Daniel Mai

Struggling With Dvorak

I’ve been slowly getting myself to be comfortable typing with the Dvorak keyboard layout over the past several weeks (Calvin has gotten me interested in using it). Every day I spend at least one hour just typing away on keybr.com.

One of the reasons why I’m trying to switch away from the de facto Qwerty layout is because of the apparent efficiency with the layout of the keys. Owerty was designed for mechanical typewriters over a century ago so that common letter combinations were spaced far enough apart to prevent keys from jamming. This layout meant that the words that we type have our fingers moving all over the place on the keyboard. Dvorak was designed to decrease finger movement during typing, leading to more comfort. It was also designed to “scientifically decrease typing errors and speed up typing”. (I’m not a huge believer on the error part.)

I’ve definitely become more comfortable using Dvorak, unlike the first time I started trying to type with it (as it usually is with anything unfamiliar we start trying to do) months ago and more frequently since mid-December, but I’m still not as proficient as I was with the Qwerty layout. For sure, my productivity with typing has been thrown away—I’m even losing my skill with the Qwerty layout. Sometimes, when I switched back to the “normal” layout so that I wouldn’t be crippled with typing in Dvorak, I would try to press the keys as if they were in Dvorak, which led to garbled letters showing up on the screen instead of the words I wanted to type. So there’s practically no going back to the ol’ way of typing now.

I’m really slow at typing now. Chatting with friends online is awkward with my responses being so behind that the messages that I now take a while to type are out of place, and I get lazy to type more words than I need to (because typing is hard) that my messages are unclear and contain a lot of typos. Also, emoticons are awkward to type because my fingers are so used to pressing certain keys with Qwerty.

My muscle-memory problems aren’t so bad with prose; that can be fixed with a decent amount of practice. But, strangely, typing emoticons is more awkward than typing regular words. It’s just something I create by pressing certain keys in a particular order. It’s the same concept with words, but also not the same. That’s strange.

And what’s especially hard for me to get used to are keyboard shortcuts. Those have been engraved into my muscle memory. They used to just come out without much thought, but now I really have to think about them. “Which key is ’T’, again?” Some shortcuts I used to use just my left or right hand, but now I’m not used to the way things are laid out. It feels awkward.

And, to me, it’ll be strange committing to this keyboard layout in a world where Qwerty dominates. That means that essentially everything is designed around Qwerty. Keyboard shortcuts were designed for the Qwerty user in mind. (It’s no accident that X/C/V mean cut, copy, and paste and they’re right next to each other on Qwerty)

The horrid part right now is, even though Dvorak is designed to be more comfortable, I feel uncomfortable using it, mainly due to my unfamiliarity with it. I hope this feeling goes away soon with more practice. (But maybe I’m overdoing the practice, hence my hands feel strange while typing?)

I vaguely remember the times when I didn’t know how to type. I remember playing this Kid’s Typing game (with the friendly ghost, Spook) which was really hard and fun for my inexperienced hands. Back in those days I mainly typed by poking at the individual letters. The way I really learned how to type quickly was by chatting with people online, via instant messaging and online games (MapleStory oh boy).

Once upon a time I never knew how to type. But after many years of typing with the Qwerty layout, my hands just breezed through the keys. It never was intuitive—nothing really is. But the number of hours I interacted with keyboards has just made things seem easy.

The difference with my younger self’s inept typing and the present me is that I have things to do now that I deem more useful. When I was seven, what useful things did I do with a computer? I just played games all the time. Nowadays I’m on a computer for an unhealthy amount of time. I’m on a keyboard for hours, writing prose, code1, or what have you.

I wonder if this cost of relearning how to type is worth it in the long run. I’ve read some people really having benefits with Dvorak, and others trying it and just went back to Qwerty. Probably the reason why I have a hard time learning Dvorak is because I still want to remember how to type using Qwerty. Some say that the best way to learn something new is to unlearn what you’ve learned before. Unlearning something is hard. And if I don’t want to unlearn, then it’s even harder.

Maybe typing is like riding a bicycle? Once you learn how, you never really forget. Hopefully I’ll be able to type in Dvorak and Qwerty so that I don’t become crippled when using someone else’s computer.

We use many things in our lives without second thought; that’s just how things are. We accept the flaws of the things we use. But almost all the time, there’s a better way. For instance, I never really thought about the problems with usual measuring cups, but the people at OXO found them and created something new to improve measuring! It removed the step of getting eye-level with the cup to look at the measurement. I never thought of that as a problem. I thought that was just something you had to do when using a measuring cup.

One of the best ways to create something that’s new and useful is to look at something that already exists, remove unnecessary parts to it, and create something that’s more pure than what you were originally looking at. (Just like the OXO measuring cup.) As Nathan Kontny says, “It sounds so simple,” but it’s really easy to overlook.

In Objectified, one of my favorite documentaries ever, Karim Rashid talks about how the qualities of objects influence their design (he uses the film camera as an example). So the Qwerty layout was designed to spread out the letters in such a way that pressing common letter combinations quickly wouldn’t cause the key levers to jam. And now that we have digital keyboards, does it make sense to still be using it? Is a different layout better suited for today’s keyboards?

Even with all the problems I’m having with Dvorak right now, most of them are temporary, and it’s still not fair to pass off Dvorak just yet. I’ll keep on using the layout for now (maybe even for the long-term).

(I struggled typing this whole post because I am an amateur with Dvorak. I still need practice!)

  1. I find it extremely awkward to write code or use the command-line right now. A lot of it became muscle memory, and a lot of it isn’t normal English, so weird letter combinations such as ls feel weird to type.