Do Alternative Keyboard Layouts Really Work?

One of the more persistent technology myths out there is that QWERTY was originally invented as a way to keep typewriters from jamming, which it would do by forcing users to type more slowly. It turns out this isn’t true, but it’s widely-enough believed that it’s helped drive quite a few people into the world of alternative keyboard layouts, which are designed to help you type more efficiently.

The logic behind these keyboard layouts is this: using QWERTY, your fingers have to move all over the keyboard, since a lot of commonly-used letters (most of the vowels, for example) aren’t in the home row. It makes sense then, that if you just put the commonly-used letters in the home row, your fingers wouldn’t have to travel as far, increasing your speed and finger-strain.

While there is a whole subculture of alternative keyboard designers and users out there, there are only two that have taken off in any significant numbers: Dvorak and Colemak.

alt-keyboards-dvorak

The Dvorak layout (above), designed in the 1930s by August Dvorak, is probably the most well-known QWERTY competitor. Seventy percent of keystrokes on a Dvorak keyboard fall in the home row, versus QWERTY’s thirty-one percent. It achieves this by putting all of the vowels and a few common consonants in the middle. Aside from one or two minor issues (“r” should really replace “u” in the home row), it’s pretty well put-together, though it’s very different from QWERTY, which can make it harder to learn.

alt-keyboards-colemak

Though it was only invented in 2006, Colemak has already become very popular. It was designed to be similar to QWERTY (it only makes seventeen changes to the keys) while still putting your fingers in the home row as much as possible. In fact, it does slightly better than Dvorak on average, with 74% of keystrokes hitting the home row.

If you get deep enough into the universe of keyboard layouts, you’ll encounter some other fantastic beasts, like:

Workman (very recently invented, but gaining interest)

alt-keyboards-workman

QWPR (only eleven keys away from QWERTY rather than seventeen)

alt-keyboards-qwpr

Unfortunately, there is a serious lack of hard data surrounding this debate – it’s a fairly difficult topic to study, and it doesn’t attract too much outside attention. It’s definitely true that the “travel distance” between keys is much lower and that they tend to focus on “inward rolls” (typing successive letters moving inwards instead of outwards), among other interesting perks. This all sounds great, but world records have been set using both Dvorak and QWERTY, and the studies that have been done have been mostly inconclusive. Most evidence for speed and comfort is anecdotal, though there are plenty of anecdotes.

However, there’s really no evidence against alternative layouts either, and it’s possible that there’s something to them that just hasn’t been definitively proven yet. Learning a new keyboard will take some time and effort, but beyond that, someone who wants to try adding a few extra points to their typing skills doesn’t have much to lose. It’s still a good idea to keep up with QWERTY, though – it is still the dominant keyboard worldwide, and being reduced to hunt-and-peck on a borrowed computer isn’t fun.

Luckily, alternative keyboard layouts are easy to set up. No extra hardware is required, just a few software tweaks.

Dvorak

kbl-input-dvorak

Most major PC operating systems have a Dvorak option built in. For Windows, go to “Control Panel -> Language -> [Language] Options -> Add an Input Method,” and then you can find Dvorak in the list. macOS also comes with Dvorak, and Apple has instructions for enabling it on their site. For Linux, you can enable it through GUI or the command line.

Colemak

alt-keyboards-colemak-install

Though it doesn’t ship with most machines, Colemak is still easy to find. Just download it from the Colemak web page (available for Windows, Mac, and Linx), install it, enable it in your computer’s language/keyboard settings, and learn the layout. If you want to slowly transition in by installing the Tarmak keyboards, which introduce just a few new keys at a time, that’s also an option.

alt-keyboards-heatmap

Personally, my allegiance lies with Colemak. I picked it up a few years ago, and now it’s my default keyboard. I’ve kept my QWERTY skills up, but my typing speed has definitely improved since I made the switch. The improvement could easily be attributed to how much of my day I spend typing, though I might have improved on QWERTY anyway.

Overall, most people should probably stick with QWERTY. If you already know it, the frustration of adapting your brain and fingers to a new layout may not be worth the possible boost.

If you really want to pick up a new layout but don’t want to throw your QWERTY skills out the window, Colemak is probably the easiest to learn, and it’s well-structured. For a classic paradigm-shift that’s already on your computer, Dvorak is hard to beat. If none of those looks good, there are plenty of other layouts compiled by people who have spent quite a bit of time thinking about this.

3 comments

  1. ” Learning a new keyboard will take some time and effort”
    Only for those that learned the old-fashioned layout – QWERTY. As is true for much of other re-learning, it is not the learning of the new that takes time, it is the UN-learning of the old, in this case QWERTY. For someone who is just learning how to type, either Dvorak or Colemak will take less time to learn than QWERTY.

    • Probably so, yep! It’s hard to get data on that since most people don’t teach their kids to type on non-QWERTY keyboards, and since the symbols on phone/tablet/keyboard keys are generally laid out QWERTY-style, children who learn typing on their own gravitate towards it. I’d love to see somebody find a way to study learning speeds, though!

  2. Interesting article and I am glad to see someone talking (well, writing) about alternative keyboard layouts. I am using Dvorak on my phone for about 3 years now, and I can confirm – it’s amazing! I am typing a lot faster and I can’t go back to QWERTY/Z. But, I am using QWERTZ on my PC and I don’t have any problems, I switch it a many times a day. So, yes – anyone can use both layouts at the same time, and YES – Dvorak is better. I wrote several blog posts about my experience, here is one:
    https://www.saznajnovo.com/2015/10/dvorak-tastatura-utisci-nakon-nekoliko-meseci/

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