YMMV) within about 2 months. Now, even without dedicated practiced I’m regularly in the mid 60s which is a huge improvement. Maybe one you might consider?

    • http://LifeByExperimentation.com/ Zane Claes

      Indeed, it seems that Colemak has some significant advantages and a good following. The major reason I haven’t tried it so far is the lack of QWERTY ⌘ support on OSX. This makes hotkeys a huge pain in the neck :( Still, I might give it a try.

      Have you tried using a typing tutor, like Typist? I believe you could achieve much higher WPM if you did!

      Thanks for the comment, by the way.

      • Grant Gardner

        Ah, yes, the dreaded support problem. :(

        For typing, I use Amphetype which I quite like, but I just don’t dedicate the time to it that I should for really improving myself. I’ll remember to practice for about a week and then get lost in other things. I really should, though, as just a little improvement in speed and accuracy can really improve the typing experience.

        Huh, apparently I didn’t read the other comments on the article – completely missed the fact that someone else recommended Colemak as well. Darn allergy meds. :)

        • http://LifeByExperimentation.com/ Zane Claes

          Thanks for the recommendation on Amphetype! Yeah, it’s tough to do the daily practice :(

  • Albert Chang

    I personally think that your progress was extremely slow. My old speed with QWERTY was about 90 wpm, and now after about seven months my top speed is in the mid 130’s. Either you really didn’t practice much (as I’d practice about half an hour the first couple of weeks), as I really did regain my old speed in about a month and a half.

    • http://LifeByExperimentation.com/ Zane Claes

      Thanks for the comment, Albert – always fun to hear from others who have tried similar things. First, I’d point out that peak speed is VERY different than average speed. Peak speed tends to be at least 33% faster than average speed. My peak speed has been in the 170s for quite some time with Dvorak. Second, which method for calculating WPM are you using? Some methods are more forgiving than others; the “official” method penalizes you any time you make any mistake at all.

      • Albert Chang

        Thanks for the reply.By ‘peak speed’, do you mean words typed per minute or the rate at which you are typing? Because for very short intervals I think that we could type faster than 200 wpm, but I mean over an average of a minute.
        I actually used 10fastfingers as a test, but on the whole I have perhaps three or four words incorrect per minute, but it doesn’t penalize past not counting. Which software do you use?

        • http://LifeByExperimentation.com/ Zane Claes

          Hmm, 212 WPM is the world record for peak WPM, so perhaps the measurement technique here is different. If your typing tutor isn’t penalizing your WPM for errors, then it is calculating Gross WPM and not Net WPM, which will naturally be much higher.

          I’ve not seen a good definition of how long “peak time” is. Average WPM should be considered over many minutes (at the minimum of 5min, if not more; the world record for average speed was 150 WPM maintained for 50 minutes, or 170 WPM maintained for a bit shorter). Some good tests are http://typeracer.com or http://typingzone.com – they also let you see how your scores stack up in “contest” format.

          • Albert Chang

            You’re coming across as pretty condescending, in that you didn’t read what I said. I said that “for very short intervals I think that we could type faster than 200 wpm”, which would be perhaps the period of a single word or so, and not myself in particular. Typeracer overly skews evidence towards those who type on it a lot, because it uses the same text over and over; even I, using it maybe a few days for less than half an hour have seen several pieces repeated.

          • http://LifeByExperimentation.com/ Zane Claes

            Apologies, Albert, if the tone of my message was not properly conveyed. Friendly sarcasm can sometimes get lost on the internet… and ;) emoticons can’t always make it clear that I meant something jokingly. I’ve edited my message appropriately.

            I also see now that you did not mean yourself, but “we” in the general sense re: the 200 WPM. Indeed, there are several people that peak over 200 WPM (though I wish I had a better definition of “peak;” I doubt that a single word could be considered a large enough sample size). As for the skewing, this is why I rotate through different programs and websites (I can provide a few more links if you like; some of them have a huge collection of texts such that I’ve never seen the same one twice… but at the same time, some of the language is very old or complicated, which can kill my WPM).

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