The Perils of Thinking Differently

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dvorak.jpgThe Wall Street Journal reports a new wave of interest in the Dvorak Simplified Keyboard, a Depression-era rearrangement of typewriter keys, developed by a psychology professor and typing expert in Washington State. Many users believe Dvorak offers speed and comfort superior to the conventional QWERTY arrangement. In the 1980s, computers brought a qualified victory, as software made it possible to remap keyboards without the massive costs of converting conventional typewriters or custom-building Dvorak models. The option was even built into both Windows and Macintosh operating systems.

Now the age of the smartphone is setting back the movement, as Microsoft, Apple, and other manufacturers decline to offer a Dvorak option. Having tried to enter a simple URL with a new iPod touch (similar to the iPhone in its user interface), I'm puzzled that the issue came up at all. The small touch screen makes it a challenge to press the correct letter rather than an adjacent one. The problem for Dvorak users is cognitive, not physical; shifting from one layout to another is a mental pain. Considering the trivial cost of adding a Dvorak feature, Dvorak fans are probably right to believe that the industry is dissing them, hoping that they'll give up. It's a matter of respect.

Actually, respect for the user was August Dvorak's big problem. In the history of human factors, change often comes from below. I discovered this when writing Our Own Devices. For example, the first modern ergonomic chairs, introduced in the U.S. in the 1920s, were sold by leaving a sample chair for secretaries to try. Typewriter ribbon brands were also marketed with attractive boxes that typists could reuse for storage. Dvorak, evidently influenced by the ideas of the self-taught industrial engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor, took an opposite approach. He tried to sell government agencies and corporations on the idea that his keyboard would mean 1) more output per typist, and 2) fewer typists employed. But managers weren't buying the system, probably because it required a big investment in new equipment, retraining, and temporary decline of productivity. Those typists who were aware of it must have considered it just another speedup -- higher work quotas without an increase in wages -- that industrial unionists were protesting. Even government studies supporting the keyboard (to judge from descriptions I have read) focused on raw output rather than user comfort. The real advantage of the Dvorak layout is that while the brain can reprogram itself to use QWERTY nearly as fast as Dvorak, heavy typists and people subject to overuse injuries appreciate that their fingers don't need to move nearly as much.

Ironically, manufacturers themselves made reduced effort a selling point, for example in this postwar advertisement for IBM electric typewriters in the 1950s. So was there a chance for Dvorak's invention, at least as a niche product? It's impossible to say. But decades of papers on keyboard design and productivity are mostly moot because the great age of "production typing" in affluent countries is over, thanks to cut-and-paste clipboards in operating systems, cheaper and more accurate scanners, voice recognition software -- and outsourcing of much remaining keyboarding to developing nations. Meanwhile the interface of new touch-sensitive devices needs a new, end-user-friendlier twentieth century August Dvorak.

What is hard to explain is why Apple has kept third-party Dvorak software out of its official App Store, which means users have to hack their devices, possibly voiding their warranties. As Ed Hansberry explains on an InformationWeek blog:

The iPhone comes solely with a virtual keyboard. All Windows Mobile devices with touch screens have virtual keyboards. With that, you should be able to install whatever keyboard you want assuming someone has written it. You can run such a keyboard on the iPhone, but only if it is jailbroken.[One of many sites explaining this concept is here.] I don't know why Apple would block such an app from the App Store, but you won't find one there.

The crisp elegance of the iPhone/iPod Touch interface carries a price: neo-Taylorist One Best Way design -- the very mentality that dogged Professor Dvorak. The Apple motto is evidently: "Think Different, but Not Too Different."

Photo Credit: Flickr User guspim

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Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

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