The Problem With QWERTY

QWERTY has a pretty bad rep. Here are some of the accusations leveled at it:

It makes no sense. It is awkward, inefficient and confusing. We’ve been saying that for 124 years. But there it remains. Those keys made their first appearance on a rickety, clumsy device marketed as the “Type-Writer” in 1872. Today the keyboard is a universal fixture even on the most advanced, sophisticated computers and word processors electronic technology can produce.

How could we get stuck with something so bad?

Darryl Rehr

Years ago it was obvious to me that the layout was difficult to learn and inefficient, too. For a long time, we were required in my grade 8 touch-typing classes to type strings of nonsense: asdf, jkl;. Jkjk fdfd dkdk fjfj hdjf. That’s because the lessons start on the middle row, “home row”, where one is normally supposed to keep the fingers. A few words and almost-words could be made in these “home row” lessons: a, sad, ass, had, dash, fall, fad, gaff. But sentences were generally impossible without at least introducing E and T from the top row. When using Qwerty, over half of all letters are typed on the top row, but this is not the proper place to keep the fingers because the bottom row would become practically unreachable.

David Piepgrass

What’s wrong with the QWERTY layout?

  • It places very rare letters in the best positions, so your fingers have to move a lot more.
  • It suffers from a high same finger ratio that slows down typing and increases strain.
  • It allows for very long sequences of letters with the same hand (e.g. “sweaterdresses”)
  • It was designed to prevent the keys from sticking, without any consideration to ergonomic or efficiency aspects.
  • It was designed so the word “typewriter” could be typed on the top row to ease demonstrations.
  • It suffers from an extremely high ratio of home-row-jumping sequences (e.g. “minimum”)

Shai Coleman

To be fair, I’m taking Darryl’s quote (the first one) out of context since he’s in the process of making the case for QWERTY, but his characterization is typical of what’s said against it.

I don’t agree with all of these points. Some of them are if not incorrect, at least arguable, such as the one about QWERTY being designed around the word “typewriter”. It’s true that the letters of the word appear in the top row, but there’s no record I could find stating that as a design goal. At best it’s conjecture and it doesn’t really make sense when you know the story. Nevertheless, points such as this are widely repeated as to why QWERTY is such a blight on the computing landscape.

Old typewriter
A 130-year old design not unlike your current layout…in fact,
exactly the same.

I’ve read several and varying accounts of QWERTY’s origins, both from supporters’ and detractors’ viewpoints. As best I can tell, QWERTY was a very early design which did not benefit from a lot of work on ergonomics and efficiency, it’s true. It was designed before the advent of touch-typing, so it most certainly could not have applied any design principles whose goal was touch-typing efficiency. At best, if there was thought toward typing efficiency, it involved the efficiency of the hunt-and-peck style which itself was becoming possible for the first time. Any efficiency imparted to touch-typing would have had to be incidental (perhaps some overlap in what makes typing better for both styles).

By all accounts, even efficiency concerns with hunt-and-peck typing would have been secondary, if having registered at all. The designers were still coming to grips with the mechanical design of the machine, and mechanical issues impacted the layout. It’s commonly said that the arrangement of the keys allowed typists to type fast enough that the key hammers would jam, and that the designers rearranged the keys to slow the typist down.

I find this hard to believe. The hammers certainly could jam, as anyone who has used a hammer-based model knows. However, if the keys were dispersed to prevent the most common bigrams from being quickly keyed, then they would have surely moved the number one most frequent bigram, the pair of “E” and “R” (in either order), to be on the same finger so as not to be typed quickly. At the least they wouldn’t have put them right together on two of the quickest typing fingers.

Similarly, they would have moved “T” and “H”, the second most common bigram, to a similar situation. These frequent bigrams would have surfaced empirically through routine typing while they worked on the layout, without the need for in-depth frequency analyses that would only come later. They could have and would have been addressed then.

The keys were moved from their original positions, but not to slow the typists’ keying. The keys were moved because they were attached to a ring of hammers by their position, and the best positions for frequent bigrams were to be on opposite sides of the ring so that they could be typed quickly without jamming. While I can’t go back and study the design to verify my theory on the most frequent pairs, this is the explanation given by some texts and the one I find most plausible.

Whatever thought was given to typing efficiency, the only efficient part of the design seems to be the placement of the little-used “Q” and “Z” in corners and of other infrequent keys on the bottom row. The home row is poorly utilized, appearing to have mostly come from an alphabetical arrangement (“d-fgh-jkl”). This is where touch-typists are trained to keep their hands most of the time, where efficiency would dictate putting the most frequently used keys. Hint: they aren’t. So I think it’s safe to say that QWERTY has no great stress on touch-typing efficiency principles.

There’s much more debate about why QWERTY then succeeded against other designs of the time. A lot has been said about the market forces that create what may be the self-perpetuating success of a universal standard layout. What’s important to note is that there was a period of time before there was a clear universal standard, and while QWERTY’s competition may have had better or worse design, QWERTY’s was good enough for people to type successfully and reasonably fast. It’s still true to this day.

While there are layouts that have clearly better research and efficiency principles employed in their design, QWERTY typists still hold championship positions in the typing world. Sure, there are Dvorak Guiness record holders as well, but if QWERTY were bad, truly bad, then there would be a distinct and statistically obvious advantage for the Dvorak users. 76 years after Dvorak’s invention, there should be clear evidence that its best users can handily beat QWERTY’s best, and it’s just not so. You can’t write it off to lack of talent pool, as there seem to be plenty of Dvorak users, especially among computer enthusiasts who are presumably very experienced typists.

So QWERTY’s success boils down to, it’s not great, but it’s not bad enough to justify replacing it. If you’ve read this far just to be told something you already knew, then I hope you’re at least a bit more educated about why. It’s not great because it wasn’t designed to be…it’s best innovations were to simply use three rows of keys instead of two and to place the frequent bigrams where their hammers would interfere least.

To get down to brass tacks, here’s what I find most wrong with QWERTY:

  • The home row is underutilized, forcing the typist to move frequently to the top row
  • The two most-frequent letters, which are disproportionately relied on by the English language, are undeservingly denied the most favorable positions on the keyboard as well as appearing on the same hand, adding insult to injury
  • Some but not all of the worst keyboard positions are given to infrequent letters - all of them should be
  • There are many frequently-used bigrams that are located on the same finger for touch-typists, slowing them down
  • Some frequently-used bigrams cause the hand to have to awkwardly jump between the top and bottom rows

In particular, “E” and “T” should be located on the middle finger of each hand. More of the top row letters should be moved to the home row. And the letters that switch fingers should be moved where they don’t cause same-finger repetition.

The Problem With Alternative Layouts

If lack of intentional design were the only problem, then there would be no need for a new layout such as Minimak.

Not this kind of keyboard layout.

Former QWERTY speed-typing record holder