Thoughts on Learning DVORAK (Part 2)

27 11 2011

Back in September I wrote a rather long post on my experiment in switching to the DVORAK keyboard layout. I almost gave it up a short time after, as my progress in increasing my speed was basically nada. However, I stuck with it and my speed has slowly increased. It’s now safe to say that my DVORAK typing speed has matched my old QWERTY speed, but not yet surpassed it by much (I’m still improving).

Overall progress for the first 70 days,

 

How long does it take to become proficient in DVORAK?

In my case: 3-4 months to get back to my old QWERTY level of 80-90WPM. I still hope to surpass 100WPM average, something I never did in QWERTY, but I’m not really concerned about it anymore or actively striving to reach it. In fact, keyboard layouts rarely cross my mind lately, the only reason I’m writing this post is because it’s had a half finished version in my drafts for a month. I’ve also been thinking about finishing up a typing program I hacked together, but that’ll be another post.

How did you get passed the 60 WPM barrier?

I’ve seen several posts on forums of people complaining of being stuck at 60WPM for weeks or moths (or in some cases, forever). I’m not sure what it is about that speed that causes such a learning barrier, but I was stuck there for quite a while as well. A lot of people say working on accuracy is the key, but I found that it didn’t make much difference and made typing more frustrating since I was always trying to monitor myself for making mistakes. If I had to make a guess about why this barrier exists, I would have to say that it’s because of weak keys messing up your typing rhyme. At this point there are no letters that slow down my typing, but back when I was stuck at 60WPM I remember some keys were always a lot slower to type. My advice if you’re stuck at 60WPM: focus on any keys that you hesitate on. Also, expect progress to slow down. When you start off learning you’ll be gaining 5 WPM in a day, but once you get passed the 60 WPM barrier it’s a slow logarithmic curve.

Do you still practice typing just for the sake of typing?

No. I spend a few minutes on keybr.com and typeracer every few days in order to track my progress and because, for whatever reason, I actually find it sort of fun. It’s like a video game, you try and surpass your old high score with concentration and skill. But I haven’t actively practiced typing for long periods of time since September. Once practicing typing gets boring, in my opinion you should give it up and go type stuff instead. Chat with your friends on IM, chat with strangers, write a blog, write a story, write a book, write a program, write reviews on movies and restaurants, write a wiki entry about the t-shirts worn by your favorite character in the last episode of a TV show, write posts on forums. There’s plenty of stuff to write about; don’t waste too much time repeating gibberish from Mavis Beacon.

Can you still use QWERTY?

As proficiently as before? No. I can still surpass 60WPM on QWERTY, but I also have a habit of looking at the keyboard again. Unlike DVORAK, when you’re forced to use someone else’s computer, you can just glance down at the keys when you forget where the single quote or underline character is. This concerned me quite a bit when I wast first starting to learn, but after I got good at DVORAK I quit caring. 95% of your typing is going to be on a computer you either own or work at all day and have the ability to customize any way you want. I should probably have a QWERTY weekend once a month to ensure that I don’t completely forget the muscle memory, but I’m not really concerned about it. If you really need to use QWERTY a lot, you’ll be able to type fine in both layouts. It’s the human desktop cleanup wizard: you remember what’s important and forget what you don’t use or think about. It just depends on how important QWERTY is to you. Not switching to DVORAK because you’re afraid you’ll suck at QWERTY is like not wanting to switch to Linux or Mac because you’re afraid you’ll suck at Windows. You’ll be fine, and even if you do suck at Windows, take pride in the fact you’re skilled in something that’s a superior version.

Do you still use QWERTY?

Not when I don’t have to. Cases I still use QWERTY,

Shared computers at work that I’m not using for a long period of time (otherwise I’ll switch it to DVORAK and then back to QWERTY when logging out). Remote Desktop will automatically set the layout on the remote computer when you log in, but not if the computer is already logged in and you’re just switching back to the session.

Gaming. Still need the good old ASDW keys for control.

Phone keyboards. I could probably find a DVORAK setting for Android, but I prefer to just stick with the onscreen QWERTY.


Random Stuff

Here are some logs from keybr.com,

9-15-11 to 10-02-11,

10-01-11 to 10-16-11,

10-23-11 to 11-26-11,

Also some videos of typing,

http://youtu.be/hxsmW9OWVFQ

http://youtu.be/MEpfAvA-wOo

 

 

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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.