Hacker News new | past | comments | ask | show | jobs | submit login

I use dvorak for my computer, but I think the design goals of QWERTY are actually useful for the small keyboard of a phone being used with thumbs.

It was designed to put diphthongs on opposite sides of the keyboard so that a mechanical typewriter wouldn’t jam as frequently. I think avoiding “jams” with my thumbs is definitely the way to think about it.

All of this is speculation because I haven’t had the chance to try it our yet ( ͡° ͜ʖ ͡°)

I use swiping almost exclusively, and HN has discussed before how Dvorak is actually really bad for that:

https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=7110619 , but the article is broken, so see https://web.archive.org/web/20150320170000/http://minuum.com... .

Having all the vowels next to each other, and so many words in English that differ just by vowels, is actually really hard on the swiping algorithm. As I mention in the comments of that article, it is likely that QWERTY is not optimal for that use case either, but it's a lot closer. Despite using Dvorak for almost everything else, including typing this comment right now, I have no use or desire for it on mobile phones. YMMV, of course.

A lot of different people have come up with metrics for the optimality of a given keyboard layout. This has given rise to various unusual layouts that are the optimal layout for a given metric. [1]

I wonder if the same could be done for a swipe based phone layout. Seems like you'd end up with something very different than Dvorak and probably quite different than Qwerty as well. Perhaps part of the metric could give a bonus to layouts that were similar to some other layout, thus creating Qwerty-phone and Dvorak-phone alternative layouts.

As someone who types with Dvorak on the computer, I'd happily attempt to learn a new layout for phones. My error rate is extremely high with swipe keyboards, even though I use Qwerty.

[1] https://web.archive.org/web/20220926205948/https://mkweb.bcg...

>I wonder if the same could be done for a swipe based phone layout.

There are others, but the one that comes to mind for smartphones and other small devices is MessagEase. [1]

They offer apps for Android, iOS and Windows. I use the Android version. I love using it although it is sometimes buggy (display gets stuck on letters/digits and you have to remember where the digit/letter you want to enter is located) and backspacing over a lot of text (instead of selecting and cutting it) is always very slow.

[1] https://www.exideas.com/ME/ICMI2003Paper.pdf

As a former iOS engineer at Apple, and a dvorak user, I can verify that this is exactly the thinking (during my time) of why dvorak support wasn't a development priority. The properties which make it good for typing make it bad for a phone keyboard.

This seems like sound logic as long as iOS is only used for phones and an on-screen keyboard; but isn't it used for the iPad as well? And wouldn't a lack of Dvorak support mean you can't use it with your standard external keyboard?

I don't know, I'm not an iOS user but it would hugely inconvenience me if the only way I could use Dvorak on Android is to use a keyboard with a hardware Dvorak layout.

Edit: Indeed, it appears that iOS supports Dvorak layout for external keyboards already; this is supporting the native on-screen keyboard

> Indeed, it appears that iOS supports Dvorak layout for external keyboards already

This is a little ambiguous, I assume you mean a (rare) hardware Dvorak keyboard, not that iOS supports remapping a standard ANSI external keyboard to Dvorak - but correct me if that's wrong.

Yes, your assumption here is off - iOS supports remapping standard external keyborads to Dvorak. I’m typing this on Dvorak on my iPad with a standard Logitech keyboard connected via the Smart Connector.

That's good to know, thanks!

It made sense to me. Luckily, Dvorak support for hardware keyboards has been always available on iOS.

I'm surprised to hear this. It seems like the point is clearly to allow existing Dvorak (desktop) users to avoid switching formats when they switch devices. It shouldn't matter whether Dvorak is optimal for typing on a phone.

This really doesn't matter because the "muscle memory" doesn't carry between the two formats.

Disagree. I've been almost an exclusive Dvorak user for 15+ years, and the muscle memory absolutely carries over.

The muscle memory of touch typing, by definition of muscle memory, does not carry over to thumb typing.


Good point. Though a significant part of typing speed is your _spacial_ memory (where is the J key on the keyboard?).

Your _muscle_ memory makes you good at moving your fingers (or thumbs) to an absolute position on your keyboard (or screen) - but to do that you must first decide what absolute position your finger (or thumb) should move to (where is the J key?).

And yet, somehow, I feel like it was a lot faster for me to learn how to type on an iPhone--nearly instant, really--because it was using QWERTY instead of having the letters in a random order, so it isn't clear to me that what you are saying matters even if it were true.

Yes, and as others point out iOS has long supported Dvorak (and Colemak and a few others) where that desktop muscle memory matters: when using a hardware keyboard via Bluetooth.

Qwerty is useful for "swipe typing" on a touch screen and Dvorak/Colemak is great for touch typing on hardware and the way "muscle memory" works those are such different media/muscle movements that they have separate "muscle memory".

True. I was happy when I switched to Android because Dvorak was available as an on screen keyboard. I didn't last for more than a day with it. Dvorak is terrible for on screen typing.

Was there any research into what keyboard would be the ideal phone layout (presumably something entirely new)?

Back in the Days of Yore we had something called "Fitaly", which was supposed to be optimized for pen typing: https://textware.com/fitaly/fitaly.htm

I loved Fitaly and the associated ecosystem. Palm, Handspring, the usable stylus on a 160x160 screen...

Few years ago someone posted a link on HN of a keyboard that was designed for optimum swiping, fewest overlaps and what not.

It faced the same problem as all new keyboard designs, getting people to use it.

If you are on Android, you can find plenty of research project keyboards that are indeed more efficient to use, after you get over the learning curve.

Indeed, there is no gain whatsoever in adopting a keyboard that puts all the most used characters in the home row if you're just tapping with two thumbs.

A better layout for smartphones, if one had to design it, would try to put all characters in two circles around the thumbs, while putting symbols and the least frequent ones towards the centre, requiring some extension of the thumbs to reach.

There's a Japanese smartphone layout which is really fast. It's based on the number pad.

There are 9 base consonants (K S T N H M Y R W) and 5 vowels (A I U E O), and every syllable is either vowel or consonant + vowel. Digits 0-9 on the number pad correspond with the consonants (including "no consonant"), and then you swipe in a different direction for a different vowel (4 vowels for swiping in a direction, 1 vowel for not swiping).

Nice, big chunky buttons you can press with one thumb on one hand, and each time you press one of those big, chunky buttons, you get an entire syllable. After a little bit of practice, I can type on this layout much faster than I can type in English, even though my Japanese is not very good.

There's also an English implementation of this same layout concept on Android and iOS called MessageEase[1]. I've been using it for almost 10 years now and have been quite happy with the support over time.

You can consistently type without looking at the keyboard once you learn the layout, which I've found to be great for note-taking

[1]: https://www.exideas.com/ME/index.php

I switched to this keyboard for my Wanikani reviews because I find I make fewer typos with it, but I personally find it slower than the QWERTY-based romaji input.

Words that use unvoiced, full-size kana are super fast (especially if it has a bunch of あ vowels like あたたかい, which takes 4 taps and 1 swipe instead of 8 taps in romaji), but words with lots of voiced consonants and small kana need you to tap the modifier button a bunch (e.g. ざっぴ requires seven taps+swipes, instead of just 5 taps on the romaji input).

The gain is probably to have a consistent layout across devices.

There is no need. It's a different type of muscle memory.

I've been learning to use a split ortholinear keyboard, and it exercises a different type of muscle memory than a regular keyboard, which is even different than on-screen keyboards. I have a different layout in each and I haven't lost any speed whatsoever.

I have been typing Dvorak for about 15 years, give or take (I had been typing qwerty before that). A couple of years after the switch I started to play World of Warcraft, and I thought it was too much effort to rebind all the keys (they assumed qwerty), so I just played it on qwerty. My brain quickly learned to associate the game with the keyboard layout, so I would type qwerty at full speed when chatting in-game. Typing qwerty on someone else's computer was much harder and required some conscious effort. I wonder if mentally switching between keyboard layouts is similar to switching between speaking different languages.

This is an interesting anecdote. Despite a longtime interest, I've been hesitant to bother trying alternative keyboard layouts because even with only really minor changes to shortcuts (capslock replaced with ctrl, emacs text navigation bindings for all apps) typing on an unfamiliar computer is almost comically bad, but I have gotten used to specific apps that don't play nice with my bindings (I'm looking at you Github text boxes stealing ctrl+e!).

It does seem to require some mental "switch" or trick. If I look at the keyboard (assuming it's got QWERTY on the keycaps, which all of my keyboards have had), it "reminds" me to type QWERTY and I can do it. It's not really full-speed or facile but it's good enough and it's not hunt-and-peck, anyway. If I look away, I cannot type QWERTY.

I picked up dvorak over summer vacation in high school because I was having bad wrist pain. My high school wouldn't let me use dvorak, so I painfully had to re-rewire my brain for qwerty in our high school labs.

I quickly realized that my brain would use dvorak for my mechanical keyboard at home but would only use qwerty on the soft keyboards at school.

I have an en-Intl Macbook that I work on personal projects on, and a Swedish Macbook for work. I find that I can swap between them fairly trivially, but as soon as I open Slack on my personal machine to quickly respond to a work query I’m completely at sea.

I disagree. When for one reason or another I have to use a phone that uses qwerty I have to hunt and peck, with a large emphasis on "hunt".

I wouldn’t be so sure. I (a QWERTY user) remember picking up my first phone with a non-numeric keyboard (Nokia E63, a Symbian-based QWERTY-keyboard phone) and instantly starting typing with my thumbs virtually blindly. I expected a long learning period; there wasn’t.

Split orthogonal isn't at all comparable to a different layout.

Note that this also affected iPadOS where many of us have a full keyboard. It was a real pain switching between the 2 when going from computer to iPad. Thankfully, they added it to iPadOS, too, so now I don’t have to.

iPadOS has supported Dvorak for Hardware Keyboards for a long time. There's a separate picker for Hardware Keyboard Layout than Software Keyboard Layout.

Fair point, but even the on-screen keyboard on iPads is basically full-sized so it makes more sense than on a phone.

There used to be a keyboard layout designed specifically for handheld touchscreen devices called Fitaly[1]. I used this layout on my Palm Pilot back in the day.

[1] https://textware.com/fitaly/fitaly.htm

Another cool one is minuum in minimode. The prediction's so good that you just have to approximately hit the key https://play.google.com/store/apps/details?id=com.whirlscape...

One downside was that it seemed to have memory issues but this was years ago on a Samsung GS5.

Fitaly is neat, but it's optimized for a single stylus with high precision, rather than two thumbs with low precision.

I don't know if it's a common feature or just part of the Samsung Keyboard app, but when the phone is rotated it does seperate they keyboard quite nicely so you can access each half with your thumbs. Space in the middle is a little wasted though.

I don't know if it's a common feature or just part of the Samsung Keyboard app, but when the phone is rotated it does seperate they keyboard quite nicely so you can access each half with your thumbs.

Available on iPads, but not on iPhones at this time.


I've been using Dvorak layout exclusively on my computers for over 20 years and I totally agree with you, QWERTY is just a better option on a phone.

Some years ago, I set up my Android phone to use Dvorak layout but I quickly reverted to QWERTY, without being able to use my muscle memory, it was actually a very frustrating experience.

Because most Dvorak users do not use a keyboard labeled with the dvorak layout, you never really learn visually where the keys are and you only know the layout in your muscle memory which does not translate at all to using a touchscreen keyboard on a phone.

But wouldn't you use Dvorak with a larger device (so that you're typing on the on-screen keyboard conventionally) or that you use with an external keyboard? I use Android devices this way and until this story it honestly didn't occur to me that iOS wouldn't support the equivalent.

I think this reasoning is sound. As someone who has exclusively used Dvorak on computers for decades, I currently see no reason to switch over on iOS.

Now maybe the next generation will find that Dvorak on iOS is no worse, and if they use it they can avoid learning a second layout. But for existing Dvorak users who also were forced to learn QWERTY at some point, it's hard to see many switching over.

I typed a long refutation of this theory before deciding to back theory up with facts by looking up a study.


> Finger usage: Participants who reported to use two fingers were significantly faster than those who used only one finger (M = 37.7, SD = 13.2 versus M = 29.2, SD = 10.7, p < 0.001, d = 0.66). A closer look at the reported typing posture shows that the use of different hands and fingers had a significant impact on performance. Over 82% of participants typed using two thumbs. Confirming the findings of prior work [3 , 7], this was the fastest way to enter text

Turns out I'm weird it seems you should and indeed most people do use two thumbs. Given that fact your theory seems extremely plausible.

Oh? I thought this would be important on the phone too.

Not the home row thing, but the fact that vowels are on the left hand side, so that two thumbs will alternate as much as possible (alternating left and right hand fingers being an explicit goal of Dvorak).

Agree. I use dvorak on my laptop, and tried it on my iPhone for a couple weeks but it just didn't work. Your explanation makes sense!

I was going to say the exact same thing; to cram the fingers in a small “home row” on a touch screen makes no sense at all. But the opposite does!

Came here to say this! Same for me.

Well put...

We don’t really know the design process for QWERTY but it wasn’t about avoiding mechanical jams. Avoiding mechanical jams was the reason Dvorak was invented.

QWERTY if anything seems to be about being convenient for transcribing Morse code. Letters with a similar Morse code are grouped etc.

You're right about the first part (we don't really know why QWERTY was designed the way that it was), but as far as I understand it's pretty clear that Dvorak was created to enhance typing speed and comfort, based on ergonomic principles not related to mechanical details. For example, it is designed to alternate typing between the two hands for most common letter combinations, and to have most common letters on the home row.

I've heard that that the letters for 'typewriter' all appear in the top row so a salesman could type that as a demonstration. Perhaps apocryphal.

Guidelines | FAQ | Lists | API | Security | Legal | Apply to YC | Contact