Thoughts on Learning DVORAK (or other alternate keyboard layouts)

15 09 2011

About 6 weeks ago I decided to learn DVORAK as a geeky challenge and with the hope of improving my typing speed in the process. I’ve been putting off writing a post about it until I had a decent amount of experience with it, which I believe I now have (this post was written in it).

Background

First off, for background information, my QWERTY typing skills are an odd mix that induce both cringes and amazement from people seeing me type at my best. I average around 80 WPM on QWERTY, but the catch is, I do that with mostly two fingers and a lot of hand motion. I never look or think about the keyboard in QWERTY, but I never mastered the correct touch typing technique. For common letter combinations I use multiple fingers, or for some of the letters near the side of the keyboard (like ‘a’ and ‘z’). However, I realized that using this typing method I’m limited directly by my physical hand movement speed. When typing and pushing 100WPM my hands are moving all over the keyboard at a rate too fast to keep up for long periods of time, even though my mind is quite capable of realizing where the keys I want are faster than that. I also am all too aware that hand problems are very too common for someone like myself who spends all day at a computer; learning proper touch typing might avoid problems in the future (carpel tunnel seems to run in my family).

Once committed to the idea of forcing myself into using proper touch typing technique, I decided that I might as well go extreme and learn a more efficient keyboard layout at the same time. If I had the chance to do this again, I may have considered COLEMAK instead of DVORAK, and I recommend looking into both if you’re just considering learning a new layout (but only commit to learning one). However,  DVORAK became my default choice since at the time I didn’t know COLEMAK existed. For those that don’t know, DVORAK is a keyboard layout based on putting common keys on the home row, vowels on one hand, and encouraging hand alteration. The world record typist Barbara Blackburn used the DVORAK layout. It uses far less hand and finger motion that QWERTY, but the ability to increase typing speed with this layout seems to depend on the individual.

How to learn a new layout?

On to the actual learning! There are two major schools of thought when learning a new keyboard layout:  the full time alternate layout group and the alternate layout by night crowd. The first group insists that after an initial few days of learning, you should switch cold turkey and only use DVORAK. This means no touching QWERTY at all, since they believe that even using it for a short time will confuse your new muscle memory and keep you from improving quickly. This method is very painful for the first few weeks, but your improvement will be much quicker. Another risk of this method is losing the ability to type in QWERTY. Not typing for a few months will ruin your typing speed to begin with; typing only in a new layout for months will make it even easier for your old skills to degrade while your new ones slowly grow.

The second school of thought is for the more pragmatic individuals. Staying a QWERTY user for some things (such as work) while working on developing your DVORAK skills by day allows you to not sacrifice productivity during the day and still retain your old QWERTY ability. Taking 10 minutes to type an email that previously took you 1 minute may not go over well at your work in the first couple weeks of your learning period. The downside is that your DVORAK improvement will be much slower, and according to some critics, may peak and never allow you to surpass your old typing speed in the new layout. I went with this learning method due to the inability to sacrifice my productivity much in the first few weeks; I’ve come to believe that it has both pros and cons, but works best for me. You can always combine both methods by starting out practicing DVORAK only in low stress environments until you get to a comfortable speed before switching over full time.

From my experience, learning DVORAK can be divided into 3 phases. Phase 1 is the initial learning of the layout, phase 2 is building muscle memory and letting typing require less thought, and phase 3 is building speed. I’ll describe my experiences at each phase of development.

Phase 1: Learning the Layout

Phase 1 is by many considered the most painful phase of learning, and I’m afraid I would probably have to agree. In this phase, you start out knowing nothing and must slowly learn the keyboard locations one letter at a time. I spent about a week in this phase,  I would learn one row of letters a day and then it took another few days of practice before I could reliably find letters, albeit very very slowly. My advice for this phase is to focus on learning a few letters at a time, and then just lots of practice until you can reach 10-20wpm. The best way I can describe this phase is feeling like a stroke victim. You’ll know what letter you want to type, know that in QWERTY it would be second nature, but now it takes you literally seconds to recall where it is and command your fingers to move there in a painfully deliberate act. It’s like learning to walk all over again, or, well, type. For the first few days try printing out a DVORAK chart and having it near the keyboard, but don’t bother trying to rearrange keys on the keyboard, it won’t make this stage any less painful and it’s better to start off avoiding the habit to look at the keyboard. During this phase, don’t pay attention to speed, it will frankly be discouraging. Just focus on accuracy and practice a few hours a day.

Phase 2: Learning to type what you think rather than think about how to type

Phase 2 will be somewhat painful as well, but the worst is over and the transition mark is clear. At this point, you know were any key is, even if the recall speed is slow. Sometimes you’ll hit the wrong key, especially when trying to type faster, but your accuracy will increase along with your raw speed. This might actually be the funnest part of the learning process, because the slope of your learning curve will be at it’s maximum (yes, I did just make a derivative reference, woo calculus!). To give you and idea of the improvement possible within this phase, here are my first results from practice on www.keybr.com. Note that this page uses all lowercase and no punctuation, and additionally has a lot of repeats of common diagraghs and trigraghs. I enjoyed practicing on it, but the word per minute rates are skewed a decent amount higher than typing normal text.

Phase 2 is also where you will most notice the odd aspects of typing and your brain if you were already a high speed typer (60wpm+). I’ll point a few things out I found interesting, and which really gave me some insight on slow typers and the things they struggle with.

I can’t think about typing it QWERTY and type well. I just do it; I don’t know where the ‘b’ key is, I just type brown and bat without a moment’s thought to key locations. If I try to think about where the ‘b’ key is, my typing actually gets slower and I may actually get it wrong. In DVORAK phase 2, you’ll be thinking about where each letter is, and it will actually make thinking about what you’re typing more difficult. This is the reason I still used QWERTY at work a lot during this stage. The raw speed on a typing test was fine, but it took a lot of thought to type and made it harder to focus on what I was typing rather than the process itself. People who hate typing often do this, they feel that they can’t both think and type at the same time, while other people can do it as naturally as writing or speaking, almost using it as a beneficial aid in their though process.

I also think phonetically while typing in many cases. Some people get bogged down spelling words, while I tend to type as if I’m transcribing my current thoughts to text as I think them. I don’t give the least bit of thought to most spellings, and I can be a terrible speller because of it. On the plus side, I can do things like stream of couscous this entire blog post in no time at all. When you’re in phase 2 of DVORAK, you’ll be thinking in letters more than sounds or words, and in fact overcoming this barrier is one of the primary things that define the transition from phase 2 to phase 3.

In summary, the transition to what I call phase 3 requires the following,

  • The ability to type without thinking about how to type (your fingers just find the keys)
  • The ability to type words without thinking on a letter by letter basis, but rather phonetically sounding things out as you type or just knowing the spelling and being able to reproduce the word without much thought.
  • A slow in learning. Phase 2 you can rapidly improve as you approach phase 3, but once the techniques are mastered progress will slow down.

 

The best way to get from phase 2 to phase 3 in my opinion is online chatting, forums, and general writing. Typing programs put you in the mood of blind copying, but that won’t help as much actually typing your own thoughts. Chatting helped me get proficient in QWERTY originally, and also helped with DVORAK.

 

Phase 3: Sharpening the subtle skills
Once you reach phase 3, typing feels natural and comfortable again, but your speed still won’t comparable to your previous speed. It will be slow but steady progress as some of the mechanics of things start to fall into place. I’m not sure there is a way to develop these skills specifically, but they are,
  • Rhyme: rather than typing in short fast bursts, you should be able to keep a relatively constant typing rhyme that will average out a lot faster than fast/slow typing alterations.
  • Hand look ahead: DVORAK is designed to maximize hand alteration based on the idea that while one hand is typing a letter, the other is getting into position to type the next. You can’t strive to improve this until you’re already typing in words and not individual letters.
  • Common letter combinations and words: Some words you will see so much, you’ll type them way faster than other things. Take the word ‘the’ in DVORAK, a fluid motion of rolling your fingers that even the slowest typer can tap out at over 150wpm once the motion is memorized and practiced a little.
  • Strength of certain muscles: pinkys are notorious for being out of shape for DVORAK, and may cause pain before it gets strengthened.

 

Phase 3 progress is slow, and I still haven’t reached my old QWERTY speeds. I quit using keybr.com much and switched to real world typing and a bit of www.typeracer.com, but here’s the current progress chart anyway. You’ll notice the practice times were only a few minutes, just to get a quick speed rating for that day, so the results aren’t nearly as accurate as the first chart.
I quit typing in DVORAK for a while; the speed bonus of QWERTY makes it tempting to switch back when you want to type in a hurry. This can also account for some of the slowness in improving lately.

 

Important Concluding Questions
How close am I to my QWERTY speeds 6 weeks from starting DVORAK?

 

I can average 80wpm in QWERTY, I can average 50-60WPM on those same tests with DVORAK. Maybe 70-80% old speed on complicated text (upper and lower case, punctuation), and I’m still improving, just not as fast as during what I call phase 2.

 

Has learning DVORAK made QWERTY speeds suffer?

 

There was a short period during phase 2 where I had a drop in speed, but now it’s as fast as ever. I still type in both layouts on a daily basis, partly due to the difficulties with switching layouts on servers and virtual machines I use at work. Sometimes I just use one layout over the other because I feel like (20% speed boost to type something quickly, games that work better with QWERTY, ect). I plan to stay fast in both layouts, and wouldn’t recommend letting your QWERTY skills get too rusty.

 

Was it worth learning?

This question must be evaluated several different ways. My original goal was to increase typing speed, but I’ve since mostly abandoned that. It’s quite possible that it will happen at some point, but I’ve come to realize it isn’t that important compared to things like being able to think about other things while typing (like what you want to type). DVORAK still feels a bit awkward and it’s very easy for me to just arbitrarily decide to use QWERTY all day. However, DVORAK does cause less hand strain and tiredness than QWERTY with most of the common letters being on the home row.

Overall, I enjoyed the little learning experiment and became a lot more familiar with different facets of typing and how we learn to do things subconsciousnessly. I’ve found the process fascinating and even wrote a program to log and analyze my typing to discover weak keys and typing trends. A person’s typing is so unique that several commercial programs use it for a biometric identification system on top of standard username and password login forms. The journey has been an enjoyable exercise, but the end result is probably not spectacular enough to warrant the switch if you just want to increase typing speed.

Eventually I’ll get around to posting an update here if I surpass my QWERTY speed with DVORAK, and my opinion might sway a little more toward the switching being worth.

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2 responses

15 10 2012
Megan

This post is all couscous.

15 10 2012
pherricoxide

Uh, thanks. I think. Isn’t couscous some sort of stew? I’m not sure I was complemented or insulted.

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