The QWERTY keyboard arrangement dates back to the 1860s. It is called QWERTY because those are the first five keys on the top row, reading from left to right. With this arrangement, the fingers of the left hand rest on “ASDF”, and the fingers of the right hand lie on “JKL;”.
Christopher Sholes patented this typewriter design in 1868. One of the problems people were having with typewriters up to that point was that keys would stick together when certain letter patterns were used. Sholes came up with a keyboard pattern that prevented these jams. Once his design was complete, he sold the patent to Remington, a popular maker of typewriters.
The Efficiency of the QWERTY Layout
While the QWERTY keyboard was not designed for speed typing, a stenographer in Utah memorized the layout and began improving his typing speed. During a typing contest, the stenographer knocked his competition out of the running. This led to the belief that not only did the QWERTY keyboard prevent the key jams, but it also was an efficient keyboard layout for speed typing.
QWERTY Versus Dvorak Keyboards
There was a competing keyboard layout at the time. The Dvorak layout was believed to reduce finger movements to reduce stress on the fingers and joints. Fingers of the left hand rest on “AEOU,” and fingers on the right hand rest on “HTNS.” The Dvorak never took off, however, because typewriters with this layout were rare.
A study done in 1956 compared the typing speeds of someone trained to use a QWERTY keyboard and one trained on the Dvorak. Ten government typists were retrained to use the Dvorak keyboard. It took them close to a month of four-hour training sessions every day to reach their QWERTY typing speeds. The study then took typists trained in Dvorak and found they did not increase typing speeds as quickly as the QWERTY typists. This helped reinforce the belief that the QWERTY keyboard is the better option.
KALQ vs. QWERTY
There are still ongoing studies trying to find a more efficient keyboard layout than QWERTY. One of the most recent is the KALQ layout. KALQ is the layout created by researchers at Montana Tech and Scotland’s University of St. Andrews. The design is meant to make it easier for people who type solely with their thumbs on tablets and smartphones. The belief is that the KALQ layout improves thumb-typing speeds by up to 34 percent.
The KALQ layout puts four rows of four letters on the left side of the screen, and three rows of four letters on the right side of the screen. These letters are all within easy reach of the thumb. On the left side, the rows are: MBWH, P(space)XC, RYSZ, and DNFV. The right side finds, GTOJ, IE(space)U, and KALQ.
Additionally, the onscreen keyboard is designed to be larger to accommodate thumbs. Initial studies suggest that this layout is particularly efficient: after 10 hours of training, typists on the KALQ keyboard reached 37 words per minute, while typists on the QWERTY keyboard only reached 20 words a minute after that same amount of time. Whether use of this new keyboard will spread remains to be seen.