I distinctly remembering learning how to type. It was hard. I had been a hunt and peck perfectionist up until age 14 when my school provided a computer course focused on the keyboard.
My teacher would shout out commands as we feverishly tried to get our fingers in the right place.
For a long time, I could still type faster by hunting and pecking. But, as I continued to practice, my words-per-minute count grew, and I was able to type without looking at the keyboard.
By the end of that year, my hunting and pecking days were over. I had successfully assimilated to a QWERTY typist, and never looked back.
Interestingly, I never questioned the layout of QWERTY, or where it came from. I assumed (tend to do that) it was designed for speed and thought this was the best it could get.
Then I came across Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s book, Fooled By Randomness. In one particular section, Taleb brings up the QWERTY keyboard, and the backward reason for how it was designed:
“The arrangement of the letters on a typewriter is an example of the success of the least deserving method becoming successful. Our typewriters have the order of the letters on their keyboard arranged in a non-optimal manner. As a matter of fact, in such a non-optimal manner as to slow down the typing rather than making it easier to type faster.
This was done deliberately in order to avoid having the ribbons become jammed as they were designed for less electronic days of yore. Once we started to build better typewriters and computerized word processors, several attempts were made to change the keyboard in order to make them more efficient for typing purposes.
All of these attempts failed. People had been trained on “QWERTY” keyboards and their habits were too sticky for change. This is called a “path dependent outcome” and it has thwarted many attempts at modeling or changing behavior.”
As Taleb points out, in 1874 when American inventor named Christopher Latham Sholes first designed the QWERTY layout, it’s purpose was to keep the keys from jamming, not for speed, accuracy, or efficiency of getting the words onto paper.
Regardless of how the world changed, the QWERTY keyboard never got an update, because it worked “well enough” and people did not want to change.
Designing For Function, Not Change
Sholes used the design thinking process to develop the typewriter, first starting out by looking, listening and learning about current issues with other typewriter designs:
Sholes had been for some years developing the typewriter, filing a patent application in October 1867. However, the original key layout, with the second half of the alphabet in order on the top row and the first half in order on the bottom row, led to some problems. The keys were mounted on metal arms, which would jam if the keys were pressed in too rapid succession.
Sholes then began to ask questions and understand the actual problem before creating a prototype:
Sholes’ solution was separating commonly used letter pairings, such as “ST,” to avoid these jams, effectively allowing the typist to type faster, rather than slower.
Next was a focus on highlighting what was working, and fixing what was failing in his initial design. This iterative process brought about change that was again focused on solving the jamming problem:
He went through several design iterations, attempting to bring the typewriter to market. When he sold the design to Remington in 1873, the QWERTY layout looked like this:
2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 – ,
Q W E . T Y I U O P
Z S D F G H J K L M
A X & C V B N ? ; R
Remington made several adjustments, and launched the Sholes and Glidden typewriter on July 1, 1874. Its keyboard layout was almost the same QWERTY keyboard layout we use today, with a few minor differences. 1 and 0 were left out to help shave down production costs, on the basis that these numerals could be produced using other keys, such as a capital I and a capital O. Remington also swapped the R and . keys.
The 0 was added fairly early on, but some keyboards well into the 1970s were still missing a 1.
When this was launched to the world, it took a while to sell, and needed some polishing in terms of the overall product before it hit a fit with the market:
The first Remington typewriter sold poorly (it could only type in upper-case letters, was expensive at $125 per unit, and often broke). The updated Remington 2 typewriter, introduced in 1878, changed this. Not only did it remedy some of the defects of the Sholes and Glidden machine, the launch allowed Remington to sell the typewriter business to three former employees. Bringing marketing expertise to bear, the new Remington Standard Typewriter Company was able to bring the typewriter to commercial success.
However, now in 2017 we still use a QWERTY keyboard. We still teach QWERTY in our schools. And generally, no one questions how it was designed, who it was designed for, and why we still use the 1870 model almost 150 years later.
What Happens When the World Changes?
There are at least six different keyboard layouts that are well-known enough to have a wikipedia page. Of these six, Dvorak is the one that has a small following of people that have run studies and research to show the benefits of this model over QWERTY:
Though Dvorak may sound like another string of letters, it’s in fact the surname of this keyboard layout’s inventor, August Dvorak. The inventor felt, when he patented his design in 1936, that QWERTY was uneconomical and uncomfortable—and therefore wasn’t the perfect layout. Dvorak believed that his layout was more efficient, and studies seem to agree.
People using QWERTY keyboards only make 32 percent of strokes on the “home row” (where your fingers naturally rest on a keyboard). For Dvorak, that rises to 70 percent. And likewise, most people are right handed: Dvorak accounts for that, making more than half the strokes right handed. QWERTY calls on people to use their left hands more. But save for a few eager practitioners, Dvorak is the lesser-known layout.
Regardless of the benefits of Dvorak, people do not want to change when stuck in comfortable habits that work well enough.
We can see a very similar pattern with our education system. Our current model was designed years ago with specific purposes in mind. A lot has stayed the same since that design including:
- When we go to school and when we have break from school
- Hours learning per day
- Subject areas
- Grade levels
This list could go on, but I think you get the point. QWERTY was designed for a different world and different purpose, and although it still works fine (as I currently type on my QWERTY keyboard), that doesn’t mean it is the best solution.
There are many schools and districts that are moving away from a “traditional” education experience. In pockets across this country and the world, things are changing, yet the majority of our schools function eerily similar to a 19th-century model.
In the design thinking process, there is a piece that we often forget to continue with after launching it out into the world: iteration.
If we don’t consistently iterate, we will consistently fall behind.
After launching to the world it brings us back to a place where we can look, listen and learn again.
The QWERTY keyboard was developed for a mechanical device that had problems with keys getting stuck. We don’t have to worry about that problem anymore with digital devices. So, let’s look and learn about possible solutions to make it a better process.
Our educational system was developed for a time period of agriculture lifestyle and industrial growth. We are preparing the majority of our students to work in fields or in factories anymore. So, let’s look and learn about possible solutions to make it a better process.
What are your thoughts?
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