March 3rd, 2011
Your fingers don’t speak my keyboard’s language

Several years ago, I had to have surgery on my right hand & wrist. I’d suffered for a while with the writer-standard sort of wrist pain from overuse and long hours of typing but, thankfully, had never developed carpal tunnel or any other really nasty hand ailments. Instead I developed a ganglion cyst – a fluid filled cyst that is mostly benign until and unless it starts to interfere with function. In my case, the cyst grew large and parts of my hand went numb or tingled. Not a good sign. And my right hand is my dominant hand.

Surgery plans were made and while talking about my recovery with my surgeon, I remembered that I’d read about a keyboard layout that was supposed to be far more ergonomic and easier on your hands and wrists that the qwerty layout we are all used to. This is the dvorak keyboard layout, developed by Dr. August Dvorak and Dr. William Dealey in 1936.

Now the qwerty layout was designed in the days of typewriters with the individual letter keys that would swing up to impact the ribbon to imprint on the paper in the typewriter. If you typed too fast, the keys would jam and you would have to stop and unjam them before you could continue on. This layout just became the norm and persisted long past the days of those typewriters and into the modern age. Now all they do is make a keyboard less ergonomic and slower to use (in English, mind you, I can’t speak for other languages).

I am a touch-typist. I don’t look at the keys at all. My recovery from surgery would mean that I would not be able to use my right hand at all during the first week or two so I would have to resort to hunt-and-peck as well as the dreaded left-handed mousing. I thought this would be the perfect time to switch from qwerty to dvorak. So before I had surgery, I bought stickers for my keyboard keys rather than a whole new keyboard, printed out the keyboard map on paper and switched my Windows to dvorak layout. Done.

I did invoke my stubborn side. I was determined and I would not go back. Good thing I’m stubborn, too, because it took a while for my brain to rewire its knowledge of where keys are. It was probably about a month before I was fluent in dvorak and another two months before my speed exceeded my prior typing speed on qwerty. I’ve now been qwerty-free for two years. After my initial learning period, I no longer even put any stickers or maps on my keyboards because I don’t need them.

Which brings me to when life gets funny – a friend pulled one of my laptops to her and said “let me show you this” and tried to type a URL into the browser. Except she was typing qwerty and my laptop only speaks dvorak. The look on her face cracked me up and I told her that my laptop doesn’t speak the language her fingers did.

Pros of switching:

  • Faster
  • No wrist or hand pain anymore
  • Geek cool factor
  • No one borrows your computers

Cons of switching:

  • Frustrating as hell at first
  • Occasional brain farts where I forget where a key I don’t use often is
  • Have to hunt-and-peck on other people’s computers now

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