The QWERTY keyboard

For years, the QWERTY keyboard has served as an example of a design decision taken for technological reasons that outlived its usefulness. Supposedly, the keyboard layout was chosen so as to slow down typing and prevent mechanical typewriters from jamming, but now we use electronic keyboards we’re artificially limiting our typing speed. Can we finally retire this old metaphor? I can think of several good reasons:

  • There’s no good evidence that QWERTY is substantially slower than DVORAK, indeed the QWERTY layout succeeded in a competitive marketplace against other keyboard layouts
  • It was never true that QWERTY was designed to slow people down anyway; it was designed to reduce the occurrences of subsequent kepresses being nearby in space, not nearby in time, the former being more important to preventing jamming than the latter
  • We have a far better metaphor now in the shape of Twitter

Allow me to explain. Millions of messages a day are now being shared via Twitter. Some people use it to communicate with their family, debate political ideas or get the daily news. Central to the Twitter model is that messages are strictly limited in size, to which many people ascribe its approachability and rapid growth.

But there was never any thought put in to what should be the optimum size for a Twitter message. No studies were done of what the trade-off is between messages long enough for rich communication and short enough to discourage excess verbosity. There were no competing systems. The founders of Twitter simply settled on 140 characters because it was envisaged that Twitter would heavily use the SMS system, and SMS messages are limited to 160 characters (truncating Twitter messages at 140 characters allowed for some metadata to be attached). It’s a technical limitation driving a supposedly human-centric tool.

But it’s even worse than that. The SMS system that set the boundaries for Twitter is itself a holdover from an earlier technologically limited era. SMS messages were originally limited to 128 bytes by the signalling formats used on the networks. Even though this was eventually extended to 140 bytes (the now-familiar 160 7-bit characters) I’m assuming the technological tail was still wagging the ergonomic dog. SMS was envisaged as primarily for traders to send terse stock market tips, not as a replacement for other forms of human contact (fact: you can contact The Samaritans for support with suicidal feelings via SMS; I can’t imagine a worse situation to be trying to repeatedly re-edit your message to fit it into 160 characters).

4 thoughts on “The QWERTY keyboard

  1. Kyle

    I think the “QWERTY slows you down” myth is pretty recent, as in from the dotcom bubble or so. Probably due to lots of people buying computers and wanting to know why it’s so hard to learn to type. Even then it’s probably only in the last five or so years that I’d say it’s become the majority viewpoint. A lot of people today have never even seen a typewriter but if you had one it was pretty obvious to figure out the reason behind the layout (because the most fun thing as a kid was to jam it on purpose).

    The “DVORAK > QWERTY” myth is obviously much older and since people invest a lot of time in switching it’s then pretty hard to convince them that all the original studies were done by Dvorak himself. I’d dare say that QWERTY’s spaced out layout may in fact speed you up as there’s always space to move your fingers around. On piano one of the worst things is a complicated piece that’s also very crowded.

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  2. Buster

    Impressive the way this kind of pseudo-knowledge is accepted. Making fun of supposed myths and their silly believers sure is fun, but has anyone actually *looked* at the studies in question? Ah, nevermind. We’re enlightened typists with a doubleplusgood layout who’ve heard somewhere Dvorak faked it all. Silly Dvorak! And silly Sholes who himself patented a Dvorak-like layout after his QWERTY.

    http://dvorak.mwbrooks.com/dissent.html

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  3. Gogo

    Go ahead, paste some text and see for yourself. I’m no avid Dvorak supporter, using a custom layout at the moment. You may disagree about some of the metrics and even then Colemak comes out even better than Dvorak but, still, QWERTY is just… see for yourself.

    http://www.codesharp.co.uk/dvorak/

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