My Experience with the Dvorak Keyboard Layout

Posted on July 8, 2020 by Richard Goulter

One customization that some computer power users make is to use a different keyboard layout.

Back when I was a student at University I took the time to learn to use Dvorak layout.
I can’t remember why I stopped using it, but I had reverted to using QWERTY layout since then.

Recently I started doing my main development work on a new computer. I decided to pick up the Dvorak layout again. (I think this was because I was looking at fancy ergonomic custom keyboards, and was reminded that I could be doing better than what I was using).

I’ve heard people say that the Dvorak layout is ‘faster’ than QWERTY. This is at least suggested because the layout used by the world record for fastest typing was using a Dvorak layout.
For myself, my typing speed on the somewhat contrived typing tests is still slower with Dvorak than with QWERTY.
However, the significant difference is comfort. – I never seriously took the time to do touch-typing drills and use the proper fingers for each key with QWERTY. (e.g. I’ve noticed that I’ll sometimes push the ‘y’ with my left hand index finger; e.g. in “anyone”, “my”, or “really”, but not for “you”). I don’t think this is uncommon. On the one hand, I find typing with QWERTY effortless. On the other hand, whenever I use QWERTY after using Dvorak, my hands feel cramped or choked. My hands must dance their way around the keyboard, not for exotic letters, but just for ordinary flow. With Dvorak, it feels more ‘right’.

In terms of switching between the two:

I think during the training period while I was learinig the Dvorak layout, my typing speed was significantly slower than normal, especially when I tried Dvorak. Typos were also extremely common. I’d guess this is due to the ‘motor memory’ of the hands being confused as to which finger is supposed to be where to type which letters.
When I was recently picking up Dvorak as my main layout for work again: I use the Dvorak layout on my work computer, and QWERTY on my home computer. Using different keyboards for different layouts makes this much easier. (Again, my guess is the ‘motor memory’ has an easier time distinguishing the different layouts on different keyboards). Picking up Dvorak again is mostly like riding a bike again. My fingers didn’t quite forget everything. But, while I was still getting back up to speed, I tried using a colleague’s QWERTY keyboard and was very slow.

Unfortunately, this makes it significantly harder to recommend changing layouts to anyone who needs to type a lot.
Maybe using a different keyboard to learn the layout would mitigate the effect, since your fingers can always use QWERTY on whatever other keyboard you use.

It’s also not a very big issue that the letters on the keycaps don’t match the letters you type into the keyboard. (The number keys and function keys will be the same anyway).

In terms of using software like Vim or Emacs which heavily rely on keybindings: In general, I think my mindset has the added indirection of ‘thinking’ about the letter to invoke the command, rather than the physical motion. - On Dvorak, the common shortcuts Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V, etc.: suck. This is made worse by that usually you’ll want to use these commands in tandem with using a mouse. So you won’t have both hands on the keyboard. - With using Dvorak with Vim: ‘h’ is still to the left of ‘l’; ‘j’ and ‘k’ are right beside each other. I was using Vim for a long time before I noticed that I use pretty much every key on the keyboard. The other keys in Dvorak are still there, just in different places, and I don’t give it much thought. - With using Dvorak with Emacs: C-x sucks. (For me this is somewhat mitigated: I use Evil, and can use the spacebar for things that I use frequently). But similarly, ‘p’ is still above ‘n’.

I’m not especially keen to try out other keyboard layouts after having gone through the effort to train with the Dvorak layout. If I were to pick up another layout today, though, I’d love to look at the Workman layout.

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