multicolored computer keyboard

100 More Things #136: THE QWERTY KEYBOARD IS AN EXAMPLE OF THE STATUS QUO BIAS

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Previously we described the status quo bias – the idea that people will tend to stick with what is rather than make a change.

The Qwerty keyboard is an example of the status quo bias. The Qwerty keyboard is the keyboard that 99% of us use to type on with our computers. It’s called a Qwerty keyboard because of the letters Q-W-E-R-T-Y that are on the top left row of letters.

There is no particular reason that most keyboards follow a QWERTY layout. It is not because research shows it is the best layout. It isn’t even because people prefer it, since most people haven’t even experienced any alternatives. It is an example of technology that came into being and was so widely adopted that changing it doesn’t seem worth it to most people.

The History

As with most technologies that have been around for a while, there are a lot of supposedly historical truths about the QWERTY keyboard that don’t have much evidence behind them.

The first of these is that the QWERTY keyboard was created by a printer from Wisconsin, Christopher Latham Sholes, in 1868.

Sholes did create a typewriting keyboard layout which he then sold to the Remington company. But Sholes’ version is not the QWERTY keyboard we know. In fact Sholes’ version did not have the letters QWERTY in a row at the top.

After Remington acquired the keyboard from Sholes the company started tinkering with the design, eventually landing upon pretty much the version I am using to input the text of this paragraph.

Another myth is that the QWERTY design was made to purposely slow down typing speed, because the mechanical typewriters that it was first used on would jam if you typed too fast. It is true that old typewriters could jam up, but that is not why the QWERTY keyboard was developed.
The goal with the keyboard was to speed up typing, not slow it down.

Another myth is that the QWERTY keyboard was designed with telegraph operators in mind, to help them with the type of coding they did with telegraph messages. Apparently there isn’t any evidence that this is true either.

Another (more recent) myth is that people tend to like words that are made from the right hand part of the keyboard. There was actually research written up about this one, but the research has been heavily questioned, so I can’t say that this one is true either.

What we do know about the QWERTY keyboard is that it was used and taught to many typists and became widely adopted. Other keyboard layouts exist. The Dvorak layout was one of the most popular contenders. It was created by August Dvorak in the 1930s. An educational psychologist and academic, he claimed it was a better design because it puts the most commonly used letters on the home row for easier typing with less movement. But it never really caught on. Others have been suggested since then, for example the Colemak layout, but QWERTY continues to dominate.

You can purchase a Dvorak keyboard and change your settings on your computer to use a Dvorak keyboard if you want to buck the status quo.

Takeaways

  • The QWERTY keyboard is an example of how powerful the status quo bias can be.
  • You can switch to a different (for example Dvorak) keyboard and tell your computer to use that keyboard if you want to give one of these other keyboards a try.

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