Dvorak, Keyboard Layout of Champions

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KeyboardOne thing that never gets old is when someone visits me and asks to check some email on my computer.

I always smile and gracefully hand over the keyboard and watch as nothing but gibberish pours onto the screen. This totally freaked out Jeff Atwood (ok, freak may be too strong a word, but allow me some dramatic license) as he watched in disbelief as I demonstrated my ability to tap on all the wrong keys, but see the right words show up on the screen.

It’s my dirty little secret—I type in Dvorak.


What keeps it interesting is that I type on a physical QWERTY keyboard, but use the Dvorak keyboard layout by switching my Input Language setting within the Regional and Language Control Panel applet. This explains why it looks like I tap the wrong keys if you watch me type.

Text Services and Input

I switched to Dvorak over five years ago as one of several desperate measures I took to attempt to reduce the pain of coding. As I wrote recently, your fingers travel roughly 16 miles in an average eight-hour workday.

At the time, I believed the prevailing idea that the QWERTY layout was specifically designed to reduce coding speed because typewriters used to jam if people typed too quickly. As the Freakonomics blog points out, there’s a continuing dispute on whether or not this is urban legend or in fact true.

The theory behind Dvorak is that the keys are supposed to be arranged in such a way that letters that occur with higher frequency in the English language are on the home row and under stronger fingers. For example, the letter e is under the left middle finger.

The goal is that your fingers would travel less during the course of typing, ideally reducing occurrences of repetitive stress injury, while also increasing typing speed and comfort.

Does it succeed? Hard to say. Personally, I think there’s a law of unintended consequences at work here. If you can type faster with this layout, and you still work 8 hours a day, doesn’t that mean that your fingers might end up traveling just as much?

At the very least it does mean your fingers pound on more keys during the day. So if your keyboard doesn’t have a light touch, it could end up being more painful. I use the GoldTouch keyboard which I find to have a light touch, but not too light. In the end, what probably helped more than switching to Dvorak was that I started taking more breaks to stretch. Typing less is a sure way to reduce the stress of typing.

While learning Dvorak, I had to try and totally give into it, which meant my productivity dived for a short while. Fortunately, it was a slow time at work and only took me a couple of weeks to get up to a decent speed.

Since typing is all about muscle memory, one thing I experimented with was trying to type in QWERTY on Macs, and Dvorak on Windows. I wondered if it would be possible for me to associate QWERTY with the Mac and retain my ability to type in QWERTY when on a Mac.

That didn’t work.

Well, it kinda worked. I can still touch type QWERTY, but at about 60% of my former speed.

Found a typo or error? Suggest an edit! If accepted, your contribution is listed automatically here.



36 responses

  1. Avatar for Tracy R Reed
    Tracy R Reed June 4th, 2007

    I have long been tempted to try dvorak but how on earth can you use vi or emacs? The hjkl keys for vi navigation would no longer make sense. Would you have to change all of your apps to map those keys to whatever keys are the dvorak equivalents in the hjkl positions on the qwerty keyboard? I just don't get it.
    My real dream is to learn something like a Datahand keyboard (www.datahand.com) but the fact that they are the only company who makes this keyboard and it isn't a standard worries me about investing the time and money.

  2. Avatar for masukomi
    masukomi June 4th, 2007

    re vi usage. Just use the arrow keys for navigation. It's what I do. Requires moving over but...*shrug*
    Now if only we could convince companies to make ergonomic dvorak keyboards that cost less than $100. I'm drooling over the Kinesis one but can't spare the cash for it so i have do deal with all the annoying issues that sprout from remapping a querty keyboard... like when you vnc into another computer that's also remapping...thus doubly remapping it. ugh.

  3. Avatar for Daniel Lyons
    Daniel Lyons June 4th, 2007

    Believe me, that Kinesis Ergo is worth every cent. I don't use mine as much as I used to because I have a laptop for my main work, and my hands remind me now to take a break in a way that they didn't when I was doing both. Using Dvorak on the Kinesis Ergo is how man was meant to type. I also have a thumb trackball from Logictech, which made less of a difference. The combined effect of the Ergo and the Dvorak layout cannot be overstated though.
    As for vi/emacs, when I switched to the Ergo/Dvorak combo I also switched from vi to emacs, because the Kinesis puts the space-cadet keys in closer range than escape and also there's the direction key thing. Emacs is no problem on the Kinesis. Vi, I would hesitate to recommend, but in reality I've known people to go on using it with the Ergo. Switching either to Dvorak or to the Ergo is a great idea though, your hands will thank you -- probably sooner than you'd expect. And actually I use TextMate for everything these days.

  4. Avatar for Liam
    Liam June 4th, 2007

    vi/vim usage is very easy with Dvorak. Just put the following in your .vimrc file:

    " Dvorak
    noremap t j
    noremap n k
    noremap s l
    noremap j n
    noremap gn gk
    noremap gt gj

    This maps the home row (even better than the original vi layout, which was off-by-one) to the movement keys. The only missing key is 'n'ext (run same search again), which I mnemonicced to 'j'ump. And yes, I use this on the Kinesis Advantage. (I also map Enter to 'b'ack in normal mode, since I find that more comfortable for the Kinesis specifically.)

  5. Avatar for Max
    Max June 4th, 2007

    Totally agree :-). I switched to Dvorak on a Qwerty keyboard and I'm sure I'm a better typist for it. However this is partly because I taught myself to touch type at the same time: previously, I had a (very fast) hunt-and-peck technique which was impossible to get rid of without going cold-turkey on Qwerty.
    I can still switch between Dvorak and Qwerty modes of my brain by looking at the keyboard, but my hunt-and-peck has still fallen out of practice a little :-). It also, like you, only took me a couple of weeks to get up to a reasonable speed, so everyone should consider making this switch!

  6. Avatar for Derek
    Derek June 4th, 2007

    I went through the whole vi key remapping thing when I switched to Dvorak last year. It works, but I recommend staying with the non-remapped version. I've since switched back, and it's not as bad as you might think. It may not seem as natural as the old hjkl layout, but it encourages you to get used to alternate movement techniques, which in turn increases your vi/vim efficiency.

  7. Avatar for The Other Steve
    The Other Steve June 4th, 2007

    I learned on a selectric, but my mother had a manual typewriter at home. So I'm familiar with their operation. I don't buy the argument that qwerty is designed to slow you down.
    If it was... What was this mystical fast layout? Where'd it go? Dvorak came out sixty years after the invention of qwerty.
    Why don't we use the old mystical layout which made you type too fast for the typewriter to keep up?
    My suspicion is, the first layout was simple alphabetical order.

  8. Avatar for the higher critic
    the higher critic June 4th, 2007

    It's not an urban myth that QWERTY was developed to keep typewriter hammers from jamming by keeping separate letters which are commonly concurrent. C.L. Sholes, the 1868 patent-holder for the "Type-Writer," supposedly developed QWERTY after much trial and error merely as an expedient - during testing it was the set-up that led to the fewest jams, and Sholes wanted to make money selling his invention. Typewriters that jammed constantly would cause too much frustration for early adopters. It was no more scientific than that.

  9. Avatar for Jake McArthur
    Jake McArthur June 4th, 2007

    QWERTY keyboards were not designed to slow you down. They were designed so that letters commonly typed in succession alternate between left and right hammers on the keyboard. Hammers coming too often from one side or the other of the keyboard increased the risk of them colliding. Alternating between left and right hammers mostly remedied this.

  10. Avatar for Doug L.
    Doug L. June 4th, 2007

    What the hell is "natural" about a row of keys meaning up down left right? It never made any sense in the first place, so it's just another set of letters to learn. When I switched (to a not-quite-Dvorak layout), I just memorized the new locations of those keys, and I still use those, in vim, in emacs, and in Mac OS X in general (cmd-C, cmd-V, cmd-X are no longer next to one another, but who cares?)

  11. Avatar for John
    John June 5th, 2007

    I did the same thing as Daniel: switched to dvorak, the Kinesis-ergo Contoured keyboard, and GNU Emacs. Totally worth it.
    The only problem is, now that I'm so thoroughly spoiled, there's no going back. :)

  12. Avatar for Joe
    Joe June 5th, 2007

    Kill it with FIIRRRRE

  13. Avatar for Chris Moorhouse
    Chris Moorhouse June 6th, 2007

    Regarding the "alternating hammers theory", it's still a reason for the layout that's totally invalid today. The Dvorak layout's ultimate historical status isn't relevant either. What IS relevant is that that if someone, somewhere, through a massive amount of useability testing came up with a non-qwerty keyboard layout that accomplished all ergonomic- and speed-related goals, it wouldn't be generally adopted.
    I've often thought of the qwerty layout like the english language: almost certainly not the choice people around the world would make if they sat down and thought about it, but most people don't feel they have the choice. The english language is consequently pervasive and invasive in ways the original speakers wouldn't have thought possible.

  14. Avatar for dru
    dru June 6th, 2007

    +1 for Dvorak. I just started a new job and I am having lots of fun pair coding with people that don't know I type in Dvorak.

  15. Avatar for David
    David June 6th, 2007

    Something not mentioned is the "Dvorak Qwerty-command" option on the Mac. I really wish it was on the PC as well. Essentially it lets me type in dvorak, but all of my command key shortcuts (copy, paste, save, undo, print) use the qwerty keys. Doing this allows me to use these commands with one hand and doesn't make me feel stupid when trying to find the C key.

  16. Avatar for Jeff Atwood
    Jeff Atwood June 6th, 2007

    I've been bugging Phil to post about his dirty little Dvorak secret for months. Glad he finally did it!
    Is there any reason to switch to Dvorak other than hand pain?

  17. Avatar for Micah Dylan
    Micah Dylan June 6th, 2007

    I switched the same time as Phil - we were at the same company and we both had some free time on our hands, so to speak. But I didn't switch due to pain I was experiencing.
    I switched because I'd seen several friends, including Phil, basically crippled from coding. I thought simply, "Hey I make my living with these hands of mine, better protect 'em!"

  18. Avatar for Strange Pants
    Strange Pants June 7th, 2007

    If you thought the Dvorak was efficient, check out the CyKey

  19. Avatar for Keith Elder
    Keith Elder June 8th, 2007

    I'm just curious as to what your WPM (words per minute) was before switching and then after switching?

  20. Avatar for Haacked
    Haacked June 8th, 2007

    Unfortunately, I never really tested before and after with the same program, so I don't really know.

  21. Avatar for Server Error 402
    Server Error 402 June 8th, 2007

    From Community Server to Subtext

  22. Avatar for LethalOx
    LethalOx June 9th, 2007

    Since I am dyslexic, it is time to screw the keyboard and go natural language input.

  23. Avatar for Stephen Waner
    Stephen Waner June 16th, 2007

    have you ever thought about reformating the fonts on each key to the mirror image for those who suffer from a rare form of dyslexia called strephosymbolia, if not, check out both my website at wordpress.com or the strepho-view keyboard @ www.arkayengravers.com & keep in mind that i am living on the other side of the coin so to speak, prior to 1990 i was able to read & write in what is considered the norm, from left to right. now my vision only allows me to precieve all print as if it were printed backwards in the mirror image, if anyone wishes to email me about the strepho-view keyboard
    feel free swaner1@cox.net my computer allows me to send email back in standard format along with attachments after a reformat of the Dvorak

  24. Avatar for Peter Klausler
    Peter Klausler June 19th, 2007

    Hi folks! I've been using the Dvorak keyboard layout for about seven years now and it is absolutely the best thing that I have ever done for my personal ergonomics. It is hard to argue with a 42% reduction in lateral finger motion.
    I ran an experiment to try to discover an optimal keyboard layout using evolutionary algorithms that would produce mutated keyboard layouts and have them compete by simulating typing a giant corpus of English text and C. All the winners from this exercise in natural selection had the five vowels on the home row under the left hand and most of DHTNS on the home row under the right.
    At work, I have more or less stopped evangelizing Dvorak. It's amazing how people argue that it can't possibly make a difference. I've learned that if somebody really wants to hit themselves in the head with a hammer, telling them to stop is ineffective. But it still drives me nuts to see people with weird "ergonomic" keyboard designs that still perpetuate QWERTY. Really, Dvorak on a $10 keyboard is going to be so much better for you than QWERTY on a $300 toy.
    Anyway, my point in writing to you all is to make sure that you Emacs/Vi users hear about my Dvorak-optimized text editor, aoeui. Check it out at http://aoeui.sf.net. Have fun!

  25. Avatar for rallen
    rallen September 12th, 2007

    I'm not a coder, but I spend a lot of time surfing and depend on my hands for my occupation (electronics tech). I learned about Dvorak back in the 80's but never followed up on it until I started having pain in my hands a couple years ago. Just changing to Dvorak layout alleviated so much pain, it was almost unbelievable.
    I took a $10 keyboard and moved the keycaps around, and put a drop of superglue on the U and H keys to home my index fingers on. Took me about 5 minutes, and it's been awesome. If it breaks, no biggie. I just pick up another $10 keyboard and do it again!
    At least now I don't have to worry about my wife or son borking up my machine!

  26. Avatar for xyious
    xyious January 9th, 2008

    i have switched to dvorak about 5 years ago i would estimate, and i have been really happy with it. except for one thing, i happen to be german. so there's no öüäß on dvorak, and when writing emails at work you cannot quite go substitute them.
    then the only time i ever had any pain after typing was when i typed dvorak, but switched (left alt+shift) to qwertz (german qwerty) for one single letter at a time.
    luckily someone eventually came up with the neo2 layout (the neo layout wasn't too bad, but i didn't want to switch because all the brackets were hard to reach) which imho is not far from the perfect layout. i have adopted that about 2 weeks after it came out, and they're still arguing about the placement of some keys.
    now the problem i have is .... sometimes i hit the keys for qwerty, sometimes for dvorak, most of the time i hit the right keys. if only i could type on the neo2 layout everywhere i think i would be fine.
    unfortunately i can't post a link because neo2 is not yet official.
    this shows the neo layout: http://pebbles.schattenlauf... (scroll down to the bottom half)

  27. Avatar for Anna Barendt
    Anna Barendt June 6th, 2008

    When I decided to become an independent medical transcriptionist, I retrained in Dvorak, as preserving my wrists, forearms, elbows, etc., was/is very important to me. I also have reset the language bar to Dvorak English. It does freak people out. On my laptop, I have also popped all the keys off and put them in their proper Dvorak locations. Now, I am doing some freelance transcription in an office, using their machines, and having trouble convincing anyone to do anything to their computer. Imagine entering 50 email addresses, hunting and pecking. Not good. I originally had a keyboard with a Dvorak/Qwerty button that I could use to switch between at the keyboard level and not remap. Are there any more out there (I have tried one flat one that had the space, return, and #6 in weird locations, never could do that.) Have looked at the Kenisis keyboard . . does it really work well and comfortably? Could it work on 2+ different computers? Thanks so much, Anna

  28. Avatar for LukeB
    LukeB July 30th, 2008

    Dvorak is the best! I remap the keys in vim to allow home-row motion.

  29. Avatar for Brad
    Brad November 18th, 2008

    I started experiencing heavy carpal tunnel pains (which actually turned out to originate from a pinched nerve in my neck) so I switched to dvorak over 3 years ago. I was working as a government contractor so I had nothing but time. It took about 3 weeks before I could type with any degree of efficiency. I'm sure I can type faster than when I used qwerty, but I never did any benchmarks. It certainly feels more comfortable.
    I put stickers on my keyboard for use with ctrl/alt and so coworkers can hunt and peck if they need to type something on my keyboard. I've got some from ebay, but I've also printed these (http://www.mwbrooks.com/dvorak/dvorcaps.pdf) out on label stock, covered them with packaging tape and cut them out.
    Long live dvorak!

  30. Avatar for Jacques Bosch
    Jacques Bosch October 24th, 2010

    I switched to Dvorak about 10 years ago, and never looked back.
    I also enjoy it when people try using my computer. Most people, however, get a disbelieving look when I give them the explanation. Some, who have heard of Dvorak, think its totally awesome that I am a Dvorakian.
    The added bonus is, that once my co-devs know I use the Dvorak, they never try to use my machine again - I like my private space :)

  31. Avatar for Dave
    Dave May 8th, 2011

    Dvorak is great! I grew up typing 100+ wpm in Qwerty and retrained myself in 2007 mostly for fun, but also because I was convinced that doing so would allow me to type more easily and perhaps even faster than I was already. It took me roughly a month to have a basic fluency in Dvorak, although I didn't quit Qwerty "cold turkey" - I spent about an hour or so per day using Dvorak and trying to carry on my normal activities without switching to Qwerty. By the end of the month, I felt totally comfortable with Dvorak and was typing at least 50-60 wpm. I now type about 80-90 wpm in Dvorak, maybe 70-80 in Qwerty whenever I (rarely) need to use it. The thing that really sold me on Dvorak is that typing just feels so much BETTER! Every common letter combination like io, ie, ou, th, nth, mn, sn, sm, st, and so on and so forth, flows naturally from your fingertips in a way that you never noticed Qwerty didn't allow, and your finger action feels a lot more balanced between right and left. You can actually see it you watch somebody's (or your own) hands typing in Dvorak and then in Qwerty: there's a great deal more motion off of the home keys with Qwerty than there is with Dvorak. Practically every computer you'll sit down at these days has Dvorak support, so there's really no reason not to make the switch ;)

  32. Avatar for Ted Lilley
    Ted Lilley November 6th, 2012

    Thanks for the email exchange about Minimak (http://www.minimak.org/). Hope I explained it to your satisfaction.
    As I mentioned, it's not really meant for people who use Dvorak, so I think you might find it of intellectual interest but not much more. For QWERTY typists though, you get a lot of what Dvorak has to offer without your QWERTY going down to 60% like yours did. (60% really? Mine went down to like 20% when I learned a new full-keyboard layout)

  33. Avatar for Mike Christian
    Mike Christian October 14th, 2013

    C ypc.e gocbi a EKRPAT t.fxrapew xgy ann C iry ,ao a xgbjd ru y.qy C jab-y p.aev C erb-y ydcbt cy-o ,rptcbiv

  34. Avatar for Mike Christian
    Mike Christian October 14th, 2013

    My typing skills are already sad enough. I really want to spend a couple of weeks on typing skills, but am not quite sold on DVORAK. The problem is I still have to use other workstations (ie the rest of the English-speaking world), and that I am a proponent of Pair programming. I'd give it about 3 days before a partner dumps rat poison in my mug.

  35. Avatar for haacked
    haacked October 15th, 2013

    NRN! Ypf Dape.p

  36. Avatar for does
    does September 26th, 2015

    Have you heard of http://shop.keyboard.io?? It doesn't look as futuristic... and its not from the 80's, but seems like they are on to something.