Monday, January 19, 2009

What we can learn from Dvorak

There is a commonly quoted belief that the QWERTY keyboard is so popular due to a bit of luck and coincidence plus a first-mover advantage that locked the world into the QWERTY layout. There are other keyboard layouts; the distant second place (at least for US English) is Dvorak. Some fans of Dvorak claim that it is technically superior to QWERTY, allowing faster speeds, etc., but QWERTY cannot be displaced because of lock-in. Essentially this can be considered an argument that the free market for keyboard layouts is broken.

I just read this article (from 1996) about the history behind the Dvorak and QWERTY keyboard layouts.

The core purpose of this article is disproving the idea that the keyboard layout market is broken. After reviewing the central myth, the article discredits the original circumstances and shows that most of the myth is just republished accounts of a study done by Dvorak himself that was severely biased. It then goes further into historical newspaper accounts to show that there is credible evidence that the QWERTY layout was simply a superior layout for typewriters, and once it was popular, nothing else provided a cost-effective alternative or path to switch.

How does this apply to NUI and multi-touch devices? I think we can learn from some of the mistakes and failures of the Dvorak layout, or at least its marketing.

  • Face the truth

    Dvorak proponents assumed their product was superior. When test results came back and weren't favorable, the results were skewed to look good. A better strategy would have been to fix the flaws instead of cover them up.

  • Market superiority trumps technical superiority

    Even if Dvorak is technically superior, that doesn't necessarily mean it has a market advantage if businesses or consumers have no financial reason to adopt it.

We who work on NUI applications should make sure their products have a true market advantage. Think about how to transform the unique user experience of these devices and applications into cost savings or additional revenue sources. We should also take all feedback -- positive, negative, internal, external -- and use it to improve our products.

Who knows, perhaps we can replace some keyboard data input with multitouch devices if we have a compelling user experience combined with a market advantage in the right application.

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