From The Ergoweb® Learning Center

Why Hasn’t Ergonomics Fixed QWERTY?

ETAOINSHRDLU. The 12 most commonly-used letters in the English language. WGCYMFPBKVQXJZ.  The other 14, in order of appearance.

Consider this: if technology were truly intended to make people more productive, the 12 most commonly-used letters would be the easiest to access on the keyboard, right? Logic would dictate that letters like “e” “a” and “t” be accessed by the majority’s dominant hand (right) and rarely used letters like “j” or “v” would be relegated to the inaccessible sides.

If you’re using a standard keyboard, like most computer users, where the “a” is accessed by the left-hand pinkie and the “j” holds the single most desirable spot on the board under the right index finger, then it should be obvious – split, tilted, curved or otherwise, if top row of your keyboard starts with “QWERTY” ergonomics probably had little to do with the way your keys are arranged.

But just because your keys aren’t arranged ergonomically doesn’t mean everyone’s keys hold the same fate.

How Typing Became Awkward

While ergonomics may not have been the driving factor behind the standard QWERTY keyboard, the design actually was born out of efficiency, or so legend says.  Unfortunately, it was equipment efficiency that QWERTY’s inventor was concerned with.

Originally, typewriter keyboards were arranged alphabetically, but that arrangement put keys that were commonly struck in succession, like “e” and “d” or “t” and “s,” next to one another on the same row.  When typing speeds increased, that arrangement of letters also increased the likelihood that key bars would collide, causing the two letters to snag, which meant typing halted until the typist stopped to separate the keys, which slowed down the work and tended to create blotchy documents. The QWERTY design, which first appeared in the 1870s, separated some of the problem keys and in some sense made the process of typing more efficient.  But only for so long.

It didn’t take the advent of the personal computer to create a more efficient beast.  In the 1920s and 1930s, researchers, including Dr. August Dvorak, a professor at the University of Washington, began working on key layouts that would be more efficient for the typist as well as the typewriter.

Dvorak assessed keyboarding, watching and filming people while they typed, reviewing how people typed and what slowed them down, taking into account hand physiology, incorporating a study of language and commonly-used letters, to develop his own keyboard, deemed today the “Dvorak Simplified Keyboard” (DSK), that made a more efficient use of letters and hand movements.  Thousands of words can be made on the Dvorak keyboard’s home row (the center row where the fingers rest), all with reported greater speed and efficiency. Typing is reported to require less effort on Dvorak because of the key arrangement, may result in fewer awkward positions, fewer errors, a shorter reach for the most commonly-used keys, less risk of injury, and reduced user fatigue. To back this up, says Dvorak International, a study by Dr. Scot Ober published in 1993, titled “Relative Efficiencies of the Standard and Dvorak Simplified Keyboards” found that 70 percent of all typing on Dvorak happens on the home row, versus only 31 percent on a QWERTY keyboard, and regularly using a Dvorak keyboards requires 37 percent less finger travel.

Other Designs, Other Concerns

But not everyone is after a keyboard that just makes them faster or reduces the risk of injury.  Some people are specifically seeking keyboards to work with their existing injuries or physical limitations.  Whether the key layout is QWERTY or Dvorak doesn’t make quite as much of a difference when the user’s concern involves equipment that requires a repetitive striking of keys with both hands.

Early on, Dvorak addressed the single-handed typist with a one-handed keyboard design. Today, however, a number of other keyboard designs address different problems as well including musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) like carpal tunnel syndrome (CTS), among others.

Keyboard alternatives that strive to eliminate or drastically reduce keystrokes, like Datahand, or Keybowl’s orbiTouch, were initially designed specifically for these types of computer users. Said Elaine Kirchner, Business Operations Manager for Keybowl, the orbiTouch, a keyless keyboard resembling two side-by-side inverted cereal bowls, wasn’t originally intended for a traditional computing audience.  “This particular keyboard was designed for a very specific group of people,” Kirchner said. “The target audience for this product are people with carpal tunnel syndrome and [other MSDs].”

Keybowl’s inventor, Peter McAlindon, Ph.D., had been involved in keyboard design and the ergonomics of keyboarding, particularly in regard to people with disabilities. He realized, said Kirchner, that there was a flaw with any keyboard that required a user to strike traditional keys.  “[T]ypists who develop carpal tunnel syndrome typically experience the greatest source of pain when they move their fingers and their wrists,” said Kirchner.  “When [McAlindon] looked at the various ergonomic keyboards on the market, the thing [he realized was] that all the keyboards have keys. If the source of pain comes from moving fingers on keyboard, none of these products are going to alleviate the discomfort that comes from the condition.”

McAlindon’s invention removed what he saw as the problem — the keys. Typing on an orbiTouch is performed without using the fingers; instead, a user lays his or her hands on the two domes, and pushes each slightly in one of eight directions to perform keystrokes.  The shoulders and upper arms perform the task rather than the fingers.

Eventually, after McAlindon’s keyboard was developed and marketed, people outside of the original target audience took notice as well.  “Once it was developed,” said Kirchner, “the audience naturally expanded.”  Now the audience includes people who might also be looking at a way to prevent future injuries, some of whom switch back and forth between a traditional keyboard and an orbiTouch keyboard.

Why Everyone Doesn’t Change

“It isn’t a panacea for everybody,” said orbiTouch’s Kirchner.  For one thing, the speed isn’t as great on an orbiTouch, although Kirchner knows some users who are typing about 40 words-per-minute.  Secondly, while the device fits nicely into an existing keyboard tray and connects to a computer via a PS2 or USB connection, it still looks weird.

Ira Janowitz, PT, CPE, a senior ergonomics consultant at the Center for Occupational and Environmental Health at the University of California, believes the same problem of appearance existed a decade ago with what is now becoming closer to standard: the curved and split “ergonomic” keyboard.

“It was very difficult 10 years ago [to switch someone to a split keyboard], but it’s less difficult now.  It’s not so weird and radical anymore.” Janowitz told The Ergonomics ReportTM.  He likens the success of the split keyboard to that of Herman Miller’s Aeron chair. “It was also considered a radical design but now it’s not considered bizarre at all,” Janowitz said.  “The same is true with alternative [split] keyboards.”

There could be a few reasons for the adoption of the split keyboard by industry.  One, early adopters were possibly drawn to them because of their unique, but not drastically-different appearance. Two, people with injuries were also willing to try something new if it helped them work more comfortably with their injuries. Three, the design wasn’t so radically different than what currently existed that it required the relearning of an existing skill — keys were in the same locations, the board itself just looked a little different.  Four, it didn’t present a huge financial commitment. And, five, as Janowitz noted, the split keyboard itself had research backing it: his own group’s testing of the design showed great results.

Still, initially people were hesitant.  Barbra Bied Sperling at Center for Usability in Design and Assessment at California State University at Long Beach said that in any product’s life, that hesitation can be normal. “People are going to adopt [a new product] a lot more easily based on the way it looks,” she said.  Make a product with looks that meet the potential user’s expectations, or at least come close, and a person might be more willing to experiment.  Make one that doesn’t and getting people to try it can be a tough sell.

Lena Dmitrieva, a Usability Consultant at the Design and Usability Center at Bentley College, said that a design that looks like it might take some time to learn could be a big hurdle to attempts at getting people to shuck a QWERTY keyboard and adopt a completely redesigned system like the orbiTouch or just a different layout like Dvorak, XPeRT or ABKey, all alternate takes on the traditional three-row keyboard intended to make typing simpler, faster and more efficient.

“Learning is hard,” said Dmitrieva, “Using is easy. Once people learn QWERTY, using it becomes their second nature — their fingers know what to do and they don’t need to think about it. Trying to convince somebody like that to spend some time learning another device that would ultimately allow them to accomplish the same task is tough.”

No one denies that alternative key layouts have a learning curve.  “I haven’t yet seen [an alternative keyboard layout] that makes it seem as if one could just come up and use it,” said Dmitrieva.  Estimates on the amount of time it takes a person to learn to use an alternative keyboard vary: some estimate that the Dvorak keyboard can be learned in half a day, although proficiency takes longer.  OrbiTouch’s estimates are about the same – three hours for a person to memorize the location of the “keys” and another few hours to become proficient at the required movements.

Dmitrieva notes that even when the learning curve isn’t extreme, it will always be a greater time expenditure for the computer user who knows QWERTY and is capable of using QWERTY. While other keyboard styles might arrange keys in a more logical and easier-to-use manner, “the order still appears quite bizarre at first glance. Users are likely to presume that it’s something that is going to require effort to learn. If one has already mastered QWERTY and is content with their typing speed, the benefit of switching is questionable,” she said.

A pair of unofficial surveys on the website SurveyCentral help confirm Dmitrieva’s assertion.  When asked if people would switch to Dvorak, the vast majority of respondents – over 75 percent – indicated that they had no reason or no desire to take the time to learn a new keyboard when QWERTY was working just fine.  Only a handful said they’d consider switching.

What To Do

“In my experience,” said Kirchner, “especially in adults who forget that they had to learn a keyboard once upon a time, and who know [QWERTY] so well that it’s part of their being, there has to be a compelling need to use a keyboard like [orbiTouch].  If you can type, if you’re efficient and fast, even if switching to something like this [would benefit you], because it requires relearning . . . [there] isn’t a compelling argument.  The people who are most successfully convinced are the people who have reached a point that they can’t use a keyboard any longer and then it’s a very different equation,” she said. “They’re the people who look at this as a means to an end and they’ll do what it takes.”

If convincing one individual is difficult, convincing an entire industry, particularly one that reaches so many people like the computer industry, to change to an alternative keyboard style would prove even tougher.  To begin with, standards would have to be set to determine what the change would entail. Computer manufacturers would have to change their equipment and know that there would be a market to justify the change. Hardware would possibly have to be reprogrammed or at least replaced.  People would need training, in business, in offices, even kids in schools.  And still, individuals who use computers would have to be convinced that it makes sense to change a system that isn’t commonly perceived as faulty.

At present, any attempt to universally accept a drastic change in keyboards would probably suffer the same fate that the metric system did 30 years ago in the United States. Americans, who were bombarded with messages prompting them to learn the metric system in the 1970s, today have very few reminders of the effort other than 2-liter soda bottles and second set of easily-ignorable numbers on their speedometers. A December 2002 editorial appearing in Wharton@Work, a newsletter for the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, summed up the campaign to go metric as follows:

The overriding lesson of metric conversion is the difficulty of changing people. The best system will fail if people don’t adopt it, and they need a very compelling reason to do so. The metric system didn’t give us that compelling reason. Once we have learned them, our old measures work as well as our QWERTY keyboards. These systems have two main advantages: they work, and we know how to use them. The good may be the enemy of the great, but. . . we also have to know when to leave well enough alone rather than pursue some utopian vision of the future. (“Buzz Worthy; Metric Mayhem: The Best Metrics Can’t Overcome Tradition”)

That, however, doesn’t mean individuals can’t choose to adopt a keyboard that strays from the traditional QWERTY on their own, particularly if an alternative keyboard or keyboard layout fits their needs better, making them more efficient and productive. Most operating systems, for example, have a Dvorak conversion built in, although locating it can sometimes be a challenge.  Switching the keyboard itself can be as simple as adding stickers to existing keys. Choosing an ergonomic system to type on subsequently ceases to be an industry-wide dictate and turns into a personal choice.

And that’s the great part about ergonomics: while ergonomics might not be able to shake off an old QWERTY standard, ergonomics concepts can be applied to existing equipment and tasks to help create a variety of options that fit the variety of workers, their abilities, tasks and needs. Eventually, these changes could result in a directional change for an industry. Like Janowitz noted, even the now-commonplace split keyboard wasn’t universally embraced overnight.  But eventually it did achieve acceptance.  Who knows, maybe in a few years it will appear perfectly normal to walk down an office corridor and see one person typing a letter on a device that looks like a pair of upside-down cereal bowls, another on a keyboard with letters grouped in sets of two and three like the ABKey, and a third speaking or even gesturing commands to the computer.

This article originally appeared in The Ergonomics Report™ on 2005-03-02.