Friday, September 26, 2008

Qwerty is designed to slow you down a myth.

I picked up this correction from the Dvorak Zine when it was featured on Slashdot a few years ago. It stuck with me because I had, like one of the zine researchers, believed it to be true. It seemed to be logical, yes? Science knows, the qwerty layout itself isn't logical.

But it's a complete fabrication. QWERTY, as a layout, was created BEFORE there were typists, during the design process for the first typewriters. There WAS NOBODY TO SLOW DOWN.

But a lot of people don't know this, and so the old myth persists.

This came up recently in a course I'm taking on the human-computer user interface. I mentioned that I thought the keyboard/mouse combo was a great interface (it is), which brought up qwerty, which someone mentioned was designed to slow you down, which I corrected,

and was then corrected by the instructor. YES, he said, it WAS designed to slow down typing. Not only that, but the most commonly used keys were placed in positions harder to hit (weaker fingers, the bottom row, etc), and common sequences (like the word-ending 'ion') were broken up so you couldn't hit them all together...

All of which is completely wrong.

The 13 most commonly used letters in English are, in order, ETAONRISHDLUC (this changes over time, and I haven't checked in a few years; you might be more familiar with the previous ETAOIN SHRDLU).

Five (ASHDL) are on the home row, easiest to hit. Six (ETORIU) are on the top row, 2nd easiest to hit. Only two (NC) are on the bottom row.

Four (TRHU) are struck by the index fingers alone (I also hit C this way, because I learned WRONG), the strongest fingers.

'ION' uses three adjacent fingers on one hand. It's not strictly right-to-left, but you very much can hit them all together.

Anyway. I tried to put down a common myth and was "corrected" by the teacher. You'd think this wouldn't bother me anymore. The me-being-correct-but-not-believed thing, I mean. I do seem to have a very Cassandra-esque curse in this regard.


  1. Let's take the letters in Wheel of Fortune: RSTLNE. Only one of them is on the bottom row, and it is struck by the index finger. To me QWERTY is very easy to use.

    You're not supposed to hit C with the index finger? I do. It makes the most sense. Hitting it with the middle finger (which I'm assuming is correct), seems like an unnatural and awkward movement.

  2. the ultimate decision comes down to, are we gonna learn dvorak (or whatever the most efficient layout is out there right now) AND continue practicing qwerty or just stick with qwerty. Because the ubiquitous of qwerty pretty makes it impossible for you to use any other computer without needing to do adjustment...which could be a big hassle if you think about it

  3. I recommend Colemak.

    More efficient than Dvorak, and optimized for people that already know qwerty (all but 17 keys are the same). Also, most of the keys that move are still on the same hand. ALSO, most keyboard shortcut keys stay put (ctrl-c, ctrl-v).

    If you go by my office, you can see a keymap taped up above my monitor. That's colemak, with the differences highlighted.

    Also, colemak has been built-in to X-windows for a year, so all modern linux distributions have it already. It will also be in netbsd. So even if you're on an unfamiliar computer, if it runs linux you can switch over shortly. If it runs windows, you'd have to re-download the keymap.