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Of Keyboards and Men
Dvorak vs. Colemak

The computer age made it easy to switch the keyboard layout to Dvorak Simplified Keyboard without any hardware modifications, and also made it possible for anyone to swap a few individual letters or all of them. One such recent creation of a complete keyboard is the Colemak layout, named after its author Shai Coleman who released it in 2006.

Colemak leaves 17 keysDisregarding the number row and various function keys. in identical positions to qwerty to ease the learning and preserve the location of frequent keyboard shortcuts. This might be good for many people. In my case, the reason I failed to learn touch typing until recently was the temptation to fall back to my very fast ‘hunt and peck.’ With only two keys in the same position on Dvorak, this was not an option. Too many similarities also interfere with the mental switchCzech keyboard and qwerty are mostly identical and switching between the two is very difficult precisely because they are so alike..

The comparisons between Dvorak Simplified Keyboard and Colemak often conclude that the latter is better and usually revolve around several statistical metrics. Two prominent measurements pointing in favor of Colemak are the ‘distance’ that your fingers need to travel and the percentage of letters typed on the ‘home row.’ I am going to go through the various numbers and other aspects, and explain why I consider Dvorak a superior layout.

Keyboard statistics for QWERTY, Colemak and Dvorak

Statistics for qwerty, Colemak and Dvorak

In most comparisons, the ‘distance’ favors Colemak, with a 7.5% reduction on my test textData were generated in http://colemak.com/Compare tool using the full text of Philip K. Dick’s novel Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and other texts where indicated. but this varies (the reduction for The Fellowship of the Ring is 3.5%). The calculated Dvorak distance can get actually lower than Colemak by swapping the neighboring keys U and I (both typed with the same finger on the ‘home row’). I have seen suggestions for this modification but I advise against it:

The method used to calculate the ‘distance’ is flawed or misleadingThe keys in home position are considered zero distance. This leads to calculating ‘hit’ (on Dvorak) as three times longer than ‘did’ although the distance your fingers travel is almost the same. (qwerty equivalent is ‘had’ and ‘lad’.) — a phrase on home keys such as ‘eat the toast at ten to noon’ on Dvorak would be calculated as zero distance. Such ‘distance’ is not influencing the typing speed as much as one would think (otherwise the qwerty typists would be hopelessly slow). Dvorak’s ‘key’ considerations for the layout went far beyond single-letter frequencies, and the placement of keys balances other, often more important, criteria.

The other thing you will likely notice is that Colemak prioritizes having all the top-frequency letters on the home row. Dvorak opted differentlyDvorak kept the left side of the home row for vowels. The letter ‘U’ is the 12th most frequent letter, so on merits of frequency it does not deserve to be in the top ten. and, as a result, Dvorak typists spend 67% of typing on the home row which Colemak bests with 71.5%; but they also spend one third less time on the bottom row and this is very good because it is the slowest row to reach.

On the test text, Colemak also achieves an 8% reduction in the “same-fingerMeasured when different consecutive letters are typed using the same finger — a particularly slow combination.” typing over Dvorak. Although it can do better30% ‘same-finger’ typing reduction on The Fellowship of the Ring. and combinations typed with the same finger are the slowest, this improves only 1% of all the typing. Dvorak over Colemak, on the other hand, improves by 32% the chance that the next letter will be typed by the ‘other hand’ than the current one; and this better hand alternation helps with the typing constantly. This also makes Dvorak ideal for using thumbs on hand-held devices.

Conclusion

Bear in mind that what is evaluated as the optimal keyboard layout inevitably depends on what criteria are used. Colemak is not different because it was designed in the computer age, it is different because it used different priorities and assumptions. If your criteria are in line with Colemak, it might work for you.

The criteria Dr. Dvorak and Dr. Dealey used for the Simplified Keyboard were based on research and investigation with scope that amazed me when I read their book Typewriting Behavior. Yet, despite all the advantages (especially over qwerty) it is amazing how little used and known the Simplified Keyboard is. It is not even supported by many devices at all: iPhone comes to mind — although, ironically, Apple’s co-founder Steve Wozniak is a Dvorak typist.

But this sad state is not surprising: One thing Dvorak does not have is an active, passionate community. It almost feels as if Dvorak users were content to have a little known and under-appreciated gem under their hands.

This is the final article in the series Of Keyboards and Men. The first, titled Childhood, described my encounter with the typewriters and was filed in the Life category. The second, The Inventors, explored the History before concluding with this one, Dvorak vs. Colemak, in the Technology category.

4 Comments »

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WebCreationUK, August 2, 2010:

Great history lesson mate! Thanks!

aaron, September 29, 2010:

You might find the Workman Layout interesting. It was designed as an improvement over Colemak.

http://viralintrospection.wordpress.com/2010/09/06/a-different-philosophy-in-designing-keyboard-layouts/

Neil Thornock, November 25, 2010:

I love Dvorak! Too bad it hasn’t gained a kind of standardized place in the computing world. For as much customization as computers allow, it seems this should be one of the easiest things to encourage.

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