in All, English, Healthy lifestyle, How I work

Touch typing in Dvorak

On November 2016 I had a free month between jobs. Apart from some resting, reading, and general preparations for my new adventure, I still had quite a bit of free time to do new things or build good habits. It was while cleaning my office that I found a keyboard I had bought a couple of years back:

Its layout was a beautiful matrix -which is good for your fingers- and came with Dvorak by default. So it struck me: how about improving my typing during the coming weeks?

As a programmer, typing is an essential skill for me. I had been doing it for more than 15 years in a learn-by-doing way, and I plan to keep typing for years to come. I thought it would be fun to spend a couple of hours a day training in touch-typing and give Dvorak a second try. And so I did.

The experience

Before I switched, I recorded about 15 typing sessions at TypeRacer using the QWERTY layout, which logs typing speed (words per minute) and accuracy (% characters right over the total). I was at 67 wpm and about 95% accuracy at the time.

Progress was very humbling at the beginning; it felt like learning to walk again, and I swear that, sometimes, I could even hear my brain circuits being reconfigured! After a few weeks, though, I was under 40 wpm and, by the end of the month, I was under 50 wpm. I stopped quantifying myself by then: as I started working, I had a lot of typing to do anyway.

During the first months, the only moments I struggled and felt like perhaps the switch wasn’t a good idea after all was during real-time communication: chats, slack, etc. I don’t know what people thought of me, but my velocity at the time was typing-bounded – I was certainly a very slow touch-typist by my own standards.

But time passed and I improved.

Spáñish Dvorak and symbols

Throughout the process I changed my setup quite a bit: I started my journey using the Programmer Dvorak layout with a TypeMatrix keyboard. After a few months, I switched back to my good old ThinkPad keyboard because having to use a mouse again after years not using it was a pain. A few months later, I switched to the Dvorak international, because the Programmers Dvorak layout didn’t quite suit me. Then, I tweaked the common symbols I use for programming so they were better positioned. Besides, although the bulk of my typing is in English, I still need to write decent Spáñish, which basically means using tildes on vowels and ñ. TLDR: the Spanish Dvorak version made things more difficult, so I’ve just tweaked the Dvorak international to accommodate tildes and ñ as I see fit.

At this point, I believe I can patent my own layout:

All the changes I did to the symbol positions have affected my ability to build muscle memory for them – sometimes I still need to look at some specific symbol on the keyboard. However, the current version has been unchanged for months, so I only need a bit more time for them to stick.

The numbers

Given that I was a QWERTY user for 15 years, I thought I would give the new layout a year before comparing any statistics. The fair thing to do would be comparing after 15 years, but I’m a bit impatient for that. I went to TypeRacer again and noted down the results for about 20 races. These are the numbers of this totally unscientific experiment:

A few remarks:

  • In terms of speed, it seems that I’m mostly there. My median speed now is 65 wpm, 2 words per minute less than before. I had a higher peak (83 vs 79) in one of the current typing sessions, but I was under 60wpm in more sessions this time.
  • In terms of accuracy, I’ve improved a bit. My median accuracy has increased by 1,5 points, and I had only 2 sessions below 95% of accuracy this time.

Coda

Overall, I’m very happy with the switch to Dvorak. My accuracy has improved, meaning that I can maintain a longer typing rhythm. Not having to correct mistakes makes me a faster typist as well, and by learning to touch-type I also have grown more endurance.

This experiment was very humbling but fun. I believe it increased my brain plasticity by an order of magnitude, and I’m hoping to improve my numbers as years pass as well. However that turns out, though, I think of this as a gift to the elder me, a way to prevent typing pain in the future and promote a healthy use of the tools I heavily depend upon.

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