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Introduction: The Step-by-Step Guide to Switching to Dvorak

This is a step-by-step guide designed to make your transition to typing in Dvorak as painless as possible. It is based on my personal experience doing this back in 2003-2004 or so (my memory on the exact timing is rather hazy at this point...), as well as on a number of comments and accounts of the same that I have seen on the web.

No site of this kind would be complete without a pro-con list, so feel free to check out the Reasons to switch and the Reasons not to switch sections before taking the plunge.

If you have any suggestions for improvement, or general comments, see Comments section.

Now, on to the actual Dvorak switching guide. :)

US Dvorak Keyboard Layout (a site about Dvorak just wouldnt look right without this :) )

The Guide

Step Description Comment
1. Set up a regular time slice that you can devote to some typing practice [almost] every day. On the low end, as little as two 15 minute periods a day is sufficient. On the high end, don't let a practice session be longer than about 45 minutes, and don't do more than about 2 hours total of training per day, as fatigue is liable to set in after that. When I was working on this, I was taking a regular train ride of about 50 minutes each way, which I devoted to my typing practice. A very convenient practice time!
2. Choose a typing tutor program that strikes your fancy. There are some good free ones listed in the Typing Software section, so you do not have to spend any money on this.
3. Measure your current typing speed on QWERTY for benchmarking purposes. Take several measurements for accuracy (about 4-5 will do). Use the software you have chosen in the previous step, or you can use this handy web WPM meter. Take a note of the results somewhere.
4. Figure out how to add a keyboard layout to your computer. Most modern operating systems will let you add a layout in a fairly simple and intuitive manner. The Enabling the Dvorak Layout section will help you out with that.
5. Do NOT, under any circumstances, purchase any special Dvorak keyboards or Dvorak stickers. Do NOT rearrange the keycaps on your keyboard. The goal is to learn to touch-type (as in, type without looking at the keyboard), so by leaving your keyboard as-is you will speed the process of learning to type without looking. Doing otherwise is simply counterproductive.

If you really want a visual reference, you may place a sticky note with the picture of the layout on your monitor, or in a small always-on-top window on your desktop. This method (suggested by Nichotin) gives you the benefit of a visual reference, without training you to look at your keyboard while typing.

6. Do NOT switch to the Dvorak layout for your regular work until you have achieved a practicable speed during your training. If you switch right away, you will experience a much longer period of being entirely unproductive and unable to do anything at any decent speed on your computer. Unless you happen to have stored up a few weeks of vacation that you are willing to spend on learning Dvorak, this is not a great idea. You are likely to end up demotivated and give up on the whole thing.

What is "practicable speed"? Depending on your initial QWERTY speed (measured in step 3), that switching threshold may be higher or lower. For example, if you started out typing 40 wpm, then a 25-30 wpm on Dvorak would seem reasonably productive, however that same 25-30 wpm would feel abysmally slow to a typist used to 100 wpm. I would say you should aim for a Dvorak typing speed of not less than 50% of your initial speed, and probably closer to 70%. But of course, the exact switching time is "whenever you feel like you can do it without losing too much productivity". :)

7. Once you do switch to Dvorak as your default layout, do NOT go back to QWERTY. Stick with it through the uncomfortable first few days. Once you start using Dvorak for your regular typing, your rate of progress should speed significantly, and you should approach your old typing speed within a few weeks. Then, it's all uphill from there!

Reasons to switch to Dvorak

First, you may want to know if making the switch is worth it. The following list of possible reasons to migrate to Dvorak, along with my personal experiences, may help you decide.

Reason My Experience
You are likely to see a typing speed increase on the order of 20% or so (a number that may vary wildly depending on what your initial QWERTY speed is: if you start out a slow hunt-and-pecker, you could see 100% or more, if you started out with 100 wpm, you may get something as low as 0-10%). My QWERTY speed was about 80-90 wpm; current Dvorak speed is about 120-130 wpm.
You are likely to experience less strain on your wrists and fingers. If you currently suffer from pain due to RSI, it is possible that it will diminish or go away. I had some discomfort verging on pain in my right wrist while typing, which is now gone.
You will never get tired of seeing the confused expression on the faces of people who start typing on your computer, and then look up at the screen. :) So far, I'm still not tired of it. :)
All modern operating systems support the Dvorak layout natively, so the incremental dollar cost of switching is zero. This also means that if you do need to use someone else's computer for any length of time, switching the keyboard to Dvorak is a matter of a few seconds. I rarely use other computers for longer than it takes to type in my username/password or a URL at a university box. Not a big deal.
It is also possible to set a keyboard shortcut to switch between layouts, so if you need to let a QWERTY user play on your computer on a frequent basis, the transition is painless. Works for my non-Dvorak family members.
The "geek factor" is not to be underestimated. :) quite true. :)
It is possible to retain typing skill on both QWERTY and Dvorak, so if you do use many different computers in the course of your activities, knowing Dvorak would not be an obstacle. I personally never bothered to retain QWERTY...

Some illustrative Dvorak statistics

US Dvorak Keyboard Layout (here it is again for easy reference.)

So why is Dvorak more comfortable to type, and why does it allow one to achieve greater typing speed? A few most salient features are discussed below. You can find a lot more background and discussion of the Dvorak layout in the Related Links section.

Home Row

As you can see in the picture of the layout to the right, it is arranged so that vowels and most common consonants are in the home row, thus minimizing the time your fingers spend away from home.

Some simple statistics will demonstrate this part of the superiority of Dvorak over QWERTY. Let us look at a nice and long English word list (YAWL) of about 264,000 words:

wc -l documents/word.list
264061 documents/word.list

How many of these words can be typed exclusively on the home row? For QWERTY, we have:

egrep -ci ^[asdfghjkl\;\']+$ documents/word.list

And for Dvorak we have

egrep -ci ^[aoeuidhtns-]+$ documents/word.list

Just about 17.65 times as many words can be typed in Dvorak as can be typed in QWERTY, without ever leaving the home row!

English Language Letter Frequencies

Hand Alternation

Note that vowels are on the left side of the keyboard, and the common consonants on the right. This is not a coincidence, but part of the deliberate design of the Dvorak layout.

Let's look at exactly what's going on here. According to this site, the frequency ranking of letters in the English language is

e t a o i n s r h l d c u m f p g w y b v k x j q z

Vowels are of course very common (and are all on the left side of the Dvorak layout), as are the consonants t, n, s, r, h, l, d, c, m (which are all on the right side of the Dvorak layout). As the graph to the right shows, all the letters past m put together have a combined frequency of occurrence of less than 15%, so we are really getting the bulk of the most used letters covered here.

The structure of the English language is such that it is very common to have consonants followed by vowels and vowels by consonants. This induces a comfortable alternation between the two hands when typing, reducing strain.

This hand alternation also allows for increased speed. How so? Let's try an experiment. First, tap on a surface with the index finger of one hand, as fast as you can. Then, tap on a surface with two fingers of one hand, alternating the fingers, as fast as you can. Then, tap on a surface with one finger of each hand, alternating the hands, again, as fast as you can. Notice how much greater is the frequency of taps you can achieve with two alternating hands than with two fingers on just one hand. Since the Dvorak layout increases hand alternation during typing, it also increases the maximum possible typing speed.

One objection to the Dvorak layout we could make is the following. Given the relatively low frequency of u, one might think that the layout would be better if we swap the u and i keys, to keep the i under the index finger in the resting position. I do not know why this decision was made, really. But besides that little bit, though, the vowels on the left, and the most common consonants on the right is a very efficient design.

Reasons not to switch to Dvorak

It wouldn't be fair to leave out reasons to pass on the whole thing. So here they are.

  • If your main typing language is not English, Dvorak may not be much of an improvement. The Dvorak layout was designed with the English language in mind. There are some non-English Dvorak layouts out there, however, so take a look around.
  • If a large part of your work is done on a large number of computers (something that would happen if you are an IT support person, e.g.), it may be impractical to always be switching them to Dvorak for the purposes of a few minutes of work. The fact is, the bulk of the world's computers is set to QWERTY by default, and it would be a pain.
  • If a large part of your work is done on some proprietary system that is not able to support a Dvorak layout, then it doesn't really make much sense to go through the trouble of learning Dvorak, if you wouldn't be able to use it.
  • If you are not experiencing any RSI, type fast (100+ wpm), and don't have any desire to go through the process for any of the reasons mentioned in the section above, then... you might as well not do it. But then again, if that were the case, you probably wouldn't be reading this page. :)
  • Once you switch to Dvorak and acquire a nice typing speed, it is quite likely that over time you will lose your ability to touch-type in QWERTY. This seems highly dependent on your personal brain idiosyncrasies (some people have an easier time maintaining the QWERTY skill than others), and your dedication to maintaining the QWERTY skill (if you regularly do some QWERTY practice, you can maintain it). So if you are really attached to touch-typing QWERTY for some reason, this may give you pause. I personally have lost all QWERTY touch-typing ability by now, but I did not want it, and do not miss it. :)

Typing Software

Here is a short list of free open source typing tutor software.

Name Description OS Compatibility
KTouch A well-featured typing software Linux
Klavaro Another nice cross-platform typing tutor Linux, Windows, Mac OS X?
Tux Typing Typing tutor geared towards kids Windows, Linux, Mac OS X
Gnu Typist Cross platform customizable typing software Linux, Windows
ABCD (A Basic Course in Dvorak) A no-frills website designed to get you typing on Dvorak Any OS with a browser
Dvorak Keyboard Training A fancier javascripty website typing tutor for Dvorak Any OS with a javascript-enabled browser

There is a longer list of free typing software on the Gnu Typist webpage, but these here are the cream of the crop, so you really don't need to go sifting through that one. :)

Enabling the Dvorak Layout

Various operating systems take slightly different procedures to enable another keyboard layout. I am going to mention the details of a few common OSs. For anything else, you can use our good old friend Google. :)

Linux (Gnome)

  • Select System -> Preferences -> Keyboard from the menu
  • Select the "Layouts" tab
  • Click the "Add..." button
  • Choose U.S. English -> Dvorak from the list on the left, and click OK
  • To set Dvorak as default layout, check the checkbox next to Dvorak. (Don't do it just yet - see The Guide)
  • By default, pressing the two "Alt" keys at the same time toggles the keyboard layout.
    • If you want to customize this shortcut, you can do it under System -> Preferences -> Keyboard -> Layout Options -> Group Shift/Lock Behavior. But I find that two 'Alt's is a good choice, since it is highly unlikely to be accidentally pressed.

Windows XP

  • Open the "Regional and Language Options" control panel
  • Select the "Languages" tab, and click the "Details..." button
  • Click the "Add..." button
  • From the "Keyboard Layout/IME" dropdown, choose the Dvorak layout, and click OK
  • To set Dvorak as default layout, select it from the dropdown under "Default input language". (Don't do it just yet - see The Guide)
  • By default, pressing "Ctrl" + "Shift" will toggle between the layouts.
    • If you want to change this behavior, you can do it under Regional and Language Options -> Languages -> Details -> Key Settings -> Change Key Sequence

Mac OS X

I've never used OS X, so I am just going to point you to some sites with the instructions. :)

Related Links

Questions, comments

If you have questions, comments, or suggestions about this guide, or would like to share your experience with Dvorak, feel free to leave a comment in the discussion page.

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