Why are keys on a keyboard in this weird order? AKA How to type faster

Olcsvári Péter

Olcsvári Péter

There are some words that to someone who has never seen a modern computer would seem gibberish, like the latin sounding Lorem ipsum, the melodically cute qwerty, or the “I sound like a punk rock band” wasd. 

Let’s talk about the melodically cute qwerty.

The eagle eyed of you (or the tech savvy) have noticed that I’m talking about the first five letters starting from the left on the top row of your very own keyboard. What’s up with them?

For the younger readers, no, the first keyboards weren’t fitted on Macbooks, but on old fashioned typewriters. Those funny machines you find at old people’s attics hidden away, because “some day they might come in handy”. They are way outdated, but still make sense in some scenarios. Don’t believe me? Watch this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YE0U018Copw 

The first generation of typewriters used metal arms, called typebars for each letter. Every one of them had one letter (uppercase and lowercase) molded into the end of them. When pressing a key, the correct typebar rose from the rest and hammered the letter onto the paper with the help of an ink ribbon. 

Now let’s imagine typing really fast, an array of typebars flying to the same exact place, while the ribbon and the “paper mover” tried to keep up with the pace. Problems started to occur when two adjacent keys were pressed down, because the typebars could get stuck into each other, thus slowing down the incredibly fast typist of the era.

This sounds like an easy fix: arrange the keys in an order that the most commonly used letters are the furthest apart from each other. So that’s what they did. Meet the qwerty keyboard layout. End of story. 

But wait! Didn’t this illogical and hard key arrangement make typing slower? Yes, it did. The most commonly used letters being the furthest apart from each other makes that your fingers are constantly moving longer distances. 

Nowadays, typewriters are obsolete, being taken over by computers and word processing software, different keyboard arrangements are possible, but the majority of people got so used to the qwerty, that no one bothers changing the system. End of story. Again.

But wait! I DO want to type faster than is possible with this silly qwerty nonsense!

Yes, you can! One of the most popular alternatives is Dvorak which in theory improves typing speeds while being a more ergonomic alternative to qwerty. 

The main issues of qwerty, that slow typing down are:

  • Many common letter combinations require awkward finger motions.
  • Some common letter combinations are typed with the same finger. (e.g. “ed” and “de”)
  • Many common letter combinations require a finger to jump over the home row.
  • Many common letter combinations are typed with one hand while the other sits idle (e.g. was, were).
  • Most typing is done with the left hand, which for most people is not the dominant hand.
  • About 16% of typing is done on the lower row, 52% on the top row and only 32% on the home row.

While the dvorak layout was created with the following in mind:

Letters should be typed by alternating between hands (which makes typing more rhythmic, increases speed, reduces error, and reduces fatigue). On a Dvorak keyboard, vowels and the most used symbol characters are on the left (with the vowels on the home row), while the most used consonants are on the right.
For maximum speed and efficiency, the most common letters and bigrams should be typed on the home row, where the fingers rest, and under the strongest fingers (Thus, about 70% of letter keyboard strokes on Dvorak are done on the home row and only 22% and 8% on the top and bottom rows respectively).
The least common letters should be on the bottom row which is the hardest row to reach.
The right hand should do more of the typing because most people are right-handed.
Digraphs should not be typed with adjacent fingers.

Why don’t we all switch to dvorak then? The answer is simple: Who would want to learn to “write” again, from scratch just to improve their typing marginally. I mean someone might, but if all you do is write emails, reports, briefs and blogs, where the bottleneck is more likely to be you thinking about what to write rather than the typing speed itself. 

Also, forget about all the key combinations you might have learned, like Ctrl+C or playing any games with the WASD keys. Remapping just these in every application outweighs the benefit of improving by a few tens of words per minute. In case this isn’t enough, if you have to type in any other language than English, that has more vowels, or the frequency of letters is different, you can forget about the benefits.

For those who really really have to write fast, there are other alternatives. But these really only make sense in niche scenarios. Like stenograph machines. I don’t really want to go into detail, but these machines are amazing.

These usually have only 23 keys, but some letters appear twice while you can’t see the letter I for example. This is not a production error, it is by design. These machines write a syllable at once, phonetically. Some letters are typed while pressing multiple keys at the same time. But this goes way beyond the scope of this blog. Just check the wikipedia if you want to learn more about this wonder of typing technology that can produce 300 words per minute.

Now stop the nerding, and get back to work on your boring, sub-optimal qwerty keyboard.

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