qwerty

Posted on August 31, 2008
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Many people have suggested that if you gave a monkey a typewriter and an infinite amount of time that at some stage or other the monkey would type the complete works of Shakespeare, most likely through chance, possibly through boredom or quite possibly because the monkey started developing some talent as a writer.  Think how much more quickly this would happen if the monkey were using a Dvorak keyboard.

“Whats a Dvorak keyboard?”  I hear you ask (that’s what I call a segue).  Well, children, the keyboard, you’re most likely using at home and indeed the one I am stabbing at randomly here with my three clumsy little chimp fingers is a QWERTY keyboard, named after the first six letters of the top left row.  The QWERTY keyboard was developed, not to make you type faster, but to make you type slower, since the original mechanical typewriter would jam up if you started getting a little passionate in your discourse.  But habit, indifference to logic and the human reluctance to change being what they are, we have stuck loyally to the QWERTY keyboard even though many people have developed significantly better systems of typewriter keyboard layout.  To find out more read on dear ones…

Studies of the consequences of keyboard design were pioneered by the industrial engineers Frank and Lillian Gilbreth, who were made famous by a biography, Cheaper by the Dozen, written by 2 of their 12 children. The Gilbreths sought to decrease worker fatigue and increase the efficiency of many industrial processes (as well as of surgical operations and buttoning a shirt) by time-and-motion studies and slowed-down motion pictures. Applied to keyboard design, such studies showed that typing fatigue, errors, and slow speed depend especially on bad design in allocating letters among keyboard rows, among fingers, and between the left and right hands.

When you prepare to type, you rest your fingers on QWERTY’s second-from-the-bottom row, called the home row. Obviously, the more typing you can do without having to move your fingers from the home row, the faster you’ll be able to type, the fewer errors you’ll make, and the less you’ll strain your fingers. Confirming that straightforward prediction, motion-picture studies prove that typing is fastest on the home row and slowest on the bottom row.

You might then naively expect that the QWERTY keyboard was designed so that most typing is done on the home row. You would be wrong. Only 32 percent of strokes are on the home row; most strokes (52 percent) are on the upper row; and a full 16 percent are on the bottom row, which you should be avoiding like the plague. Not more than 100 English words can be typed without leaving the home row. The reason for this disaster is simple: QWERTY perversely puts the most common English letters on other rows. The home row of nine letters includes two of the least used (J and K) but none of the three most frequently used (E, T, and O, which are relegated to the upper row) and only one of the five vowels (A), even though 40 percent of all letters in a typical English text are vowels.

To appreciate the consequences of that misdesigning, just remind yourself of how it feels to type pumpkin or minimum on your QWERTY keyboard. Your fingers must not only reach from the home row to the top or bottom but must at times hurdle completely over the home row, moving directly from top to bottom and back again. Those awkward hurdles and reaches slow you and introduce typing errors and finger strain. Unfortunately, out of any 100 pairs of consecutive letters in a typical English text, six require a reach and four a hurdle on the QWERTY keyboard.

These inconveniences are minimized by any of the numerous competing keyboard designs that concentrate the most common English letters onto the home row. For instance, the Dvorak keyboard devotes the home row to nine of the 12 most common English letters–including all five vowels and the three most common consonants (T, H, N)–while the six rarest letters (V, K, J, X, Q, and Z) are relegated to the bottom row. As a result, 70 percent of typing strokes remain on the home row, only 22 percent are on the upper row, and a mere 8 percent are on the hated bottom row; thousands of words can be typed with the home row alone; reaches are five times less frequent than in QWERTY typing, and hurdles hardly ever happen.

Another easily understood vice of the QWERTY keyboard has to do with alternation of hands. Whenever the left and right hands type alternate letters, one hand can be getting into position for the next letter while the other hand is typing the previous one. You can thereby fall into a steady rhythm and type quickly. In reality, though, even a good typist’s speed is seldom steadily maintained. It repeatedly shifts between fast bursts and slow stutters within even a few seconds, and many of the stutters arise from strings of consecutive letters typed by the same hand. The longer the string, the slower the typing rate and the more frequent the errors.

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