The Dvorak Keyboard

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Perhaps no technological failure is better known or more lamented than that of the Dvorak Keyboard. Since the early 1870s nearly every typewriter used a keyboard with what’s called a QWERTY layout named for the six keys in the upper left hand corner. To August Dvorak, a Professor at the University of Washington, this arrangement of keys - and I quote him here - was “so destructive that an improved arrangement is a modern imperative.” So, he rearranged the keys to look like this …

Dvorak had great hopes for this new keyboard, but it failed to take over the world. For the Dvorak keyboard the urban myth about its marketplace failure goes something like this: The QWERTY keyboard was designed to purposely slow down typists, otherwise the mechanism would jam. Dvorak designed his keyboard, in contrast, with humans in mind, using scientific principles. The only reason it failed and that we still use the QWERTY keyboard was that it was first and we draw the pat conclusion that the marketplace never changes: Whoever is first always wins. Let’s take this apart and look for a richer sequence of events that explains the keyboard’s failure, and see what we can learn from that. Let’s start with the QWERTY keyboard. It wasn’t a random arrangement. A human factor researcher at IBM noted that as early as 1873 it was “human engineered.” He showed that many of the most frequent letters are clustered at the center of the keyboard and so are confined to a reasonably small visual field.

In contrast to this mythical randomness of the QWERTY keyboard, the Dvorak was designed on objective, scientific principles. To find the principles I got a copy of his great Magnum Opus Typewriting Behavior from our library. Its light on the principles of keyboard design. It’s filled with inspirational motivation for someone learning typing. He even claims that using a typewriter makes you civilized, but as you filter out this kind of stuff -- its throughout the book -- you find the origins of his keyboard design.

Dvorak’s scientific basis came from early 20th century time motion studies of factory workers. The most sophisticated of which attached lights to workers fingers, studied their movements, and then worked to simplify the motion. Today it smacks a bit of elitism: Workers themselves incapable of finding the best motions, and so needing a scientific method to tell them how to work. In his book Dvorak mentions these studies, implying that he used them to find the shortest, most direct paths for typing, yet most often he recommends that beginning typist study these photographs to improve their skills. Even if the scientific basis isn’t what we would think it should be today, still, is the Dvorak keyboard faster?

Likely it is. When you look at the most carefully done and rigorous studies they show often that the Dvorak keyboard is a bit better, perhaps 5%.

And so that brings us back to really looking at the reason for the failure. Partly it was due to the QWERTY keyboard being there first, partly it was due to Dvorak not being the best promoter of his work, and mostly because the keyboard was only a little better. Likely what will dislodge the QWERTY keyboard so despised by August Dovrak is this: New devices like heads-up displays, or even just mobile devices, which give us a reason to learn something new. We no longer need a “hand-sized” but use instead a finger-sized one. This keyboard, for example, isn’t QWERTY based.

That’s the deeper lesson: To dislodge an existing technology requires a significant change in performance, and likely an increase in functionality. I’m Bill Hammack, the EngineerGuy.

Stories of Tech Failures

When we look at the failure of technological objects in the marketplace we tend to be very pat and trace failure to a single cause. Yet technological things fail in the marketplace for many reason. So, in this series Bill takes a deeper look at the failure of three famous engineered objects: the Picturephone; the Betamax video cassette recorder, and the Dvorak keyboard.

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