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QWERTY, and lessons on user-centric design

Why are keyboards set out in the way that they are? Why aren’t the letters in alphabetical order? It turns out that the answer to these questions reveals a brilliant piece of user-centric thinking.

After some early attempts at creating writing machines which were less than user friendly, inventors Latham Sholes, Carlos Glidden and Samuel Soulé filed their first patent for a machine in 1868. After a few years of improving the design they licensed production to E. Remington & Sons for the first commercially successful typewriter in the 1870s, which became even more popular when the Remington 2 was launched later that decade. Both of these versions carried the QWERTY layout which has (mostly) stayed the same ever since and persists today on billions of smartphones and computers.

Interestingly, the 1868 patent had featured two rows of letters in alphabetical order but by the time the early Remingtons came out the inventors realised that this design wouldn’t work. The QWERTY layout was a deliberate design choice based on three key factors:

  1. Typing optimisation: the new design took account of the frequency with which each letter of the alphabet was used. The inventors had realised that an alphabetic layout, despite being a logical arrangement didn’t actually make it easy to type and also that it was better to space letters out according their frequency of use rather than having all the most commonly used letters in one place (as in the visual above where frequency of use is roughly split equally between each hand)
  2. Letter combinations: the inventors also worked out that it was better to separate the letters that were commonly combined with each other
  3. Avoiding typewriter jams: anyone that’s used a typewriter will know that using letters that are positioned next to each other can sometimes cause the levers to jam. Separating letters that were frequently used together helped to avoid this. Letters in different rows were also offset slightly so that they were not positioned vertically above and below each other – a feature that is still prevalent on today’s computing keyboards

It’s remarkable that after 150 odd years this design has remained largely unchanged. Whilst the technology may have evolved, how people use keyboards and the needs that they have from the keyboard as a technology has largely not. The brilliance of this design is that it is so user-focused and that it considers a technology from the user’s point of view (something that even some modern services fail to do well). And that’s no doubt why we’re all still using QWERTY.

Thanks to @culturaltutor for the thread, photo by Clay Banks on Unsplash

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