QWERTY is The Rock – a monolith. All attempts to shift it have failed. Yet the 138-year-old pattern of keyboard letters, named after the top row of the layout, isn’t unassailable. One expert suggests change could sneak up from behind.
This much is undisputed: Christopher Sholes, a Milwaukee printer, patented the letter layout in 1867 for use on a mechanical writing machine, the first practical typewriter. In 1873, gunmaker E. Remington & Sons licensed the design for the “Sholes & Glidden Type Writer. Sholes experimented with various keyboard designs to prevent the jamming of the keys.
Experts differ on why Sholes arrived at his particular arrangement. One account says the layout followed the arrangement of lead type in a printer’s case. Another asserts QWERTY evolved as a marketing ploy – the key letters of “Type Writer,” the brand name, were arranged on the same line so salesmen could tap out the word quickly to impress clients. Some accounts say Sholes then went in and separated common letter pairs to prevent jamming. The most common theory is that the arrangement of letters is deliberately awkward to slow down typists, a way of preventing entangled keys. But another account credits Scholes with ergonomic thinking, explaining the effort to prevent jams was made to increase typists’ speed and productivity.
Economists Stan Liebowitz and Stephen E. Margolis fume in an article published nine years ago that the differences of opinion on QWERTY’s origins taint research in their specialty. Dubious theories are sometimes used to support a case against the effectiveness of free markets and individual choice, they wrote in “Typing Errors,” in the June 1996 issue of Reason Magazine. “Even after they are shown to be false, some stories are repeated, embellished, and occasionally built into entire belief systems.” Liebowitz, Professor of Managerial Economics at the University of Texas-Dallas, and Margolis, Professor of Economics at North Carolina State University, backed up their arguments with a detailed history of typewriter key placement. Much of the article focuses on the continuing and unequal rivalry between QWERTY and a later key map, the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard patented in 1936 and named after the inventor.
There were earlier attempts to rival the Sholes layout. The Ideal Keyboard of 1880 placed the most commonly used letters of the alphabet – DHIATENSOR – in the home row. Liebowitz and Margolis wrote that the largest and most important rivals were the Hall, Caligraph, and Crandall machines, which sold in relatively large numbers. “Many of these companies went on to success in the typewriter market, although, in the end, they all produced QWERTY keyboards.”
Some 50 years later Dr. August Dvorak claimed to have experimental evidence that his particular layout of letters provided greater speed, reduced fatigue and made learning easier. According to the professors the claims were buttressed during World War II when the United States Navy conducted experiments demonstrating that the cost of converting typists to the Dvorak keyboard would be repaid, through increased typing speed, within 10 days from the end of training. But the touted benefits of switching came from flawed experiments, the professors explained, and may have been “cooked.”
In an article written for the CPA Journal, “Selecting a Keyboard,” professors Sean Chen, Alan Hedge, and Dwight Owsen cited a recent study by the US National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health that compared the two layouts. It failed to find any performance or postural benefits with Dvorak. Professor Hedge, who teaches ergonomics and industrial design at Cornell University in New York State, is one of the country’s foremost authorities on keyboard design.
Concerns over key entanglement disappeared with the introduction of word processing and electronic keyboards, and touch typing ceased to be a specialized occupation. It came to be regarded as a useful skill for any professional, but it may no longer be as valued. Business travelers sit whiling away waiting time in airport lounges by working on their laptops. Their fingers fly, though few show evidence of touch typing skills. The combination of laptop technology and word processing produces acceptable speed for hunt-and-peck typists.
At least two 21st Century letter layouts appear designed specifically for the hunt-and-peck league. A promotion for the XPeRT keyboard, which offers an alternative layout of letters, explains it is “Built for Speed ….. AND …… easy transition from QWERTY. Hunt & Peck keyboard users can reach touch typing speeds with no special training.”
Untrained typists are also a key part of the market for the 53-key New Standard Keyboard. It is not the only patented keyboard with letters arranged alphabetically, but it is the latest. Keys are color-coded and the keyboard can be “learned at a glance,” the company explains. “There is no learning curve for hunt and peck typists.”
Professors Liebowitz and Margolis say there is further evidence of QWERTY’s viability in its survival throughout the world. “The basic configuration has been adopted with only minor variations in virtually all countries with similar alphabets.” They point out that computer keyboards can be easily be reprogrammed to any configuration. This circumstance increases the odds of an eventual back door assault on QWERTY.
Usability experts describe the layout as “illogical,” “outmoded” and “inefficient.” Meanwhile, manufacturers and users accept it.
This acceptance intrigues Arnold Lund, Ph.D, Director of User Experience, Microsoft Mobile Platforms Division. “On the one hand,” he told The Ergonomics Report™, “it continues to be fascinating to me to know that over the years there have been a number of alternatives to the QWERTY keyboard that are better layouts ergonomically, but none of them have been a threat to the popularity of the QWERTY keyboard, which … was actually designed to slow people down – exactly the opposite of the kinds of guidelines we typically use for good design.”
Ergonomist Hugh McLoone, a specialist in ergonomic keyboard design at Microsoft’s Design & User Research division, sees familiarity at the root of its continuing popularity. “In terms of key order, QWERTY remains the standard. Dvorak and other layouts that place keys based on frequency of use have not broken from the de facto and recognized QWERTY standard. Much like why most of the United States still uses English units of measure – inches, pounds, Farenheit, etc. – we have not accepted the rest-of-world, logical metric system. Once a system is learned, it takes much effort and motivation to re-learn.” It’s often too much to overcome, he added.
Improvements Alter the Frame, Not the Picture
It’s a mistake to think QWERTY’s survival means ergonomists and other usability experts have been sitting on their hands. Light years separate the ergonomics of keyboards of 1867 and 2005. But the effort to increase typing comfort and efficiency and reduced risks have only changed the frame. The picture is the same – QWERTY.
Manufacturers have hedged their bets: Dvorak is also available on most keyboards.
The Kinesis Corporation boasts that users can “switch between QWERTY and Dvorak layouts on the fly” on its Maxim keyboard.
Microsoft is the market leader in ergonomic keyboards. “There are presently three layouts in terms of ergonomic designs,” McLoone told The Ergonomics Report™. Microsoft has the traditional, straight layout, he said, and also the Comfort Curve Design, which was first shipped last year. “As of this Fall, it’s on four keyboards. It has a gentle ‘smile’ design with 6-degree split opening … (the) gap is filled with size of buttons.” He explained that the ergonomic benefits include reducing ulnar deviation of the wrist – twisting the hand towards the little finger, for conventional keyboard users. “We have full ergonomic design with split and gable-tent angles. Just this Fall, we now have new ergonomic design – based on 7-plus years of research. It’s the Natural Ergonomic Keyboard 4000. It has a steeper gable slope, 14 degrees instead of 8 degrees, to further reduce wrist pronation – twisting hand over.” He lists its other features as “a new ‘gull wing’ key layout to reduce finger reach and better match finger strike angle.” There’s a truly negative slope, along with zero-flat and positive slopes, to reduce wrist extension – bending wrist back, he explained, and a taller palm rest to reduce wrist extension. “All three of these keyboards have the same typing performance.”
The Back Route to The Rock
The Liebowitz and Margolis explanation for the endurance of the Sholes layout – that no competing keyboard has offered enough advantage to warrant a change – hints at one of the back routes to The Rock. Their observation was written almost a decade ago, before hunt-and-peck users began taking advantage of the new technology in such numbers. No change is necessary for users who have not learned QWERTY. More manufacturers may choose to accommodate the hunt and peck league with simple-to-memorize letter patterns and color-coding.
If keyboards become obsolete, so too does QWERTY. Microsoft is looking beyond keyboards, and Dr. Lund describes what amounts to another back route to The Rock.
“The emerging challenges may be coming from different places. Our own work on handwriting recognition, the slow but study progress being made by speech recognition, SMS (short message service) and telephone touch-pad text entry, text input using gaming consoles, etc., all meet their own unique spaces and yet are training people in alternative types of text entry.”
He explained that QWERTY holds its own because so many people use it and the devices are cheap and readily available. “Market forces help keep the keyboard in place and the training in place, so it becomes self-perpetuating,” Dr. Lund explained. “But these new methods emerge because they are optimized for their own context of use.” He mentioned the mobility benefits of handwriting as an example. “It is at least possible that if enough people become comfortable with these new models, they’ll start to look for ways to use these new methods for productivity applications, and drive alternatives in through the back door.”
Handwriting options, just as with speech, may also reduce problems with RSS, he believes, and the health benefits of some of these natural interaction technologies may also open the door to a successful rivalry with QWERTY.
“Finally, as I’ve been working in the natural interaction world for a while, I have started to wonder about how the emergence and dominance of QWERTY over the years has changed the way we think – very McCluanesque. With natural technologies, we may again be able to grow the parts of our brain that are more suitable to non-linear/serial thinking because we can draw, illustrate, and annotate, as well as typing ‘just words’ that QWERTY forces, and integrate that into our expression. This may help with the introduction of computing technologies to much of the rest of the world that has not been trained to think in the linear ways in which the West has been trained.”
Dr. Lund’s assessment suggests the question isn’t whether The Rock will be surmounted, but when.
Sources: Reason Magazine; CPA Journal, Dr. Arnold Lund; Hugh McLoone;
This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2005-12-07.