A rant about QWERTY

OK, so it seems that it’s no longer fashionable to knock the QWERTY keyboard layout (or QWERTZ in Germany, I gather). A couple of times I’ve moaned about the layout, people have said its got a worse reputation than it deserves. Well, maybe.

I did have a quick look at Wikipedia to find out some information, and that directed me to a one page QWERTY history. If that page is accurate, then it may not have been designed to slow down typists, but the aim of reducing the number of jams in a typewriter at the end of the 19th century is hardly geared towards efficient typing on computer keyboards. It’s not like we have to worry about jams these days, although crumbs, coffee, and other such evils are a different matter.

Anyway, it’s not really QWERTY per se that bugs me. Yes, I think the Dvorak layout puts less strain on my fingers’ tendons. But I can nonetheless type fairly fast on a QWERTY keyboard (it’s only taken 15 years of software development to get there!). No, my main gripe is with using QWERTY on touch screens.

One of my most memorable experiences with this was when I was trying to buy a train ticket from a new electronic ticket machine. There were many design issues with this machine, but I want to focus on the touchscreen keyboard. This is presented to the customer when he or she needs to go anywhere not on the quick links screen. Unfortunately my parents live in a not-particularly-large village, hence I had to type in the name of the station. That’s when I suddenly realised I had no idea where the keys were on the QWERTY keyboard!

This may seem strange at first glance, because I use a keyboard almost every day of my life (how sad is that?), but once you take into account the fact that I touch-type, things start to make sense. I don’t visually map the letters to the keyboard – my fingers in effect just take on a mind of their own. As soon as I was faced with the QWERTY layout and had to visually locate the letters, I struggled because it has no logic. I got to the stage where I was putting my hands on the screen as if I were typing!

What about all those people that don’t have experience with QWERTY? I know that techies may find this hard to believe, but not everyone has a lot of experience with computers and their keyboards, whereas almost everyone knows the alphabet. So why not display the keys in alphabetical order? I really think that no one actually bothered to field test the on-screen keyboard layout and simply went with QWERTY because “everyone knows it”.

Every on-screen keyboard layout I have seen goes with QWERTY, but I’m convinced this is completely wrong-headed for any situation that doesn’t involve touch-typing. In particular, any application that can’t handle fast typing (I’m looking at you, ticket machine) has no call to use QWERTY. Nor does any application that is used by people of all ages and backgrounds. Unfortunately, I can’t help but feel that this travesty will continue until even our grannies eventually learn where the QWERTY keys are.

3 thoughts on “A rant about QWERTY

  1. Matt Passell

    That’s funny. I feel exactly the opposite way. Even though I touch-type and am awfully familiar with alphabetic order, my brain seems to be much faster at finding a specific letter in a QWERTY layout than in an alphabetic one.

    Are you really that worried about people being unfamiliar with the QWERTY layout in countries where it’s dominant? (I realize it isn’t everywhere) As you pointed out, for better or worse, QWERTY has a long history. I bet there are many grannies out there who are experts in the layout, even if it comes from experience with a typewriter rather than a computer keyboard.


  2. Peter Post author

    I’m not worried about it – what will be, will be. I just think that QWERTY was an automatic decision without any real thought or research. If there is solid research that suggests the average person is more comfortable with QWERTY on a touch screen than alphabetical order, then I’ll accept the decision without complaint. It will still bug me though 🙂

  3. Nigel

    I wasn’t worried about it until I just tried to collect my tickets from the machine outside the station. I’ve been using computers for 40 years (for graphics, not “typing”).
    The ticket office was closed, the ticket machine was being worked on and a small queue had formed. Machine shut and ready to go. I took my turn to retrieve previously paid for tickets, using an eight character alphanumeric password. What a pain. It’s a sunny day and the screen is Perspex. I have people waiting behind me. Where is B? I know it’s here somewhere. Bloody QWERTY keyboards. If the keyboard had been A-Z, how simple it would be. Imagine older tourists (and there’s plenty of them) from, I don’t know, say Finland or Japan, trying to find their way around a UK ticket machine. Language learners young and old start with an alphabet, not a typewriter. KISS. Keep It Simple, Stupid.

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