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.

How it felt

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 at 40 wpm and, by the end of the month, I was at 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, real-time communication -chat, slack- was the only moment I struggled and felt like perhaps the switch wasn’t a good idea. I don’t know what people thought of me, but my writing 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:

  1. I started by using the Programmer Dvorak layout with a TypeMatrix keyboard.
  2. After a few months, I switched back to my good old ThinkPad keyboard because having to use a mouse again after years without it was painful.
  3. A few months later, I switched to the Dvorak international layout, because the Programmers Dvorak didn’t quite suit me.
  4. Then, I tweaked the common symbols I use for programming so they were more ergonomic for my daily tasks.
  5. 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 so I switched to the Spanish Dvorak.
  6. Finally, Spanish Dvorak wasn’t the improvement I was looking for, so I’ve ended up accommodating tildes, ñ, and other symbols in the Dvorak international as I see fit.

This is how my layout looks like today:

All these changes through the year have affected my ability to build muscle memory – 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.

Performance to date

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

In terms of speed, it looks like I’m mostly there. My median speed now is 65 words per minute, 2 wpm less than before. I had a higher peak (83 vs 79), but I was under 60wpm in more sessions.

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%.

Coda

My accuracy has improved, and having fewer mistakes to correct will help me become a faster typist as time passes. By learning to touch-type I also have grown more endurance.

This experiment was very humbling. I believe it increased my brain plasticity by an order of magnitude. Although I hope to improve my numbers, what’s more important to me is to promote a healthy use of the tools I heavily depend upon.

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