The Story of my Switch to Dvorak

A bit over a year ago on December 24th, 2017 I decided to try and do something I never thought I would do; switch to the Dvorak keyboard layout from the traditional QWERTY. It was a long road with slow-typing-induced anxiety, but in the end I was successful in returning to 94.4% of my original typing speed. My journey included completing 500 races on typeracer.com, both to get some cool data for visualization and to practice my new keyboard layout. The transition was really fun for me as a challenge to my self, and a as good reason to build more keyboards… Using Dvorak every day has been nice, but caused problems because my QWERTY typing speed has essentially swapped places with my previous Dvorak speeds — I use the hunt-and-peck style now for QWERTY. This is inconvenient, but overall I’m still happy with my decision to switch. Continue reading to learn about my journey in more depth and see some cool plots.

Background on Alternative Keyboard Layouts

To introduce those that may be unfamiliar with keyboard layouts in general, by far the most widely used keyboard layout (in the USA, at least) is QWERTY (read here for more information). Here’s a picture that you are most likely familiar with:

U.S. QWERTY Layout (image from Wikipedia)

Now this is where things can get weird. There was a guy named August Dvorak who thought he could create a superior keyboard layout by placing the most common characters in easy-to-reach places — notably for me, on the home row (again, read here to learn more). So, driven by pure nerd energy and an unreasonable desire for minute efficiency gains, I went cold turkey and switched my keyboard layout to this:

U.S. Dvorak Layout (image from Wikipedia)

Young, ignorant me was looking at a cross-country road trip with my family, so I figured I could bring my laptop along and make some keyboarding progress. A quick Google search told me that I could change my keyboard layout in software just by changing my ‘language’ in Windows. This was a great solution because it meant if I really needed to use my computer or let someone else use it, I was just a keyboard shortcut away from standard QWERTY.

Learning the New Layout

To learn the basics of Dvorak, I went with a program that walked me through the basic home row combinations, and eventually worked me up to using the whole keyboard in small, digestible chucks. This ended up being a lot of uhuhuh, aoeuaoeuaoeu, htnshtnshtns, and so on. I can’t find the exact link to the program I used, but it was very similar to this. I wanted to use a program like this because it would help me develop some muscle memory for where the keys are located. Even to this day, I wouldn’t be able to name any individual key on a Dvorak keyboard, but I can still type perfectly well; all the keys are just saved in muscle memory.

Repetitive tasks for practice (image from typingclub.com)

After painstakingly working through the repetitive tasks given to me by the learn Dvorak program, I decided I knew enough to start practicing on real text. This is when I made my permanent transition over to typeracer.com for all keyboarding practice. Here, you are entered into a race with other typists of a similar speed to yourself and you all race to finish typing the paragraph as fast as possible.

Losing a race on typeracer — a common occurrence (image from typeracer.com)

From here on, I was fully converted from QWERTY to Dvorak. Anything I needed to type, be that surfing the web or writing reports for school, it was all done with Dvorak. Luckily, the majority of my infantile typing was contained by my school’s winter break, so by the time the new semester began I was a passable typist. So, from mid-January 2017 to present day, I have been using Dvorak as my only input method.

Analyzing my Dvorak Progress Over Time

Now for the interesting part; the results. I have been doing semi-consistent races on typeracer.com over the past year and completed 500 races. Here is a plot of my typing speed over the races I completed (all plots were generated in MATLAB and annotated using PowerPoint).

I tried to explain interesting characteristics in my speed over the year.

This first plot shows all my progress through my switch to Dvorak. I completed exactly 500 races in the past year, and I attempted to explain a lot of the interesting trends in the plot. The general trend of relatively fast growth within the first ~125 races shows that once you know where all the keys are, it seems to be a matter of becoming more comfortable with common key combinations and implicitly memorizing common words.

There is also a long performance ‘plateau’ after the initial fast growth. I think this had to do with a fairly significant decrease in my typing practice. I was still typing reports for school, but I wasn’t practicing outside of that. I could type effectively enough, and even though it was frustrating that I wasn’t typing as quickly as before, I sort of lost motivation to practice. Even outside of this, I made my own 40% Planck keyboard which changed a lot with the way I typed (learn more about that here). There is a pretty noticeable drop in my typing speed immediately after I got this keyboard as I got used to the ortholinear layout and layers utilized in such a small keyboard.

After a pretty long break as school started again, I decided to get back into practicing again. The beginning of November saw me completing a lot more type races and, as I saw before, practice improved my typing speed noticeably.

One “X” per race completed. Odd that I didn’t spread the races evenly over the year.

Seeing my type races plotted over time shows how hot and cold I was with my typing practice. I nearly completed half of the years typing races in the first 2 months of the year. I was decent at completing races in early-April, but I had a huge gap from late-April to November where, excluding one extreme day, I only completed 53 races. That one extreme day, July 10th, was when I received my Planck mechanical keyboard from Massdrop, so I obviously needed to try it out… I completed 59 races that day, which is notable considering how inconsistent I had been with practicing Dvorak during that time.

Bringing in my QWERTY history to compare. Didn’t quite make it back to my previous speed, but came surprisingly close.

It was at this point that I really wanted to compare my performance in Dvorak to my previous performance with QWERTY. So, I paid the $12 to typeracer.com to get a .csv of all the races I had completed on my previous account which I only used with QWERTY. It’s really cool to see how quickly I was able to type with QWERTY, and how drastically that changed when I swapped keyboard layouts. I went from averaging 90 WPM with QWERTY to, after completing my Dvorak typing course, a mere 14 WPM. After 500 races, though, I was able to reach 94.4% of my original typing speed with Dvorak.

All my typing data over time. Practice makes perfect, and I improved much more quickly with Dvorak.

It turns out that I used my QWERTY account for a really long time, but completed relatively few races. I started back in April 2012 and have data up until right before my switch, so the history shows a pretty accurate natural increase in typing speed, since I type on a daily basis. This plot is really good at showing that once you learn to type a certain speed, it doesn’t take very long to return to the same typing speed. I spent 5.66 years improving my typing speed from ~70 WPM to 90 WPM with QWERTY, but it only took a year to improve my Dvorak speed from 14 WPM to 85 WPM.

My switch to Dvorak was long and frustrating, but I’m glad I chose to give it a shot. It pushed me out of my comfort zone in an area that I have been comfortable for so long. It was fun, but I think I’ll stick with Dvorak for the foreseeable future, instead of switching keyboard layouts on a bi-yearly basis.