Alternative Keyboard Layouts – a journey into the unknown

It all started while watching a YouTube video on the Dvorak keyboard layout, you see apparently the QWERTY keyboard layout is so badly designed that by switching to Dvorak you do your fingers a massive favor, and boost your keyboard productivity, well that’s the short version.

I then did some research into the very best alternative to QWERTY and came across a layout designed in 2006 that is an outstanding keyboard design, designed with the help of some powerful algorithms, its called Colemak, well I quickly downloaded it and got started learning the layout through a series of typing tutors.

Now I must tell you I am not a slow typer, I’ve been a programmer since forever and a day, and before that I was still using computers in some way or form. All the computers I have ever used have had a QWERTY layout, so my motivation was to gain the benefits claimed in the marketing material from the makers of Colemak and Dvorak, proven less overall finger movement and greater comfort while typing, increased speed.

I pressed on for days trying to learn the layout, the whole experience felt like trying to run with a broken leg. I thought that soon the sensation would pass, but it never did. 4 days into the experiment I have decided to switch back to using the best layout I can think of, and that’s QWERTY. Unfortunately I am just too in the mold to change, as as they say öld habits die hard”.

QWERTY is the layout I have been raised on, I started using it at 9 years old, I am now over 30, in amongst the usage, I have adopted my own unique hand position, and I have a very good keyboard and mouse relationship with this layout, frankly said – I am very happy with it. I didn’t start out learning touch typing, I have a unique style that I have adapted for my own comfort and speed. I guess, I switch positions depending on if I am typing or programming.

There is more to a switching a keyboard layout than simply just learning new key positions, this is something Dvorak and Colemak marketing fails to mention, let me explain – in amongst your comfortable typing routine are many little shortcuts and key/hand combinations that you acquire over time, lets just refer to them as habits, however these are the useful type of habits, along comes Colemak, and all those little things you do, those productivity boosters, all those little time savers are all wiped out completely, and you end up having to relearn them, much like a brain damaged invalid, you find yourself stumbling through the keyboard. It feels like you’ve had all your brain cells removed, except 2. And you are relying on these 2 brain cells to tell you which key to press next. Sometimes the brain cells give you an immediate answer, and sometimes they don’t.

But what if you have never learnt QWERTY, would it be beneficial for our youth to make the swop? This is perhaps the most valid question I can think of. Colemak might be superior in design, but QWERTY is just too ingrained for it to be replaced. Its the globally accepted layout, and thats the way it will always be. It makes far more sense for youngsters to learn QWERTY, even if it’s not the best, it is what is being used. Toy laptops all possess QWERTY layouts, and I don’t think you’ll find Colemak coming to the shops anytime soon.

This is unfortunately another example of technology being implemented not because its the most efficient, but simply because it would be too difficult to get everyone to change to a new system.

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2 thoughts on “Alternative Keyboard Layouts – a journey into the unknown

  1. I’m sorry to hear that your experience of Colemak didn’t meet your expectations. How long did you actually spend trying it? I would guess that since what you have written here is almost identical to this post on the Colemak forums that you only spent four days on it.

    If this is the case, I would say that you gave up way too soon.

    It usually takes a week or two for Colemak to “click” and for you to reach the stage where you are typing without having to spend a fair amount of mental effort trying to remember where the keys are, and about a month or so to reach your previous qwerty speed, so, yes, some perseverance is necessary. However, you would be very hard pressed to find anyone who has spent more than a month or so on Colemak who would go back to qwerty, let alone consider learning it as “damage” that has to be “repaired.”

    No, the real damage that has to be — or even in many cases, can’t — be repaired, is repetitive strain injury: personally I was beginning to get some aches and pains especially in my right arm before I switched to Colemak. The fact is that qwerty encourages a lot of very bad habits, and these can all too easily turn round and bite you as you get older.

    A decent ergonomic keyboard is also a good investment: I have two Microsoft Natural 4000 keyboards (one at work and one at home) and they make a big difference too.

  2. As a happy Dvorak keyboard user, I couldn’t disagree more with your post. To start, if you’re worried about “being stuck” on a foreign laptop, try out one of the many Qwerty to Dvorak converters that you can use online (for free). Whenever I need to type something long at school, I just click on one of the converters and get my work done from a Qwerty keyboard.

    As for shortcuts? Relearning them is as simple as relearning where the X, Z and C keys are, among others. You’ll learn those faster than you’ll learn the Dvorak key layout.

    Finally, one more comment: the Dvorak keyboard really does let you type fast. I switched a few years ago, learned the key combination in a few months, and am now able to type about 100-120 words per minute in regular typing–with no wrist strain at all. I’m not a particularly nimble person; the Dvorak keyboard simply has a better layout.

    For videos of my typing on a Dvorak keyboard, feel free to check out these youtube links:

    Finally, you’re welcome to read my own WordPress post on the topic:
    http://schreibendepot.wordpress.com/2008/09/20/a-quick-guide-to-quick-typing/

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