Should you learn the Dvorak layout?

Is it hard? How does it help? Is it worth it?

I spent last one and a half months learning how to use the Dvorak simplified keyboard layout. I got to a point where I'm consistently typing over 50 words per minute (versus former ~80 on qwerty) so it's good enough to voice my experiences with the layout.

First and foremost, why even bother to switch? I had two reasons:

  • Numbness and mild pain in my right forearm after typing, especially fast typing.
  • Extremely messy qwerty technique which, while still touch typing, was probably a bottleneck for both ergonomics, speed and accuracy of my typing.

Along with learning the layout I mapped caps lock to backspace to remove some of the strain from the right hand, as it is used more in Dvorak anyway.

Learning process is absolutely brutal. It might not be as difficult as with some other skills but it completely wrecks your ability to use qwerty (unless you practice both at the same time, which will make you learn the new layout slower) and in consequence using a computer becomes hell on earth. This frustration was severe enough to almost make me go back to good old standard, but somehow I persisted. For this sole reason I do not encourage anyone to try Dvorak unless they really need to (or really really want to).

From the ergonomic point of view, the layout is clearly superior. There's a some research that support this claim, but really it is apparent from the very beginning. It is completely different from all the jumping around the keyboard you usually do in qwerty, however some keys are still in weird places, most notably F, G, Z and Q. The layout also moves some special keys, which is quite confusing and not easy to memorize. Well, at least for me pressing those is not yet very comfortable.

Some key combinations are very awkward in Dvorak, like ls -l you'd often use in shell. Because the whole thing is designed for english it becomes much worse when used with other languages, like Polish which is my native tongue. Heavy use of letter Z in Polish and rare use in English makes typing much more troublesome but still doable. That isn't a problem though - qwerty doesn't care what language you use, it's equally bad for everyone.

Speed-wise, there's more than enough speed achievable on any layout for a human being. Your main bottleneck will always be the size of your skull, not the speed of your fingers. Achieving 50 wpm after just a month of practice makes it clear that I'll very likely surpass my former typing speed, at least for english. People are reaching three digit speeds with ease with different layouts and Dvorak isn't any different. That being said, I don't think Dvorak allows you to actually improve your speed if your technique is already decent. It is a great way to get rid of bad habits tho.

There's also one more very important thing which is your confidence. With 20 years spent with qwerty it became a second nature where I could be absolutely sure I'm pressing the button I wanted. While my speed on the new layout is already decent I have great difficulty with accuracy and confidence. It will likely take about a year to develop enough muscle memory to be on a comparable level to where it was before.

On moving your keycaps to match your layout: I used to do that, now I find that redundant. It's better to just learn to map qwerty to Dvorak in your head if you have to look (e.g. one handed typing). It also raises suspicion that something's wrong with your keyboard, which isn't necessarily good unless you like to brag about your originality. The little keycap markers on home row index fingers are really helpful to position your hands correctly, and those will be moved around along with the keys.

The little things

There are numerous side effects of using Dvorak keyboard that you may or may not be aware of if you're still planning to learn it. I'll try to list as much of them as possible

  • (Most) Games expect you to have qwerty.
  • Dvorak moves common keyboard shortcuts like copy, paste, save.
  • moving to Dvorak means re-learning all the Vim command placements.
  • Unless you re-learn qwerty, you'll have trouble using other computers or even your own computer if it ever happens to prompt you without loading your configuration (like promping for password before logging your user in)
  • Other people will have problems using your computer. There will be lots of layout switching.
  • Other people will be very curious. If you work in an office, expect many questions.
  • Until you get decent accuracy, it will be very hard to type your password correctly.
  • Even after you'll get used to letter placements there are still new punctuation character placements to learn.

Conclussion

I'm happy with my choice, but I'm the type of guy who likes to learn stuff just for the sake of it. If you really don't have anything better to do with your life then go ahead and learn the layout, but prepare for a very bumpy and long ride.