QWERTY to Dvorak

What I learned
A picture of the programmer Dvorak keyboard layout.

Ever thought about changing up your keyboard layout? Maybe something as small as going from an ISO layout to an ANSI one (hint: tall and thin to short and fat return key), or from Norwegian (or whichever your language of choice is) to American QWERTY? Maybe something more comprehensive, like learning a whole new layout, such as Dvorak, Colemak, or Workman? Well, I’ve done all of the above, and while the smaller changes can offer some pretty significant benefits, they’re pretty easy to get through. The layout-changes are more interesting. I’d like to talk briefly about how I went from QWERTY to Dvorak and what I learned along the way.


First off: you might wonder why I’d do that. I’d love to tell you that I had some grand epiphany and suddenly realized that the QWERTY life wasn’t worth living or that I discovered that Mr Dvorak himself was actually my great-great-grandfather; but nah, it was actually just an offhand comment someone made.

See, I had just recently started learning Vim and was talking about it with some fellow students when one of them jokingly suggested I do it in Dvorak instead. As if it wasn’t challenging enough already, right? I laughed it off at first, but it sparked something in me. Thirty minutes and some googling later and I had made my mind up. I didn’t know whether I was gonna make the switch, but I knew I had to check it out to see what all the fuss was about.

Before starting my degree in computer science (about two years prior to that fateful comment), I had never been much into computers and never properly learned to type, so my keyboard skills weren’t exactly award-winning: I wasn’t very fast (though not remarkably slow either), and I quite often had to look at the keyboard to find the key I was looking for.

Taking the above into consideration, I realized this was a chance to learn proper form and improve my typing skills; so after some investigation, I decided I was gonna go for it. And seeing this as a chance to pick a layout designed specifically for my purposes, I decided to go for the Programmer Dvorak layout.

Pros and cons

Now, about two years and thousands of key strokes later, I can take stock of what I have gained from switching and what issues arose because of it.

Benefits

Proper touch typing form: This might not seem like a big one, and from what I understand, it’s not necessarily the holy grail that some people make it out to be, but it has been a big boon to me. I can’t comment on it being better or more efficient than any other technique, but it sure beats my original, awkward, four-fingered approach.

Speed: My typing speed has gone up dramatically. I don’t know how many words per minute I could get out of my old QWERTY skills, but it wasn’t breaking any necks. I reckon that after about 3–4 months of Dvorak I had already caught up.

Accuracy: A nice feature of learning Dvorak on keyboards where you can’t change the physical layout is that you need to memorize the layout because—with the exception of ‘A’ and ‘M’—no letters are placed in the same spot. A side effect of this is that you can’t look down on the keyboard to find a key. In fact, that’ll probably just confuse you further.

Comfort: There’s something about the alternating hand-motion of the Dvorak layout that I really like. In fact, while learning it, I’d often come across sequences of letters that just felt good to write.

It might be more ergonomic: You often hear that the Dvorak layout is more ergonomic and better for avoiding RSI and the like. I can’t comment on the veracity of these claims, but it sounds plausible.

Drawbacks

The ramp-up time: It took a while until I got up to a respectable speed. This period where things just don’t move as fast as you want can be annoying and mentally taxing.

Extra set-up time: Dvorak is by no means the default layout for any system (as far as I’m aware), and so—if you’re using a software-defined layout—you’ll always need to go through some extra steps to set it up properly. Even more so if you go for some esoteric layout like Programmer Dvorak (though Linux comes with this available out of the box). This can of course be offset by going for a programmable keyboard (or getting a Dvorak keyboard).

Pair programming: If you’re getting help from a coworker, keep a QWERTY layout handy. It’s okay to have a little laugh when they stand there, though, perplexed at why nothing seems to work.

Losing touch with QWERTY: When I switched, I switched completely. As a result of this, every time I use a QWERTY keyboard now, I need to go looking for keys and I’m super slow. Though, for some reason, this does not apply to phone keyboards, where Dvorak feels awkward but QWERTY is perfectly fine.

Is it worth it?

Absolutely.

Seeing as I spend most of my day using a keyboard, it makes sense to invest in building skills. This might be ‘survivor bias’ talking, but I got so much out of it that I’d recommend it to anyone who’s interested. At least have a little sniff. If you’ve got the time and energy, it can be very fun and offer a real feeling of accomplishment. Plus, it’ll keep your brain active!

If that was all you wanted to know, you can stop reading now, but if you’re looking for some tips on how to learn a new layout, let’s finish it off with what I found worked for me.

How to learn

After picking my target layout (Programmer Dvorak), I had to find out how to learn. While it might be tempting to just sit down with a key map next to you (or shuffle the physical keys around if you can do that) and go for it, this is quite likely to be counterproductive for a number of different reasons; the biggest ones being that you’re more likely to slip out of proper technique and that it’s less efficient (based on my empirical studies with a sample size of one) when it comes to memorizing layout.

So what do I recommend? Glad you asked! I’ve got some tips for ya:

Use typing training software

These will typically introduce you to one new letter for each hand at a time and slowly work their way through the full layout, often focusing on common patterns. If you want tips on which one to go for, I’d recommend Typing Club; it’s free, effective, and even includes some pretty interesting bits of writing to copy as you progress, so you can learn while you learn. Yo, dawg.

Take it everywhere (work, studies, whatever)

Once you’re comfortable enough with the position of the keys to not feel like you need to look up where a key is before pressing it (though thinking is okay), start using it all the time. Once you’ve got the basics down, the most important thing is to get exposure and experience with it. Depending on your situation, this can be more or less acceptable, so keep important deadlines and the like in mind, but don’t let that stop you. Keep your other layout around so you can swap back in case of emergency (or pair programming!).

Don’t give up!

Even when it seems hard and you’re tired of making the same typo for the two hundred and twenty-seventh time this hour, stick with it. Take a deep breath, have a cup of tea, and clear your mind. Go back to the keyboard and start again. Consistency is key. This goes doubly for memorizing fingerings and modified keys: Make sure you always hit the key with the correct finger. Some keys might be awkward at first, but you’ll get used to it eventually.

Accurate is the new fast

It doesn’t matter how fast you are if you hit the wrong key half the time. It’s important to focus on accuracy, especially at the start. Speed will come.

If you decide to embark on this exciting journey, be aware: it won’t be easy and the learning curve is pretty steep; but it’s not as difficult as you might think. Time and tenacity is all you need: Once you start, you simply need to stick with it.

Good luck!