Leonard West

Paper #: 98-05-041

The Dvorak keyboard has been claimed to be greatly superior to the standard typwriter keyboard. However, none of the earlier research on the relative merits of the two keyboards provided unconfounded measures, ones permitting attribution of the results solely to the differences between the keybroads. The present research supplied, for the first time, direct measures of speed on the two keyboards by the same persons. Eight experienced standard-keyboard typists, ranging in skill from the median speed of terminal high school trainees to beyond the 97th percentile speed of experienced employees (45-81 words per minute), typed high-frequency digraphs on both keyboards, resulting in a 4.0% superiority for the Dvorak keyboard. The relationship of present digraph findings to performance of realistic tasks is discussed, and research on whether differences in keyboard efficiency vary with the skill level of operators is recommended. NOTE: “The Standard and Dvorak Keyboards Revisited: Direct Measures of Speed" by Leonard J. West is an unusual paper to appear in the Santa Fe Institute Working Papers Series. The paper was written for researchers in vocational education rather than economists per se. What makes this paper important to the SFI Economics community is its focus on what has become one of the canonical examples of path dependence in economics, namely, the relative efficiency of the standard typewriter keyboard versus available competitors. As Brian Arthur discusses in the introduction to his “Increasing Returns and Path Dependence in the Economy,” the near universal adoption of the QWERTY keyboard when a more efficient alternative, the Dvorak, existed, played an important role in the development of his thinking on path dependence in the early 1980s. Paul David’s “Clio and the Economics of QWERTY” (American Economics Review 1985) has become a standard empirical citation in the path dependence literature. Consequently, recent attacks on the importance of path dependence in understanding the economy have to some extent been based on claims that the QWERTY keyboard is actually more efficient than the Dvorak alternative. Professor West’s paper is an interesting and all too rare effort at research which directly explores this issue, and provides evidence in support of the view that path dependence can lead to various inefficiencies in the economy.