What’s wrong with the modern QWERTY keyboard? Surprisingly, a lot of things. QWERTY is a keyboard design for Latin-script alphabets. The name comes from the order of the first six keys on the top left letter row of the keyboard (Q W E R T Y). The QWERTY design is based on a layout created for the Sholes and Glidden typewriter and became popular with the success of the Remington No. 2 of 1878. It remains in widespread use (Shole, 1868).
Advocates for alternative keyboard layouts claim they’re more ergonomic, easier to learn, and allow you to type faster. Alternative keyboard layouts have users move their fingers less, because the most commonly used keys are all in the center row. This means you’re getting less strain on your fingers (Klosowski, 2013).
The first alternative keyboard we will explore is DVORAK, shown below.
Dvorak was created because the inventor, August Dvorak, believed that the QWERTY keyboard was uncomfortable and wasted energy. The main difference between QWERTY and Dvorak is the home row where your fingers rest. Dvorak places the most popularly used keys, like vowels, at a place where they’re easy to access to save you keystrokes. Likewise, most other common strokes are done on the right hand.
The Guinness Book of World Record’s fastest typist—Barbara Blackburn—achieved her top speed on a Dvorak keyboard. (Klosowski 2013)
In one study, researchers at the Assistive Technology Research Institute found that there was a small improvement to typing speed with Dvorak, as seen below:
“The results of this study support the assertions that the Dvorak keyboard allows for faster and easier learning of typing, and faster typing for the experienced typist. This is an important finding for clinicians who are considering alternative keyboard patterns for clients with fatigue or performance limits to productivity.” (Anson 2010).
The next alternative keyboard we’ll explore is Colemak, shown below.
Colemak is very similar to QWERTY, only making 17 changes to the original key layout. Like Dvorak, your fingers don’t have to stretch as much with Colemak as they do with QWERTY, which supposedly makes typing faster and easier.”
Maltron, shown below, is another type of alternative keyboard.
Maltron is the most radical of the keyboard layouts. Instead of the keyboard being shaped as a rectangle, Maltron separates the keys between a number pad. The keyboard is laid out by frequency so that hands don’t have to move too often, which makes the keyboard more ergonomic than QWERTY (Klosowski, 2013).
One human factors issue with introducing alternative keyboards is that they aren’t compatible with mental models or common expectations. “Direction of operation should be compatible to a user’s mental models” (Norman 2013). Introducing alternative keyboards would completely upend a common household item that most people use daily.
However, because these keyboards are so obviously and visibly nontraditional, once the user adjusted to a new system of typing they would no longer make mistakes so often. “Signifiers make affordances visible” (Norman 2013). The learning curve may be steep, but it is worth it. In addition, the keyboard gives immediate and obvious feedback so the user can realize immediately that they’ve made a mistake and rectify the situation.
Another human factors issue with alternative keyboards is standardization of machines (Norman 2013). If one started using a Maltron, Dvorak, or Colemak keyboard, they would lose the ability to type quickly and easily on a QWERTY keyboard. This creates a problem if they need to use a different or more standard keyboard for a task. The only way to fix this dilemma is to make alternative keyboards standardized and popular worldwide, though that is unlikely to happen.
The QWERTY keyboard was developed for the first ever typewriter, and the design has not ever been improved upon. It is time to rethink how we type.
Anson, D. (2010, July). “Efficacy of Alternate Keyboard Configurations: Dvorak vs. Reverse-QWERTY.” Assistive Technology Research Institute , Misericordia University
Klosowski, T. (2013). “Should I Use an Alternative Keyboard Layout Like Dvorak?” Lifehacker.
Norman, D. (2013). The Design of Everyday Things. Basic Books.
Shole, C. Latham; Carlos Glidden & Samuel W. Soule, (1868). “Improvement in Type-writing Machines”
Tiles, X. (2018, March 16). “Typing.” Wikipedia.
Image. “Circular Keyboard .” Lifehacker
Image. “QWERTY Image .” Computer Hope