Did you know that modern QWERTY keyboards are inefficient and encourage the onset of repetitive stress injuries like carpal tunnel syndrome? QWERTY is over 100 years old. It’s outdated and outclassed by several alternatives, yet it’s still the most popular keyboard layout in the world.
How did we get here? What can we do about it? Let’s take a look at the evolution of the keyboard as well as the pros and cons of QWERTY’s competitors. Before we start, do note that we’re only looking at Latin-based layouts that are optimized for English.
Back in the 1860s, an inventor devised and patented a writing machine that would eventually become the world’s first typewriter. It actually began as an endeavor in curiosity and wasn’t meant to revolutionize the writing industry, yet despite its horrible initial reception and mechanical issues, the practicality of this “typewriter” was impossible to ignore for long.
Contrary to popular belief, QWERTY was not the first keyboard layout, even for typewriters. Prior to it, there was a simpler double-row keyboard that resembled a set of piano keys:
Unfortunately, this design was prone to jamming and proved less than ideal, prompting its creator to adapt and improve.
Over several years the keyboard evolved into the QWERTY layout, which began picking up popularity in 1878 with the debut of the Remington No. 2 typewriter. But what was the logic behind it? In what possible world does a QWERTY layout make sense? How did they get there?
In 1868, the double-row keyboard was split into four rows. Numeral digits were brought to the top, vowels were brought to the second row, and the alphabet was dissected with B-M on the third row and N-Z on the fourth:
In 1873, after Remington purchased rights to the typewriter, several refinements were made to the layout. These refinements helped to minimize jamming by splitting apart commonly paired letters and pushing them to opposite ends of the keyboard, but also added in a few extra symbols for typists:
A few more refinements and we arrive at the modern QWERTY layout, which has been in use for over a century by now:
One myth regarding QWERTY is that it was designed to purposely slow down typists. Despite having a basis in truth, minimal jamming was a priority — the designers did not seek to achieve this through forced reduction in typing speed. Instead, they focused on an “alternating hands” design, which improved speed and reduced jamming.
Starting with the era of computer terminals, there have been localized variations to QWERTY, including QWERTZ (common in Central Europe), AZERTY (common in France), and QZERTY (mostly used in Italy). These variations are ultimately minor.
In 1936, decades after QWERTY had become the standard, a professor of education patented a new keyboard layout that he named after himself: Dvorak. It isn’t spelled DVORAK; it’s not an acronym. If you want to shorten it, DSK is proper (which stands for Dvorak Simplified Keyboard).
The goal of the Dvorak keyboard was to identify all of QWERTY’s shortcomings in relation to typing error frequency, suboptimal typing speed, and finger fatigue for typists. After at least 18 years of study and research, the Dvorak layout was born:
Much of the design’s emphasis was placed on the home row (where the typist’s hands would be “at rest”) due to research that found that home row typing was fastest while bottom row typing was slowest. Thus, common keys are placed along the home row while least used keys are at the bottom.
The result? Dvorak typists require approximately 60% less finger motion when compared against QWERTY typists. Not only is it faster, but Dvorak typists are less prone to repetitive stress injuries caused by typing.
In addition, Dvorak emphasizes two more design aspects. Firstly, “alternating hands” ought to be promoted as much as possible to help create a rhythm when typing, and secondly, the most common keys should be assigned to the right hand because most people are right-handed.
The most notable downside to Dvorak is that it’s too different from QWERTY, making it too much of a hassle to learn for most everyday computer users.
In 2006, a programmer named Shai Coleman released an alternative keyboard layout called Colemak (a portmanteau of Coleman and Dvorak). Despite the name, it isn’t a direct descendant of the Dvorak layout. In fact, Colemak can be thought of as a compromise between the two.
Just as Dvorak was a response to QWERTY’s shortcomings, Colemak addresses the failures of Dvorak but does so in a way that doesn’t alienate current QWERTY users. The intended result is a layout that aims for speed, efficiency, minimal repetitive stress injuries, and an easy learning curve for QWERTY typists.
The beauty of Colemak is that there are only 17 differences in key placement between it and QWERTY, yet those 17 differences are more than enough to create a radically improved typing environment. All other keys remain the same. As such, QWERTY users should not be afraid to learn Colemak.
How does it improve on Dvorak?
Colemak eliminates virtually all cases of frequent letters in “stretched finger” locations. For example, Dvorak places ‘L’ in the QWERTY ‘P’ spot, which requires frequent stretching of the pinky. The positions of other keys have also been optimized with Colemak, such as moving the high-frequency ‘R’ and ‘I’ keys to the home row.
We love Colemak and think it’s worth the effort to learn it. Here’s how to make the process of learning Colemak quick and easy.
QWERTY, Dvorak, and Colemak are the “Big Three” keyboard layouts, but they aren’t the only ones. Three other notable but less-recognized layouts are Workman, Qwpr, and Minimak, though these are more proofs-of-concept than actual layouts intended for everyday use.
QWERTY vs. The Rest
So, should you switch away from QWERTY? That depends. If you spend most of your day typing on a computer, it’s worth looking into. The speed gains and injury reductions are real and they do add up over time. However, there are some caveats that you’ll want to keep in mind.
You’ll experience a big drop in typing speed while learning a new layout. How long will it take? A fast learner might only need a week, especially with an easy-to-learn layout like Colemak, but others may need upwards of a month or more. However, with the help of typing tutors, this problem will only be temporary.
Also, keyboard shortcuts can be an inconvenience. Due to Dvorak’s drastically different layout, shortcuts like CTRL+X/C/V can be a pain. Colemak is less of a pain due to its similarities to QWERTY, but the differences still exist and you may find yourself frustrated from time to time when you accidentally hit the wrong shortcut keys.
Lastly, other computers will still be QWERTY. This isn’t a big deal if you’re always using your own computer, but it can be problematic if you switch computers a lot, or if other people use your computer. A program like Portable Keyboard Layout can really help here, but it may not always be an option.
For me, Colemak comes out as a huge winner. It ought to be adopted as the keyboard of our modern age, and considering how young it is when compared to both QWERTY and Dvorak, there’s still a lot of time for it to drum up hype and popularity.
Will you stick with QWERTY or switch to an alternative? Or maybe you’ve already switched? Tell us what you think in the comments below!
Image credits: old typewriter Via Shutterstock, Typewriter built by Peter Mitterhofer at the Technisches Museum in Vienna