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Dvorak Layout Claimed Not Superior To QWERTY 663

Michael Pyne sends in an article published at Reason Online 13 years ago, dismantling the entrenched myth that the Dvorak keyboard layout is a superior technology to QWERTY. The odd thing is that this 13-year-old article recaps research (refereed and published in a respected economics journal) 19 years ago. While we have discussed Dvorak many times over the years, I don't believe we have dug into this convincing-sounding refutation of the Dvorak mythology. The article is in the context of arguing against the conventional wisdom of "first mover advantage" — that the first product to market gains a large entrenchment benefit, such as VHS vs. Beta, MS-DOS vs. anything, etc. It's very much a pro-markets piece.
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Dvorak Layout Claimed Not Superior To QWERTY

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  • learning curves (Score:1, Insightful)

    by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 18, 2009 @06:00PM (#26509635)

    oh my god, there's another keyboard layout, I don't want to learn how to type all over again: it's clearly inferior.

  • by jythie ( 914043 ) on Sunday January 18, 2009 @06:14PM (#26509789)

    I predict that people will still support the Dvorak layout for years to come, regardless of evidence for or against it's usefulness based purly off being differnt or a desire to believe that stupidity stops people from seeing Dvorak's improvements and thus anyone who does use the layout is a better human being.

  • by QuantumG ( 50515 ) * <> on Sunday January 18, 2009 @06:16PM (#26509797) Homepage Journal

    Yes, because moving less is the solution.

  • by MartinSchou ( 1360093 ) on Sunday January 18, 2009 @06:20PM (#26509829)

    140 wpm? O_o

    WPM is standardized at 5 keystrokes, so that's 700 keystrokes/minute or almost 12/second. I can barely do that if I'm just mashing the keyboard at random.

  • by jythie ( 914043 ) on Sunday January 18, 2009 @06:38PM (#26509991)

    Depends on what you have to type.
    chorded keyboards, just like most technologies that try to make life 'easier' on users are built around usage assumptions, making those uses easier but making other uses more difficult.
    One of qwerty's strenghts over these special-purpose systems is, well, it is general purpose. You can do more with them but nothing all that well.

  • by adisakp ( 705706 ) on Sunday January 18, 2009 @06:40PM (#26510015) Journal
    150 WPM is certainly possible. The world record typist [] could maintain an average 150 WPM rate for 50 min. She had bursts as high as 212 WPM.

    But claiming you can type as fast as the world record typist is like saying you can keep up lap swimming with Michael Phelps.
  • by repvik ( 96666 ) on Sunday January 18, 2009 @06:43PM (#26510057)

    Optimizing layout for specific use would be cool. But having to re-learn the layout every time I encounter a new keyboard isn't.

  • by hpa ( 7948 ) on Sunday January 18, 2009 @06:48PM (#26510105) Homepage

    The first mover effect is just another case of hysteresis induced by positive feedback. This is a very common phenomenon present in many physical and other systems; it is hardly a surprise that it would exist in economic systems as well. In the context of the economy, it is simply a reflection that sometimes any standard is better than no standard, even if that standard is absurd.

  • by noidentity ( 188756 ) on Sunday January 18, 2009 @06:49PM (#26510119)

    There are language-specific variants of QWERTY too; QWERTZ for German, AZERTY for French, etc.

    Is that like saying "bat" is a variant of the word "cat"? I'd say those layouts aren't QWERTY; they're QWERTZ and AZERTY, respectively.

  • On Markets (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Chandon Seldon ( 43083 ) on Sunday January 18, 2009 @06:49PM (#26510129) Homepage

    This article is the sort of crap that results in people talking about "market fundamentalists" and dismissing the very real benifits of decentralized decision making produced by healthy markets. The authors of this article missed three key points:

    1. Not all markets are healthy. Oligopoly and misregulation commonly screw things up.
    2. Getting the best results from a market require that all participants have perfect information (which implies they've spent the time to do a full analysis of all their options). This never happens.
    3. Network effects really can result in entrenching technically inferior solutions. The barrier to entry can be so high that the market can't overcome it in a reasonable amount of time.

    Healthy markets really are a good way to solve resource allocation problems and to make locally effective choices. They're probably even the best way. But saying that all markets always have optimal outcomes is absurd and results in people making the opposing absurd claim ("all markets are broken and need either heavy regulation or to be replaced with central planning") sound more reasonable.

  • by Anonymous Coward on Sunday January 18, 2009 @06:51PM (#26510155)

    Are you Dutch or Flemish?

    Is there a different dvorak layout for Flanders too?

    The Dutch use a darned qwerty variant, but a Belgian keyboard has an azerty layout. Both are used to type in Dutch.

    I guess the "Flemish Dutch" has more french words in it, since Flanders is part of Belgium and 40% of the Belgians speak French. (the other 60% speak Dutch and some cities we got from Germany after WW I still use German)

  • Bias much? (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Angst Badger ( 8636 ) on Sunday January 18, 2009 @06:54PM (#26510185)

    It's very much a pro-markets piece.

    It's very much a pro-markets publication. While the arguments put forward rest on their own merits, it's safe to say that Reason Online -- whose masthead includes the slogan, "Free Minds and Free Markets" -- is certainly not going to publish articles that challenge the idea that the market is an efficient and rational actor, at least most of the time. Whether that inherent bias extends to cherry-picking the data used to reach conclusions, or whether the data is even unambiguous, are things one needs to consider in cases like this.

    Probably everyone here can think of some examples of inferior products that have remained dominant despite the appearance of superior alternatives, and also examples of the reverse. For any of that to mean anything, one would have to survey a substantial sampling of such cases, determine which represented the majority and by what measure (total monetary value, units sold, etc.) and then look at all kinds of other factors (market segment, cost of switching products, and so on) before one could begin to draw useful and quite probably heavily qualified conclusions.

    Then there's the inherent ambiguity involved in "superiority". Take Mac versus Windows versus Linux, for example. If, like most computer users, you have a preference, you can probably explain what drives that preference. But so can people who have different preferences. One might prefer Windows for reasons that are entirely irrelevant to a Mac aficionado, and vice versa. So which is superior? Obviously, there is no single, universal answer to this question -- and many others like it -- so we continue to see a market for Windows and a smaller, but quite healthy, market for Macs. Likewise, Harley-Davidson motorcycles continue to sell alongside everything from Vespa scooters to Honda racing bikes, and there are a dozen or more brands of sandwich bread at the average supermarket despite, what, more than six thousand years of not very exciting developments in bread technology.

    The short version is that in any complex area of study riddled with exceptions and special cases, sweeping general conclusions are likely to be true, if at all, only within some arbitrary subset of cases that may be of very little predictive value, but that will seldom deter anyone with an article deadline and a point to "prove".

  • by joh ( 27088 ) on Sunday January 18, 2009 @06:58PM (#26510241)

    I have never understood how merely rearranging the keys on the same fscking keyboard could make a real difference. Yeah, you might get a 6% improvement in typing speed. Who cares?

    What would make a difference would be to make sure that you can press Control, Shift, Alt and at the same time press another key without dislocating your fingers. And to have an ergonomic layout of the surrounding keys (cursor movement, backspace, etc.). Our keyboards are in the stone age and the challenge is *not* the arrangement of the character keys, it's the arrangement of everything else. Where in a given layout your p's and q's actually are is a minor thing. Being able to move around your cursor and delete and edit things without leaving your home position can easily *double* your editing speed. That's the reason why people still love vi and Emacs. And this is not a joke.

    That, or finally introduce foot pedals. It's a shame that even the most recent keyboards are still bound to torture your hands and your mind just to type capitals, to hit a key combo or to move two words back. Get a decent keyboard that allows to press the control key with the edge of your hand instead of with your pinky and use Emacs and you'll be in editing heaven. Pathetic...

  • by bentcd ( 690786 ) <> on Sunday January 18, 2009 @07:06PM (#26510327) Homepage

    How are chorded systems like that for coding, when it's not just English you're typing?

    The Sinclair ZX Spectrum had something like this. Its particular solution didn't exactly sweep the world off its feet it seems.

  • by nedlohs ( 1335013 ) on Sunday January 18, 2009 @07:12PM (#26510397)

    No instead they looked at previously done and reported studies on the effects of training typists with it.

    Which is about seven thousand times better than making up your own anecdote without a control group.

    Everyone I've known who has spent time training on QWERTY has said they are as fast or faster at it then before too. Almost their entire point was that of course with training people get faster, that's why you need a control group who is trained for the same amount of time on QWERTY... And looking at the apparent biased selections for that used in some previous studies.

  • Economists, meh (Score:2, Insightful)

    by IceFoot ( 256699 ) on Sunday January 18, 2009 @07:13PM (#26510413)

    ...published in a respected economics journal...

    Economists, meh. Who trusts them now? Look at the mess they got us into.

  • by edittard ( 805475 ) on Sunday January 18, 2009 @07:18PM (#26510455)

    Qwerty is a romance language specific layout geared towards english.

    That's as logical as saying it's a reptile specific food geared towards mammals. And about as true.

  • Re:Not good enough (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Firehed ( 942385 ) on Sunday January 18, 2009 @07:18PM (#26510457) Homepage

    What about bouncing between Dvorak and QWERTY? I assume that you've had to type on a keyboard other than your own on more than one occasion. I tried to use Dvorak for a short while but gave up because of that more than anything else.

  • by Sycraft-fu ( 314770 ) on Sunday January 18, 2009 @07:24PM (#26510505)

    It's probably not carpal tunnel actually, most things people call that aren't they are some other kind of repetitive strain injury. At any rate if you've found something that helps, that's all that matters. One of the reasons could perhaps be not the layout, but if the keyboard itself is more ergonomic. I suffer from RSI and my solution was contoured keyboards. Lets me keep my wrists in a more neutral position.

    At any rate the real key is do what works for you. There isn't a need to justify it to other people. If it helps your RSI, do it. People are different so just because something worked for someone doesn't mean it'll work for you.

  • Re:Not good enough (Score:5, Insightful)

    by Scrameustache ( 459504 ) on Sunday January 18, 2009 @07:29PM (#26510555) Homepage Journal

    Part of exercising a set of fingers is ensuring that they get the full range of motion and not just the cramped(but reportedly more efficient) "most commonly used in a single row" idea behind dvorak.

    You seem to be implying that qwerty exists for ergonomic reasons, rather than minimizing the tangling of mechanical components of type writers.

  • Re:On Markets (Score:3, Insightful)

    by im_thatoneguy ( 819432 ) on Sunday January 18, 2009 @07:46PM (#26510711)

    I would add a Number 4 to that list:

    4. Market stabilization has no consideration for the emotional and physical consequences of its activities.

    Maybe your mother dieing is necessary for a particular market to stabilize. While the economic costs of her death would be negligible to the system the emotional costs may be too great for you. You may prefer the economic hit to the emotional hit.

    This is a point that many anti-global warming dissenters miss. They will argue: "The world has been around for billions of years and will regulate itself. We shouldn't interfere." Yes, but the world doesn't care if we live or die. Amoral forces do tend to stabilize and find equilibrium--but they don't care about people.

    A perfect metaphor is the industrial robot which kills someone to complete its task. You have to force the human factor into any equation of efficiency.

  • by LateArthurDent ( 1403947 ) on Sunday January 18, 2009 @08:00PM (#26510823)

    Hovering your hands over the keyboard and moving them as little as possible is exactly how you get CTS...Exercise, it's not just for your legs.

    Well, first of all there's plenty of debate on whether CTS can be caused by any activity (or lack thereof) at all. It seems to be mostly a genetic thing. There's real injury to be had through bad posture and repetitive motion and people usually confuse that with CTS.

    As to the real injuries that these new methods are trying to prevent: The "hovering" part probably has more to do with them than the "moving as little as possible" part. It's a repetitive motion injury, so minimizing motion is definitely beneficial. Same for your legs too. Minimizing leg exercises will prevent a whole bunch of injuries that can only occur through over exercising.

    Of course I'm not saying exercise is bad for you. Over exercising most definitely is, though. Especially if the motion is repetitive over many hours. I don't think anyone who can get injured from typing is having a problem with not enough exercise of their fingers. Having a high wrist pad that will allow you to always have your hands rested and never hovering as well as minimizing movement is probably a whole lot better than not hovering and increasing movement. Both are better than hovering AND increasing movement.

    That said, I'm not a doctor. Just a guy who had repetitive motion injury on his wrists that seemed to get better after I switched to dvorak, as well as somebody with really bad shin splints that require me to not run as much as I would like to or risk really bad fractures.

  • by QuantumG ( 50515 ) * <> on Sunday January 18, 2009 @08:19PM (#26510947) Homepage Journal

    Sigh. RSI != CTS. Although there may be a link.

  • by Fred Ferrigno ( 122319 ) on Sunday January 18, 2009 @08:26PM (#26511011)

    The author ties it all into a criticism of path dependence, the fairly obvious idea that once a particular option becomes entrenched, it can keep superior options from replacing it. To do that, he cites studies that found retraining existing QWERTY typers in Dvorak wasn't cost effective compared to additional training in QWERTY.

    Well, duh. That's almost what it means to be an entrenched option. We've reached a local maxima; movement to the global maxima would be costly. Whether or not Dvorak is superior, it is highly unlikely that QWERTY is the perfectly optimal layout, so there's probably some better layout. Yet we're stuck with QWERTY for the conceivable future because QWERTY came first. That is path dependence in action.

  • by Lemmy Caution ( 8378 ) on Sunday January 18, 2009 @08:29PM (#26511027) Homepage

    The "Z" key in qwerty: pinky finger, lower row. The pinky finger is the least accurate and most quickly tired of the fingers.

    The "Y" key in qwerty: index finger, one up and one over from the home keys. The index finger is the strongest and most accurate of the fingers.

  • by Dogtanian ( 588974 ) on Sunday January 18, 2009 @09:05PM (#26511267) Homepage

    There are language-specific variants of QWERTY too; QWERTZ for German, AZERTY for French, etc.

    Is that like saying "bat" is a variant of the word "cat"?


    Is this a typical Slashdot-type attempt to make a point and win an argument by bad analogy?! Answering that question properly would probably require more in-depth consideration of linguistics, word origins, meanings, etc. than you intended.

    And it would still be a misleading and pointless analogy, so why bother? :)

    I'd say those layouts aren't QWERTY; they're QWERTZ and AZERTY, respectively.

    Say that if you want. :) Can't say I feel like getting into a long, pedantic and pointless argument about how one wants to classify them.

    I consider them variants because (a) they're near-identical to QWERTY (compared to something like DVORAK) and (b) they're very obviously derived from it.

    If that similarity was pure coincidence, I would be more inclined to agree with you, but I doubt that's the case.

  • A few issues. (Score:3, Insightful)

    by seebs ( 15766 ) on Sunday January 18, 2009 @11:26PM (#26512297) Homepage

    1. This is not news -- to put it mildly.
    2. As has been pointed out every time this comes up, the "research" isn't even CLOSE to addressing the real claims of Dvorak advocates. (Hint: Any test under about ten years isn't going to give you a fair comparison to "experienced" keyboard users...)
    3. Furthermore, this also doesn't hint at issues related to RSI. I didn't switch to Dvorak because it was "faster" -- I switched because I was hurting my hands. Switching seemed to have helped, because my fingers moved in different patterns.
    4. Why, oh why, is kdawson still able to post garbage like this? This is not news, it's not stuff that matters. It's a "debunking" over a decade old with major, blindingly-obvious, flaws. I don't even think this is the first time it's been on Slashdot in particular.

    Can't we PLEASE get someone in who has actually read Slashdot before, and knows both what kind of material is suitable, and what's already been posted?

  • Re:Not good enough (Score:2, Insightful)

    by BrokenHalo ( 565198 ) on Monday January 19, 2009 @12:38AM (#26512757)
    The whole point of either layout is that real difference in typing performance is really only available to those who are very regimented about how they use the keyboard. I have observed that unless these people are taking dictation (yes, it still happens) they are often less fastidious about spelling, grammar, punctuation or comprehension and/or spend a lot of time backtracking to make corrections.

    I never really learned how to type properly, since my first real computer keyboard (other than an 029 card punch) was a sort of big clunky old teletype machine that Burroughs used with their mainframe machines back in the day. Not even God could touch-type on one of those damn things.

    Hence I rack up an OK but not fast speed with the thumb and first two fingers of both hands. But even so, I still spend a lot more time thinking about what I am going to write than I do in actually typing it.
  • by jscheib ( 267420 ) on Monday January 19, 2009 @01:13AM (#26512957)

    ...I use Colemak []. Switching from QWERTY took a few weeks to get back up to 85 wpm, and my wrist forearm fatigue left and never returned.

    It's not necessarily faster but it sure is more comfortable, at least for me.

  • by novakyu ( 636495 ) <> on Monday January 19, 2009 @01:17AM (#26512965) Homepage

    You are forgetting that the technology changes.

    Yes, QWERTY probably was the fastest TYPEWRITER layout—because, as everyone acknowledges, it was designed to prevent jamming (placing often-used keys further apart).

    I'll bet if someone made a typewriter with QWERTY layout and another with Dvorak layout, QWERTY typists would win these competitions all the time, because Dvorak typists will be too busy getting their typewriter jammed (or deliberately slowing themselves so that the key wouldn't jam).

    But, are you typing on a typewriter now? The conditions which did make QWERTY superior no longer exists, and yet, as an entrenched option, QWERTY is not easy to displace, regardless of whether there is a better layout for typing on a computer, where jamming is not a problem.

    That's what path dependence means, and that's how a product that is not currently the most optimal can become an entrenched option—because it probably was optimal (or fairly close) in the past and people just stuck to it even as the world changed. People are not stupid and will not choose a product that has been bad from the beginning to the end (even DOS was the best operating system out there at some point, for low-cost commodity hardware anyway).

  • Re:Dvorak (Score:4, Insightful)

    by julesh ( 229690 ) on Monday January 19, 2009 @04:49AM (#26513841)

    By 1977, VHS could typically squeeze four hours onto a single T-120 video tape, while Betamax was limited at that time to one hour per tape. When considering whether one thing is "better" than another, you have to look at the whole picture. Betamax's picture was higher quality, but in every other respect, it failed every test. Consumers consistently chose recording length over picture quality, because it's better to get a fuzzy recording of a movie than only the first half.

    And by the time VHS was launched in the UK, in 1978, both could record 3 hours (PAL VHS recorded a shorter time on the same length tape, for some reason). The benefit was entirely temporary, and the only effect that it had was that by 1980 VHS had a large established market share. By this point, Betamax was technically superior in every respect. Yet still it did not win the format war, because, as we all know, a significant investment in incompatible techology makes it much harder for a competitor with lower market share to be sold. Which is the GP's point. The parallels here are:

    VHS, when introduced, was superior to Betamax, so it became most popular quickly.
    QWERTY, when introduced, was superior to its competitors, so it became most popular quickly.
    Betamax was improved and became technically superior to VHS, but by this point it was too late because VHS had a dominant market share and people did not want incompatible technology.
    Dvorak was introduced and was technically superior to QWERTY, but by this point it was too late because QWERTY had a dominant market share and pepole did not want to have to learn two keyboard layouts.

    The analogy is pretty good.

  • Re:Uhh no... (Score:3, Insightful)

    by commodore64_love ( 1445365 ) on Monday January 19, 2009 @09:15AM (#26514909) Journal

    >>>When a technology is introduced, a small number of people are willing to pay an early adopter premium.

    One mistake Sony made with Betamax was to screw their early adopters. They first sold Betamax-I, and then they followed it up with Betamax-II with many movies sold in that format. The early adopters were left with Betamax-I players that could not handle the new media, and naturally they were pissed. You do NOT want to make your loyal fanbase angry.

    Sony is used to dealing with professionals, who are more willing to change formats every few years (first there was Umatic, then Betacam, then Betacam SP, then DigiBetacam, than HD Digibetacam, and so on). The professionals can afford rapid development from one format to another, but the consumer can not. The consumer expects to be able to buy ONE format, like VHS, and hang onto it for thirty years. Sony made the mistake of trying to treat consumers like professionals, and they lost.

  • by bjdevil66 ( 583941 ) on Monday January 19, 2009 @11:21AM (#26515989)

    The common shortcuts are too valuable to give up. Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V, Ctrl-X, Alt-F, etc. are all in the wrong place on the keyboard when you switch to Dvorak. I tried to learn it for a little while, but I quickly gave up after running into this real-world problem.

    Yeah, I suppose I could've gone through and re-mapped those shortcuts, but that would've been a pain in the butt doing at every computer I ever sit down at, for every application.

  • Re:Dvorak (Score:3, Insightful)

    by Registered Coward v2 ( 447531 ) on Monday January 19, 2009 @11:51AM (#26516355)

    If you believe the article. Personally I found it to be full of straw men, and seemed to be trying very hard to twist the truth towards his way of thinking for reasons that had nothing to do with keyboard layouts.

    Huh? He referenced the original studies used to claim DVORAK was superior, one of which claimed to be flawed in the study, and provided sources for his claims.

    What do you think is a strawman in the article?

Variables don't; constants aren't.