Wired.com reminded me this morning that today is the Patent Anniversary of the Dvorak keyboard. When August Dvorak patented his new keyboard layout in 1936, he had a bevy of scientific evidence behind his design proving his system to be faster, easier to use, and more accurate than the QWERTY keyboard that was currently in use. By placing keys in more intuitive locations, users who took the time to learn how to use Dvorak’s keyboard became far superior typists in terms of words per minute and error rates. In fact, QWERTY competitors in typing competitions lobbied to have Dvorak keyboards banned from competition for the unfair advantage.
Yet Dvorak’s invention was a failure, despite the scientific evidence and real-world proof that it was a superior system. The QWERTY keyboard was invented to be non-intuitive in order to slow down typists that were jamming keys on nineteenth century typewriters. By the time Dvorak came around, the QWERTY habit was far too ingrained for users to invest the time and expense to learn a new typing method. Even today, with electronic computing eliminating the notion of “jammed keys,” the QWERTY model is built into our PCs, laptops, smartphones, and iPads. QWERTY hampers our ability to design ergonomic, intuitive products. One look at an iPad user with the device propped up against his knee or awkwardly hen-pecking with one hand confirms this. Chorded keying systems exist (here’s a great one, wink wink), but the amount of conscious learning each user would have to endure to make these systems as habitual as QWERTY becomes an impenetrable barrier to adoption.
Dvorak is a great lesson for product designers about how habits thwart even the best products. Every new product or service introduced to the marketplace is fighting to replace or change a current habit. These habits may run deep, and will require a lot of investment (time from the user, money from the developer) to overcome. This is why an intuitive design and interface is so critical – the amount of effort to learn a new behavior is already mentally taxing; complicated design only amplifies that difficulty.