Sunday, February 18, 2007

Kinda alternative, kinda wow

In those confusing days after September 11, Chris Wenham at Disenchanged was using the Duran Duran song "Electric Barbarella" to muse about alternative ergonomics.

A cheezy pop-song provides the story that unravels the method behind the madness of the modern consumer electronics industry....

Have you heard the myth about the Dvorak keyboard layout?

It has its roots in the way the QWERTY keyboard layout was designed, and I'm sure you've heard that it was made that way to deliberately slow down the typist and prevent the printing hammers from sticking together....

When the root mechanical problem (sticking hammers) was solved, it occured to a U.S. Navy efficiency professor to improve upon it. The result was a new layout, named after the inventor. Among its features are a middle row that contains all of the most common letters, so your fingers don't have to stray far.

The myth, therefore, is that the Dvorak keyboard is faster to use.

It isn't....

The [anecdotes] of people improving their typing speed or setting records are highly suspect, and more likely to coincide with the fact that a QWERTY typist is spending time learning to type better at the same time they're learning a new layout. There is no correlation to improved speed and the Dvorak layout, these people were merely focusing on their typing skills and—surprise surprise—got better at it....

The reason why Dvorak is no better than QWERTY is because of the human ability to learn and adapt. You will build reflexes, you'll learn new instincts. Look at two people who've put the same amount of effort into learning Mac and Windows respectively, and after a year their productivity will be indistinguishable from each other's. Issues such as where the “X” button is located on the titlebar, or how close to the screen edge the menus are placed, will cease to matter.

Humans are simply good at mastering the tools they need to use.

I'm sure there's a message about alternative radio in there somewhere - heck, if you read the article, you'll see that Wenham was musing about a number of things, not just the Dvorak keyboard.


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