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The stewardesses that slow you down

I have a small favor to ask those of you currently within reach of a physical keyboard (remember those? The oblong plastic things with the clickety buttons on top?). Would you please type the word “stewardesses”, non-PC as it may be? Great. Now let’s do another one — “homophony”. Finally, “encyclopedia”.

If you happen to be a really slow typist, the one-finger hunt-and-peck kind, I bet that the first word was the easiest to type, followed by the second one, and the encyclopedia was the most difficult.

If you type at medium speed, you probably didn’t feel much difference.

If you’re a quick touch typist, though, the “stewardesses” must have given you hell, as if you’d just hinted that you wouldn’t terribly object to an extra pack of peanuts on a low-cost flight. It’s even quite possible that the word made you glance down at your keyboard.

These gymnastic requests of mine were prompted by the surprising discovery that the venerable site HowStuffWorks sticks by the controversial claim that QWERTY keyboards were designed to slow typists down. You’ve heard it before — the old mechanical typewriters used to have these metal levers which tended to jam when adjacent keys were struck in quick succession — so the inventor tried to make sure that the most frequently occurring pairs of letters would not employ adjacent keys — thereby forcing typists to move their fingers a longer way, and slowing them down.

There’s no historical evidence to support this claim, and there are actually some contradictory findings (the researchers Koichi and Motoko Yasuoka from Kyoto University claim that this design was requested by telegraph operators for reasons having to do with Morse Code). Furthermore, it doesn’t make much linguistic sense either, because the 4th most common letter pair in English is “ER”, using adjacent keys. But I’m no kind of a historian, and bear only a passing resemblance to a linguist. I am, however, concerned with Human Factors Engineering (or, the way it’s commonly known today, User Experience), so despite the claim not holding any other kind of merit in any case, I’d like to examine the “slow you down” part, just for the fun of it. Well, my idea of fun, at least.

If indeed the inventor of the keyboard were to set out to slow typists down, separating frequently coupled keys would be quite a counterproductive way to go about it. Because separating them doesn’t slow you down, it actually speeds you up. Since it allocates different keys to different fingers, while one finger strikes the key, the others already get into positions over their own respective keys. Or at the very least they get out of the way of the first one.

If you typed, or pretended to type, my three words, you’ve just felt it for yourself. “Stewardesses” is a 12-letter word typed entirely with the left hand, with lots of letter repetition. You must have felt how the fingers get in each other’s way, and how frustrating it is to have to wait for other fingers to clear the stage for the next finger up. “Homophony” is a 9-letter word for the right hand. It’s a bit less frustrating than “stewardesses” because it’s both shorter and more spread out across the keyboard. “Encyclopedia” also has 12 letters, but it has almost perfect hand alternation, where consecutive letters are usually hit by alternating hands — left, right, left, right and so on. If it had joined the military, “encyclopedia” could’ve been a drill sergeant, if it weren’t for its unfortunate association to a high IQ.

Another way to look at it is this: there has been a fair share of alternative keyboard developments over the years, the most famous for English being the Dvorak keyboard. None has conclusively proved to be more effective than the QWERTY layout: the good ones are on par with it, with different layouts having different pros and cons, but no clear winner. However, one thing is common to all the contenders: they all try to increase hand alternation. Meaning that they all try to break apart commonly used pairings. Speeding typists up, not slowing them down.

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