About half a year ago, I heard this story that QWERTY keyboards (and their variants) were actually designed to slow down typists (to avoid typewriters getting stuck), contrary to the Dvorak layout, which was specifically designed for speed and comfort. After having learned to count binary on my hands (yes, you can count to 1023 using only your 10 fingers!), this seemed like another fun and freaky thing to learn, and this could actually prove to be useful over time. After all, I switched from AZERTY to QWERTY before, how hard could this be ? At least I was right about it being useful.
One of my students at that time was a Dvorak user, and his advise to me was to download dvorak7min (a Dvorak typing tutor), and to start practicing. I threw out QWERTY from all my computers, activated Dvorak (it seems to be installed by default on every major OS), printed the layout, and put it next to my keyboard. The tutor helped me learn the most important keys (basically the middle and the top row of the keyboard) by heart, and i went on my own from there. I would be lying if I said it was a breeze: having to think for at least a few seconds per character isn’t a motivating thing if a week ago you were typing at nearly 100 words per minute. But after merely a few sleepless nights and two weeks of writing extremely short mails and slow chat sessions, frustration slowly started going away, and I started typing at an acceptable speed.
Can I type considerably faster with Dvorak ? Hard to tell. What I can tell is that, only a few months after the switch, I am typing at least as fast as with the layout I have been using for all my life, which sounds promising for the future. My own QWERTY typing style involved a lot of moving my hands across the keyboard (I never learned the ‘proper’ blind style), whereas they hardly ever move with Dvorak, which gives me That Comfortable Feeling ®. I also notice that I make less typos while writing, and for some reason, it just feels very cool to type cd src with one hand.
Of course, it’s not all sunshine and roses. The biggest problem with a new layout is typing your shortcuts, since these are typically not typed while your fingers are aligned to your keyboard. This means you have to learn their position (or at least the QWERTY->Dvorak mapping) by heart. Maybe a customizable keyboard could help here (although I caught myself losing speed while looking at my keyboard after rearranging my keys to Dvorak).
My conclusion: if you can afford being unproductive for a few weeks, switch to Dvorak (exclusively!). It feels good, it’s more logical, it’s told to alleviate RSI, and it can even serve as a topic of conversation to break the ice on parties or long train trips :)