Myth of QWERTY vs Dvorak Layout

By Xah Lee. Date: . Last updated: .

There's persistant myth about the origin of the QWERTY keyboard layout design, on whether it slows typist down, and myth about the efficiency claim of the alternative the Dvorak layout.

qwerty vs dvorak keyboard layout heat map
QWERTY vs Dvorak keyboard layout heat map

it's strange. Typically, they are made by people who don't touch-type, or touch-type only QWERTY, OR, from a new layout creator selling his layout.

The earliest claim that Dvorak isn't more efficiency than QWERTY, is this article from Reason magazine, published in 1996, by economists.

Typing Errors: The standard typewriter keyboard is Exhibit A in the hottest new case against markets. But the evidence has been cooked By Stan Liebowitz and Stephen E Margolis. At

It typically goes like this:

Contrary to popular belief, the QWERTY layout was not designed to slow the typist down, but rather to speed up typing by preventing jams.

(from Wikipedia article on QWERTY as of at QWERTY, citing from a passage from a article on Maltron's website, which sells the Maltron layout. This:

Here's another one, from the famous design critic Donald Norman (famous for his book “Design of Everyday Things” Buy at amazon ). Quote:

Wrong. Crowley and Cohen perpetuate the false belief that qwerty was intended to slow typing. In fact, it is one of the fastest keyboards around. There's not enough space here to explain fully. But I have done experiments on and published a lot about this. Qwerty was designed to prevent jamming of keys back in the days when everything was mechanical a …

from 〔Is the QWERTY keyboard layout the most efficient one? Or are there better ones? By Don Norman. At

I hope i'm not taking it out of context.

Here's another, recent one, from the blog of the famed Smithsonian Institution. They are actually putting forth a new theory, that QWERTY wasn't about preventing jams, but came from telegraph machines.

… the QWERTY system, its development as a response to mechanical error, has been questioned by Kyoto University Researchers Koichi Yasuoka and Motoko Yasuoka. In a 2011 paper, the researchers tracked the evolution of the typewriter keyboard alongside a record of its early professional users. They conclude that the mechanics of the typewriter did not influence the keyboard design. Rather, the QWERTY system emerged as a result of how the first typewriters were being used. Early adopters and beta-testers included telegraph operators who needed to quickly transcribe messages. However, the operators found the alphabetical arrangement to be confusing and inefficient for translating morse code. The Kyoto paper suggests that the typewriter keyboard evolved over several years as a direct result of input provided by these telegraph operators. …

— from 〔Fact of Fiction? The Legend of the QWERTY Keyboard By Jimmy Stamp. At (local copy)〕

Out of the blue, comes the damnation on Dvorak:

More recent research has debunked any claims that Dvorak is more efficient, …

On the phrase “recent research”, they linked to a slashdot news post: 〔Dvorak Layout Claimed Not Superior To QWERTY At

Slashdot is a news aggregate site, for nerds, the first one on the internet, and links with excerpts are submitted by readers, via moderation.

The Slashdot post regurgitates the granddaddy about Dvorak not being efficient than QWERTY: 〔Typing Errors: The standard typewriter keyboard is Exhibit A in the hottest new case against markets. But the evidence has been cooked By Stan Liebowitz and Stephen E Margolis. At

So, the Smithsonian's “more recent research” refers to a 2009 link that points to a 1996 article.

Now, comes the payload. The Smithsonian article introduces us a new layout, called KALQ layout. Quote:

KALQ keyboard layout
The KALQ keyboard layout (image: Outlasvirta et al.)

When a design depends on a previous innovation too entrenched in the cultural zeitgeist to change, it's known as a path dependency. And this why the new KALQ proposal is so interesting. …

Is the Smithsonian article sponsored? They didn't say.

The Whys of Dvorak Inefficiency

Typewriter Hermes-s
A Hermes typewriter. Dated around 1910.

Preventing jam on a mechanical keyboard is inherently related to slowing people down. The two things are not independent.

If cars of yore have gas jam problem, then the designer makes the gas pedal hard to push to prevent people from stepping on it too fast, then we say that such design is for making car go faster??

Technically CORRECT!

You see? By preventing people from stepping on gas too fast, it prevents gas jam, so the car won't stuck, so it actually made people drive faster!

Does it really matter how the QWERTY arrangement came from?

Nobody really cares about historical technicality. What people really want to get, is whether Dvorak is not more efficient than QWERTY. People want to find a reason to justify their habit.

English letter frequency 06289
English letter frequency

The top 2 most used letters of English: {e, t}, accounting for 20% of all letters, are on the home row of Dvorak layout, each pressed by middle finger. On QWERTY, it's not in home row. Is this not a simple fact? Does this simple fact, imply that on Dvorak, at least you don't have to move your fingers as much?

There are now quite a lot of layouts, all claim efficiency, some claim better efficiency than Dvorak. See: Keyboard Layouts Fight! Dvorak, Maltron, Colemak, NEO, Bépo, Turkish-F, …. Some have relatively big community, such as Colmak. They have forums, where there are thousands of touch-typists, mostly programers, trying different layouts, discussing their efficiency pros and cons. If Dvorak, or any of these, are not much efficient than QWERTY, then these thousands of people must be one of those flat-earthers.

For those of you who don't touch type, do feel good about yourself, because there's also big theories, sometimes voiced by prominent programers, that touch-typing is not necessary for programers.

Getting onto the edge of the world, there are also, huge number of people, who swear that GNU Emacs's keybinding system is the best designed, most efficient, system.

Believe in yourself. —Sage of PSY

Debunking the Smithsonian Article

here's one of the more insightful comment on the Smithsonian article.

24. Christopher Keep says:

May 6, 2013 at 11:32 pm

The claim that the QWERTY keyboard owes its origins to Sholes' efforts to address the needs of telegraph operators is no better founded than the earlier claim that its arrangement was the result of mechanical deficiencies in the prototype models.

The Kyoto study claims that the “clashing type bar” theory is merely an “urban myth,” first promulgated by William Hoffer in an article in 1985. The claim was repeated by various other writers, including Stephen J Gould, and became the “truth” thereafter.

In fact, the “clashing type bars” theory goes all the way back to 1923 (at least), when the Herkimer Historical Society (the typewriter was first mass produced in Ilion, New York, hence the Society's interest) published a book called, The History of the Typewriter. The authors clearly had access to Sholes and Densmore's correspondence, and no reason to invent the claim concerning the clashing type bars, especially given the unflattering light it cast on their subject. To call this claim “nonsense,” as the authors of the Kyoto study do, seems a bit much.

And what, then, is the evidence for the Kyoto authors' own theory? Well, the central claim, that Sholes was working with telegraphists, is not news — the 1923 study also makes note of it. What they do offer is a series of suggestive corollaries between the arrangement of signs in Morse Code and the QWERTY keyboard, but no documentary evidence of a direct connection. Where's the correspondence, the lab notes, or diary entries to establish the claim?

It seems most likely that the QWERTY evolved from a series of various problems, which likely included (at one point) the mechanical problems of keys clashing and (at another) the need to accommodate numbers for telegraphists. Later, Remington made further changes to avoid patent claims, too. QWERTY was a kind of accretion that emerged over time but soon became fixed in place, in part because Remington had a strangle hold on the market, and in part because it did seem to work for many typists.

All of which is to say, the claims of this article (and of the study upon which it is founded)are at at best suppositions at present. shouldn't we expect better from the Smithsonian? Sholes' letters related to the development of the typewriter are in the state archives in Madison, WI — maybe give them a call before you hit “post?”

(thanks to Jon C Snader.)