Most of us type on a QWERTY keyboard, a layout that emerged in the 19th century. The QWERTY was among the first layouts to be mass-produced in writing machines, as typewriters were originally called. Over time, researchers and inventors built on the early QWERTY design to add efficiency for typists and to reduce repetitive-motion injuries. Two other keyboard layouts are commonly used today: Dvorak and Colemak. Each keyboard design has its own advantages and disadvantages.
We've all heard the story of how QWERTY keyboards emerged: the layout was supposedly designed to distribute the most common letters among less used keys, to prevent typewriters from jamming. According to The Atlantic, though, that's not the case. "QWERTY formed over time as telegraph operators used the machines to transcribe Morse code," according to the 2013 article. "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."
While these keyboards may be useful for morse code translators, they may not be the best keyboards for home offices. Typically, people gravitate towards QWERTY keyboards because it is all they know. The keyboard also features on smartphones and tablets, so it's hard to escape. However, that doesn't mean it's necessarily the best keyboard for you and your needs.
In the 1930s, Dr. August Dvorak developed a simplified keyboard, which was designed to use less finger motion, increase typing rage, and deliver fewer errors in comparison to QWERTY keyboards. The Dvorak keyboard has a cult following these days people who use it say they love the added speed and feel less fatigue when typing. The Dvorak keyboard is supported by a wide number of operating systems.
When he was developing his keyboard, Dvorak made some good points about the QWERTY layout. For example, most typing is done with the left hand on the QWERTY keyboard, and typing isn't spread evenly over the top, middle and bottom rows. Dvorak sought to make a keyboard where hands would alternate more evenly, and common letters would be easier to type more frequently, while the least common letters could be located in the harder-to-reach areas of the keyboard.
The Dvorak keyboard, with all its advantages, is very different from the QWERTY keyboard that many English-speaking typists grew up with. The Colemak keyboard attempts to borrow some of the best design ideas from the Dvorak keyboard without losing the familiarity of the QWERTY keyboard. The result is a keyboard that looks much the same as a QWERTY layout but delivers many of the advantages that Dvorak set out to design into typing.
On the Colemak keyboard, only 17 keys have changed positions from the QWERTY. The keys that have been changed help to minimize the finger path distance so that the hand stays on the home row more often, minimizing ergonomic risks to the hand and wrist. The layout also addresses as many of the concerns Dvorak had about alternating hands and hard-to-reach keys as it can without presenting a completely altered design.
Colemak and Dvorak: Which is right for you?
The Colemak forces far less row jumping for your hand than the Dvorak. You can type 35 times more words on the home row with Colemak. It's also easier to switch from QWERTY to Colemak than it is to learn the Dvorak keyboard, but for those interested in learning how to type on either or both, there are a number of typing software programs that help you learn the right method.
On both keyboards, you use your strongest fingers and hand to do the most typing, and there is a low same-finger ratio to maintain a balance between your hands. The Dvorak keyboard uses about 63 percent of the finger motion required by QWERTY, which helps prevent injuries from repetitive motions. There are fewer awkward strokes with both the Dvorak and Colemak keyboards than with the QWERTY, but in this area, the Dvorak wins, with fewer awkward keystrokes required overall.
It comes down to a matter of what you prefer. For some, the intellectual jump needed to switch to another keyboard from QWERTY would take too much time and effort. However, if you want to increase your speed, suffer from repetitive-motion injuries, or just want to challenge yourself, you can give the Colemak a try to see how much of a leap it is for you or dive right in and try the Dvorak. There are a number of educational tools that can help you make the transition, and after a few lessons, you should start getting the hang of it.