“Something is wrong with the computer! The keyboard isn’t working right.”
This is usually what you’d hear after someone used the college radio station computer after Alex. I met Alex in college. We had a few things in common, mainly our love of music and distasteful humor, so we became good friends. But one thing we didn’t have in common was typing.
Alex was a Dvorak user.
“Oh, sorry,” he’d reply. “I forgot to switch it back.”
Alex would go into the Windows Control Panel and switch back the keyboard layout from Dvorak to QWERTY after somebody complained. This was around 2002/2003, before nearly everybody had their own laptop. Shared computers were the norm and here was a guy doing something very different to this community workstation.
Really, what was the big deal? You want to type? Do it in QWERTY. Switching the keyboard layout was like refusing to speak english. I wasn’t even aware of these other options. Watching him change the keyboard layout was like if somebody you just met came over to your house and showed you a room you’d never seen before…in your own house.
Some nights at the station Alex would bring in his own keyboard, one of those curvy Microsoft ones. He applied stickers to each key so that the labels would match up with whatever he typed. I think he wrote many papers when alone at the station just so he could get away from his roommate or dorm ruckus and work where he wouldn’t be bothered. I don’t think the campus computer labs were set up to let you change keyboard layouts.
I don’t remember him explaining much about why he used Dvorak, nor do I remember anybody asking. Nobody cared, so why bother to explain? They’re fine with QWERTY. They don’t want to be converted.
The Case To Switch
I didn’t think of Alex’s Dvorak keyboard until a few years later when I started dabbling with Dvorak.
I think I started in mid/late 2005. The Dvorak Zine got picked up on Digg or something, back when Digg was for the absolute nerdiest people. It had to be the nerdiest people, because nobody other than nerds care about alternative keyboard layouts. (Want to delve even deeper into weirdo alternative keyboard layouts? Start with Colemak.)
And the argument that it made for Dvorak over QWERTY made a lot of sense. There were studies on which keys are used the most. All the vowels are on the home row. You can type more words just using the home row than you could with QWERTY. You don’t have to move your fingers as much.
But market conditions encouraged the mass market failure of Dvorak. Typewriters standardized on QWERTY. There was no looking back after that, at least until computers arrived and keyboard layouts could be changed in software.
The Dvorak Zine made the logical case for Dvorak, but switching, ah hah! There’s the rub.
If you’ve never had to go through physical therapy consider yourself lucky. You have to learn basic things all over again. You have to exercise muscles you spent years taking for granted. And it hurts. Sometimes it hurts real bad. But you have to work through the pain to get back your original strength.
I’ve only had to do physical therapy with my left hand after a dog bite, but switching from QWERTY to Dvorak was a lot like learning how to use that hand again. I’d think that making the switch is the closest many Dvorak switchers will ever get to physical therapy. Most keys are in different positions. Keyboard shortcut muscle memory? Gone. Guess what? You’ll have to learn them all over again.
I’ve read things about how switching from QWERTY to Dvorak is no big deal. I think it is. You have to convince yourself that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, otherwise you’ll give up. It probably took me about a month to start feeling comfortable typing Dvorak, but this was after weeks of having a a Dvorak keyboard cutout next to my monitor, and really really really thinking hard about where the next letter I want to type is.
In a way switching to Dvorak isn’t just about using an alternative keyboard layout. It’s almost like learning a new language. Since moving off QWERTY, when I have a dream and have to type something it’s in Dvorak.
It feels like rewiring your own brain.
There are a few things that have made me consider switching back to QWERTY.
There’s the sweaty forehead and palms I had while switching keys on my Macbook Pro and hoping that I didn’t break something, like a bad dentist. (This is optional, but I was committed. This is a lifestyle, goddamn it.)
There are the software shortcuts that are configured by key location rather than by key label.
There’s the fact that almost every other computer in the world uses QWERTY and how I was losing QWERTY proficiency every day I didn’t type it. I can still type QWERTY, but not well.
There’s a few pieces online about how flawed the “Dvorak is better!” studies are. I don’t think they’re true, but I don’t know if they’re true. I think Dvorak is more comfortable. I think the layout makes more sense.
What keeps me on Dvorak is that times have changed. Rarely do I have to use any computer other than my own. When I have to type in QWERTY all I can think is how it’s a mess and how it completely justifies my switching to Dvorak, even if it means I have to live and type in my own bubble.
“You still type Dvorak?” Alex asked me over IM one night.
I’m thinking about buying an Aeron chair. I’ve heard good things about Aeron office chairs. They’re comfortable. They have great warranties. They’re a great way to make sure you’re comfortable while at your desk, which encourages you to work more.
They’re also expensive. I think the basic chairs come in around $650. But that may not be a big investment if every day you work on a chair that you can’t stand, or if your fat ass breaks a cheapo office chair every year and have to buy a new one. It’s like what Marco Arment said once:
If you sit on, sleep on, stare at, or touch something for more than an hour a day, spend whatever it takes to get the best.
Dvorak is like an Aeron office chair for your fingers.