Saturday, July 9, 2011

Letter Frequencies and Keyboard Layouts

I saw Mike Knuepfel's Keyboard Frequency Sculpture a few weeks ago and thought it was an excellent idea for visualizing letter frequency data.

The height of each key corresponds to how frequently that letter is used in samples of English writing.

I wanted to see how the layout of the most frequently used letters on a QWERTY keyboard compared to those on a Dvorak keyboard. Unfortunately, I'm no sculptor, and I couldn't see an easy way to slice and edit the original image to rearrange the keys, so I decided to use a color mapping instead.

The images below were created using the same letter frequency chart as the original sculpture. Pure blue is for the least frequently used letters, while pure red is most frequent.



Note that the majority of the most frequently used keys are on the home row in the Dvorak layout, but they're scattered all around on a QWERTY keyboard. The QWERTY layout originated in the very early days of mechanical typewriters, so the keys were arranged such that common two-letter combinations were placed on opposite sides of the keyboard so that the mechanical parts would not jam. The Dvorak layout was designed to reduce finger motion in order to increase typing rate and decrease errors. Despite these advantages, the Dvorak layout has still failed to catch on.


depl0y said...

In the office on a boring friday, we ordered a couple of dvorak keyboards, to see if we could get used to them. But no. It's used too little to get used to.

Anonymous said...

I would recommend trying colemak rather than dvorak, as it retains many of the key positions of Qwerty such as a, z, x, c and v, so that your favourite keyboard shortcuts still work as they did before.

I'm a recent convert to colemak and feel much better about my typing, but even I think dvorak is a step too far.

Bill the Lizard said...


I only know one person who uses a Dvorak keyboard layout. He learned it by playing a Zombie shooter typing tutor game (Typing of the Dead, I think?) and it only took him a few weeks to reach his old typing speed. It sounds like a fun way to learn, but I don't know how I'd cope with a laptop keyboard during those initial few weeks.

Bill the Lizard said...


Colemak must be very new, since I only just heard of it when I was researching this post. Keeping the shortcut keys in place definitely gets a big plus from me.

Jay said...

I'm a software developer and have used Dvorak exclusively for 5 years. It should be noted that in addition to letters, common punctuation is more accessible, and Dvorak emphasizes alternations between hands, so you less frequently type consecutive letters with the same hand.

I've never actually seen a Dvorak keyboard; I imagine it is an advantage to learning -- not being able to peek. My advice: go cold turkey off QWERTY. It hurts for a couple of days--not physically, but the struggle against self. It is an awakening experience to break that muscle memory and consider both how arbitrary and how powerful it is.

mattyboy said...

I've used dvorak exclusively for over ten years and I learnt it by spray painting my keyboard black so I couldn't see any letters. To begin I had a print out of the keys next to my monitor but it didn't take me long to no longer need it.

I started using Ctrl-Ins (copy), Shift-Ins (paste) to get around the keyboard shortcuts problem.

Never heard of colemak.

Mostly Prosaic said...

I'd love to give Dvorak a go, but in my job I use dozens of different computers, most of them not primarily used by me, and I think having to switch between Dvorak and QWERTY all the time would really mess with my head!

mtcoder said...

dvorak is really nice for people who have to type constantly all day. Once you transition and get use to it. You can really fly and it saves a ton on my wrists. Which is it's main selling point. Actually had a friend's doctor recommend trying it for his carpal. since your typing more in the center you really start to ease the strain on your hands. It's not for everyone, but if you type a bunch its worth trying to learn. There are several games out there like mario teaches typing style that use the dvorak layout, and you can swap your key set with control panel.

Bill the Lizard said...

Mostly Prosaic,

I don't use many public computers, but I can see how that would deter a lot of people. You should be able to set the keyboard layout in your personal settings to switch to Dvorak when you login to computers where you work. You'll have to get good enough to be a touch typist before you can do that, but at least it won't interfere with any others who use those computers.

Dan Neely said...

I've never heard of Colemak before today either. Keeping almost all of the punctuation in the same place looks like it'd be even more useful than keeping most of the shortcuts unchanged. I program in C style languages and what Dvorak does to the ;[]{} keys has killed any interest I had in trying to learn it. Colemak does move the semi-colon but at least to put it somewhere that's still easy to reach.

Dan Neely said...

"I don't use many public computers, but I can see how that would deter a lot of people."

This was enough of a problem for a friend of mine that when he got to college and discovered that the school computers were all too locked down to change layouts that he went back from dvorak to querty because the cognitive dissonance was too severe switching between them.

Bill the Lizard said...

Dan Neely,

Yeah, I can't imagine switching back and forth when so much muscle memory is involved.

Roberto said...

I never knew of the existence of Dvorak keybaord!!

However, may be a nice idea to fiund out the letter frequencies in various lanaguages

Denis said...

Regarding the fact that the Dvorak keyboard never caught on... I thought that the Dvorak keyboard was the standard in Europe...

Bill the Lizard said...


I don't really have any numbers to go by, but according to the Keyboard layouts article on Wikipedia, it seems like most countries in Europe use some variation on QWERTY.

Anonymous said...

In fact, QWERTY is quite standard in europe with variations to be able to use accents et special letters.
In France we use another layout called AZERTY.

Anonymous said...

I use the Dvorak layout, and have done for 8 years now. I love it.

I love that I can type between 100 and 120 wpm regularly, with ease. I like that the keys are placed in a well-thought-out way.

However, the way I did it was extreme: I made myself unlearn qwerty (at the time I started Dvorak, I was a skilled qwerty typist, probably one of the fastest at work).

Others do it differently; for example (this is a Stack Overflow blog after all ;-)), Rebecca is also a speedy Dvorak typist, but she uses qwerty semi-frequently to retain her ability to use it.

I don't like Colemak. It has too many concessions for qwerty (e.g., the placement of the bottom-left keys), which blocks it from having any of the key advantages of Dvorak. YMMV.

Rebecca said...

@Bill, looking at this with a Dvorak layout was my first thought when I saw the sculpture shared the other day. Glad someone else wasn't as lazy as I am. Seeing the letter frequency layout side-by-side is interesting.

I second @Jay's advice. I'd say the most important thing when you are first learning a new keyboard layout is *absolutely do not switch back to your familiar layout*! You're basically ruining everything you've learned in the interim by doing so.

@MostlyProsaic, I force myself to type using the qwerty layout for 5-10 minutes every day or at least every other day. I do this only so that I can switch back and forth and keep my qwerty speed up. I can switch back and forth and after about a minute of a few typos, be fine in either layout.

@cky, 5-10 minutes every other day is hardly semi-frequently. (;

Typing with the qwerty layout feels so awkward compared to Dvorak. Very happy I learned it on a whim several years ago. For those curious, I recommend Take a couple hours and do all of the lessons in a row. That's all it took for me to be able to type without hunting and pecking for each and every letter I typed. Past that, it's just picking up speed over the next week or so.

Anonymous said...

Back in high school, my typing teacher said that it is easier (faster) to type if the letters are on different sides of the keyboard. It is easier to type 'elelelelelelelelelelel' than 'eaeaeaeaeaeaeaeaeaeaea'. Even the typing exercises proved this concept. When the letters of the words were on opposite sides of the keyboard, I was a quicker typist. (This was with manual typewriters using a QWERTY keyboard.)

Jim said...

@Chris et al - Colemak may actually be better than Dvorak depending on what metric you use. See e.g.