N.apbcbi…Learning Dvorak

My freshman year in high school, I think I was quite possibly the only student in my entire “Keyboarding” class who enjoyed the class.

Going in, I could not touch type. In fact, we didn’t have a computer at home. My generation was right on the edge of when this was still mostly normal. A few years later everyone had computers at home, and just a few years before, very few people did. So maybe I just thought it was fun to actually play on a computer, but I did enjoy the touch typing lessons. There was something simple and satisfying about having one class each day that was completely calm and quiet, where all I had to do was to try improve on my performance from the day before.

Plus, I got pretty good pretty quick. I’ve always suspected it may have something to do with the fact that I’d been playing guitar my whole life: my hands were pretty coordinated already. In our school we had a “Keyboarding” class one semester and “Computer Applications” the next, where they basically taught us the blue screen version of Microsoft Word. By the time I was in Computer Applications, I was fast enough I actually had a touch typing race with my instructor one day. (I was faster, but she made less mistakes.)

Nowadays, much of what I do—for work or for play—seems to involve lots of typing. And my body is paying for it. Maybe I’m dwelling on this more than usual since I turned 30 a few weeks ago, but lately everything I do seems to make some part of me hurt. My back has been bothering me lately, so I’ve started sitting on an exercise ball at my desk. (I’ve been doing this for a few weeks now and love it. I can sit for hours and work without all of the uncomfortable fidgeting I always end up doing in chairs.) In the past few years, I’ve become way more finicky about how I sleep as well. I slept on an awful, old, saggy bed all through college with zero troubles, but now in the past few years, I’ve become super picky about my bed and pillow.

And, of course, my hands bother me when I type a lot.

Aching hands have actually been an issue for a few years now. It’s actually better than it used to be, thanks to my abandoning Word for a text editor: vi. I had to learn vi a few years back for work, but this requirement actually came at an opportune time: I was in the middle of a heavy writing period and my hands were killing me. I learned this was mostly because of the heavy mousing and acrobatic keyboard shortcuts my word processor was making me go through. Vi, on the other hand, lets you do everything from the keyboard, and (with the exception of frequent trips to the escape key) lets you keep your hands on the home row keys pretty much all the time. But vi’s no miracle worker: the hands still hurt, particularly after several days in a row of heavy typing.

So now that you know all about me, my aging body and the strange pleasure I get in learning new keyboarding techniques—from touch typing in high school to vi a few years ago—you can probably see why I’m susceptible to the Dvorak hype.

For those of you who aren’t familiar with the story of the standard QWERTY keyboard layout and the Dvorak layout as an alternative, go read the Dvorak Zine real quick. It’s short and fun. But the even shorter summary is that the Dvorak layout is an alternative keyboard layout that’s designed to be way more logical and efficient than the QWERTY layout. Here it is:

(Original here, then cropped. If you click that, you’ll get a big version that I’ve had set as my desktop background for the past few weeks as a quick reference.)

A few weeks ago, WordPress developer Donncha O Caoimh wrote that Matt Mullenweg, a Dvorak user, had convinced him to give Dvorak a try. I followed some links, did some reading, and decided to give it a shot. If nothing else, it sounded exactly like the sort of crazy experiment I seem to enjoy inflicting on myself. And hey, vi worked out.

Here’s what I decided to do: I’d try some lessons during breaks and during otherwise unproductive activities (while watching TV, for example). I didn’t have the time to switch completely overnight: my productivity would just slow to a crawl. The only way to make this work for me, for better or worse, is to learn to switch back and forth. So I knew I didn’t want to resort to using a special keyboard or switching around my keycaps. My wife and I share our computers and that would just be mean, for one thing. But more than that, the whole point is to become a more efficient touch typist. Plus ideally my QWERTY skills won’t deteriorate entirely: it’d be a real pain to be an awful QWERTY typist in this QWERTY world. So once I knew the layout and could touch type—albeit slowly and with lots of errors—I started to force myself to use Dvorak for short stretches of time when I knew typing speed would not be that big of a deal (reading and replying to emails, playing around on the web, etc.). I also found that when I’m really writing—as opposed to typing emails or stuff like that—my thinking speed, not typing speed, is the bottleneck, so Dvorak actually wasn’t that much of a hindrance.

This is pretty much the phase I’m still in now. It didn’t take that long to get to this stage, but going from here to matching my QWERTY proficiency is still a pretty daunting task. Rather than waiting to write this up though, I thought it’d be fun to write this now, when I honestly don’t know if I’ll stick with it or not. I’m far enough in to see the real advantages, but still limping along enough to see the trade-offs.

Whether you think it’s worth it to completely relearn how to type or not, it only takes a few short lessons to realize that, all other things equal, it’s a much more logical layout. Not that this would take much: there’s pretty much no logic to the QWERTY keyboard. We all have to learn it though, so for some reason it doesn’t seem so bad. In the Dvorak layout, the most commonly used keys are in the home row. Vowels are on the left (AOEU are where ASDF are, with I in G’s place) and your right hand rests on HTNS, the most frequently used consonants. I suppose there’s some satisfaction in knowing you’re using a more elegant and efficient layout than everyone else, but that’s hardly a reason to switch. It’s the comfort and the reduced strain on your hands that is so appealing to me.

But it’s not clear to me yet that it’s necessarily a complete improvement over QWERTY on the hand strain issue. For one thing, all your keyboard shortcuts change too. When you use some keyboard shortcuts so much, they become gestures. You don’t even associate Command-W with “W”, it’s just the gesture you make when you want to close a window. If you’re a vi user, then this is particularly challenging as the whole interface is built around keyboard gestures. And many gestures—such as Command-X, C and V for cut, copy and pasting, or “hjkl” for cursor movement in vi—were chosen not for their mnemonic value, but for their positioning on a QWERTY keyboard. An additional source of skepticism I have is that the most strenuous keyboard motions are unchanged in Dvorak: Delete/Backspace, Shift, Return, the Control/Command/Option combos, etc. Combine this with the “XCV” problem and it seems like Dvorak may actually make some of this worse. Yes, Dvorak was designed to be fast and efficient when typing English sentences, but many of the other ways we use our keyboards have been designed to be fast and efficient on our otherwise inefficient QWERTY keyboards.

(Macs offer a “Dvorak-QWERTY” layout which, when I first heard about it, seemed perfect: the keyboard reverts to QWERTY whenever you press Command. Unfortunately, it stays in Dvorak when you press Control, which makes this useless in my opinion. If you can only get QWERTY for some of your keyboard shortcuts and not others, that doesn’t help: it just makes things more confusing.)

Also, while my hands may be hurting less after a long session in Dvorak, I’m also typing much slower, and because my keypresses are more tentative, much softer. I type too hard. And these low-travel keyboards all the Macs have these days really punish hard typers. It’s possible I could save myself much of my hand pain by just learning to type more softly. Also, once I get up to speed with Dvorak, I could end up typing harder again.

Other funny things about making the transition from QWERTY:

So, as is clear from my various complaints and skepticism, I’m not totally sure how much longer I’ll stick with this. However, I do find—surprise, surprise—that as I get better, I like it more. Despite the negative stuff I’ve written here, in those short bursts of emerging Dvorak proficiency I’ll get every so often (usually until I start thinking about it and make a mistake), it does give typing a different rhythm and feel that is quite nice. You really do spend more of your time with your hands in a comfortable “home row” position and less time with your hands flailing about.

So will I stick with this strange keyboard layout? Or will I give into years of habit and the temptation of properly labelled keys and go running back to the familiarity of QWERTY? Time will tell.

Finally, you may be wondering, did I write this post in Dvorak? Most of it. The first few paragraphs were written in QWERTY, but once I started writing about Dvorak, it seemed only fair I struggle through the whole thing in Dvorak.