My experience after switching to Dvorak from Qwerty

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I committed to converting myself into a Dvorak typist in 2020. After trying a gradual switch for 3 months, I went cold turkey this July. It was a painful and equally enjoyable experience. Writing code is a major part of my job, so I can't use the standard Dvorak. The symbols are not easy to type in the standard layout. I went with the programmer's Dvorak. Hereafter I will mention it as just Dvorak.

The obvious choice would be to buy a custom programmable keyboard. But they are really expensive and I don't easily act on the impulse to buy anything (Learned it from Gandhi). I would like to test how far I can actually go without getting one of those. So in the attempt, I rearranged the keys on my amazon basics keyboard to match the programmer's Dvorak Layout. For touch typing you don't really need to do this, changing the OS settings is enough. But this was one of the reasons my gradual switch from qwerty failed. I want the correct key in place to look when I need a reference.

To my bad luck, the F and J keycaps were a different design than the rest of the keys. So I had to leave those untouched in their qwerty place. As a result, H and U keycaps ended up in different positions in my setup. Programmer's Dvorak reorders the numbers keys differently. The symbols take the number's place, and the numbers typed using shift. The symbol + number key association is also different from qwerty. I reordered my number keys based on the cursed row (As normal Dvorak typists call the numbers in the programmer's Dvorak). That change made typing symbols impossible with the altered keyboard. The symbols were all messed up in different places, and I ended up with something like this.

keyboard.jpeg

In the attempt of changing the keycaps, I broke a few keys such as the { key. It is one of the most used keys for programmers and managed to type without that for 2 weeks. Just by copy/pasting that symbol wherever required. I thought permanently damaged the keyboard and should buy a new one. As a last resort, opened it and saw that the membrane is a little off. After putting that in the right position all keys started working. It was a great relief, I am pretty sure breaking and fixing things by yourself can be as satisfying as the sound of a mech.

I fixed part of the issues, but still had the 4 keys are off and the symbols are in the wrong place. It was annoying and I kept going for the wrong keys whenever looked at the keyboard. To create a better reference than the keyboard, I printed, and pasted the layout on an amazon delivery box, and put in on my desk. It is not pretty, but it gets the job done.

reference.jpeg

All problems solved, I changed my keyboard layout on Ubuntu and started using it full-time.

Week 1

The first week can be the hardest period of fighting your muscle memory, there was a bit of a pain and weirdness on my wrists. I was typing like a snail and made a lot of typos. The keys that changed to a nearby position are the big problems. For example, the letter S is changed to the right hand from the left hand, there is a little chance I would go for the old S. But for letters like H, it was really hard.

I noticed that if you made one typo following your qwerty muscle memory, your hands will follow for a few more letters. I sent gibberish to people in slack. Many times, I came close to switching back to qwerty just to reply to a message or for some notes. Switching back to the old layout does more harm than good. You're breaking your muscle memory for qwerty in the first few weeks. Going back to it is counter-intuitive.

Out of all the issues I faced after the switch, shortcuts are the real problem. I am used to not touching the mouse for a lot of things. This switch forced me to use a mouse all the time. Relearning them is really hard. I'll discuss the shortcut issues and solutions later in the post.

Week 2

I felt like it was getting worse every day, I often went to qwerty layout unconsciously. I had to remember that I'm typing in a Dvorak. Closing eyes and visualizing the Dvorak layout was helpful, but it slowed me down. My speed was around 20 WPM but accuracy has gone to crap. One thing I learned in my typewriting course 13 years ago is, accuracy and finger position is more important than typing faster. It is hard to break the bad finger positions once you've formed the muscle memory with them.

After a few days into week 2, I felt less friction from qwerty's muscle memory. I really missed being able to type faster without the typos. Over the weekend I was able to type an entire blog post using Dvorak (It was also my first guest blog post). I do really have less pain when typing when compared with qwerty. Fingers are moving much better in their natural movement rather than doing some tricky positions.

Over the end of the second week, Dvorak started to feel natural. I still make mistakes but now I know that I made a typo without checking. I particularly have trouble with the upper rows and the numbers/symbols. The numbers placed in the Programmer's Dvorak in a different order. 9 and 0 start in the middle, and to the left, you can find the odd numbers. To the right, you got even numbers. The numbers are mapped odd and even for left and right hands respectively. This might be an obvious thing for most, not for me. Now I don't get why people say this is a cursed row, it makes much sense than the numerical order to me. Typing numbers is easier since I understood this.

Day that I lost track

After the second week, I stopped tracking the Dvorak progress. Somewhere in the third week, I had to use qwerty. It felt stranger now. My muscle memory has been broken and Dvorak's memory building up. I know that some people are really comfortable with both qwerty and Dvorak. My goal is to master Dvorak, and I am not really worried about qwerty for now.

Metrics

If you're reading this far, you are likely to test the waters. So let me share my metrics with qwerty and Dvorak.

Layout WPM (avg) No. of tests taken
Qwerty 70 10
Dvorak 31 4

I tested myself using https://play.typeracer.com, the metrics might seem counter-intuitive to you. After all, everyone switched to Dvorak has done that for getting faster. But, My goal is to reduce the finger and wrist movement and in-turn reduce the risk of RSI and pain. I believe it is working for my goals. I was able to manage to work for 3 weeks without anyone noticing any slowness for 3 weeks. You don't really need to be that fast unless you're getting paid for the number of pages you can type.

I also think that with enough time I can go faster or equal to qwerty speed. The people in /r/dvorak are claiming to have earned better speed than their qwerty. It will take months to be able to get back to that speed. Let's see.

Shortcuts

If you ask me what's the most painful thing in switching to a new layout, my answer is shortcuts. I have configured a lot of shortcuts based on qwerty. After the change, it became really hard to use them. Even the universal shortcuts such as Cut/Copy/Paste won't be in the same place. If you're considering switching, know what you're signing up for. I am a Vim user and configured a lot of system shortcuts based on Vim's key layout, and they are broken now. My entire workflow has been broken down. This is an important issue than reduced typing speed.

There are various ways to fix that such as some scripts/apps that switch the layout to qwerty when you press modifier keys such as CTRL and ALT. This can be a temporary solution but I don't like it because I still have to remember the qwerty position of that shortcut key, so I would advise going through the change and relearn your shortcuts. This decision has freed me completely from any dependency on qwerty.

Weird issues with some Java-based applications

I set up the Dvorak layout as the second input method in my machine. I use Webstorm as my primary IDE. When I try to use a shortcut in the IDE by pressing any modifier key, the system's input method will switch to qwerty. For some, this may be a feature because they can continue using their old shortcuts. It was really frustrating for me since I wanted to get rid of qwerty everywhere.

I started searching for a solution for this and found out that this is a bug in JDK for some years now. There were a lot of solutions posted on StackOverflow but none worked. After a week, I found this simple solution. If you set multiple input sources in your system, some JDK applications tend to pick the first source for shortcuts. The solution is removing any additional input methods. Alternatively, move Dvorak as the first input source and that works. After this, I solved all the issues I had with Dvorak.

Games

If you're a gamer, there might be issues for you in gaming with the new layout. The best idea is to continue using qwerty when gaming. I'm an occasional gamer, so this is not a high priority for me. But your mileage may vary. If you're considering switching spend some time researching the issues that you might face and see if it worth the trouble.

Custom apps / scripts for shortcuts

This shortcut problem is not something new. This is mostly known and solved the problem. There are a handful of apps available to handle this shortcut issue. They will let you keep your old layout for shortcuts alone. I didn't want to add another layer of abstraction in my workflow. The more layers it has, the more potential failure points it has. You don't want to spend a good part of your day figuring out why the shortcuts app is not working with another app. I wanted to use the bare bones setup and setup my muscle memory based on the defaults.

The point is once you started customizing the most common defaults such as qwerty, there will be issues. You should be ready to fix them or work around them.

To sum it up, despite all the issues I faced, I still feel that Dvorak has improved my experience of working with computers. Whether you're looking for improving your typing speed or looking for ways to reduce RSI risk, Dvorak will help you.

Will there be any additional trouble? Highly likely.

Will it be difficult to use or collaborate with other's systems? Yes.

Will I consider going back to qwerty in the future? HELL NO.

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