Keyboard Navigation

A well-designed keyboard user interface plays a key role when you are designing accessible software. Blind users can navigate software more effectively using the keyboard, because using the mouse depends on visual feedback of the mouse pointer location. Also, mobility impairments can prevent a user from successfully navigating using the mouse, because of the fine motor control skills required.

It is therefore important to make all mouse actions available from the keyboard, and include keyboard access to all toolbars, menus, links and buttons. Every function your application provides should be available using the keyboard alone. Hide your mouse while you're testing your application if you have to!

Most functionality should be easy to make accessible by using keyboard mnemonics and accelerators, and the toolkit's built-in navigation features. However, operations that rely on drag-and-drop, for example, may require more thought.

  • Provide efficient keyboard access to all application features. Some users may be unable to use a mouse, and many "power-users" prefer to use the keyboard anyway. Also, some specialized assistive technology input devices may simulate keyboard events rather than mouse events. Since typing is difficult or even painful for some users, it is important to provide a keyboard interface that minimizes the number of keystrokes required for any given task.
  • Use a logical keyboard navigation order. When navigating around a window with the Tab key, keyboard focus should move between controls in a predictable order. In Western locales, this is normally left to right and top to bottom.
  • Ensure correct tab order for controls whose enabled state is dependent on checkbox, radio button or toggle button state. When such a button is selected, all its dependent controls should be enabled, and all the dependent controls of any other button in the group should be disabled. When the user selects a checkbox, radio button or toggle button that has dependent controls, do not automatically give focus to the first dependent control, but instead leave the focus on the button.
  • Don't override existing system-level accessibility features. For example, AccessX is an Xserver extension that has been supported since X11R6. The MouseKeys feature of this extension allows mouse movement and button clicks to be simulated using the keypad. Therefore you should not add features to your application that can only be accessed by pressing keys on the keypad, as users relying on the MouseKeys feature will not be able to use them.
  • Provide more than one method to perform keyboard tasks where possible. Some users may find some keys and key combinations easier to use than others.
  • Provide both keyboard and mouse access to functions where possible. Some users may only be able to use either the mouse or the keyboard, but not both.
  • Don't assign awkward reaches to frequently performed keyboard operations. Some people may only be able to use one hand on the keyboard, so shortcuts that can be easily used with one hand are preferable for common operations. In any case, having to frequently perform long or difficult reaches on the keyboard can increase muscle strain for all users, increasing the risk of pain or injury.
  • Don't require repetitive use of simultaneous keypresses. Some users are only able to press and hold one key at a time. Assistive technologies such as AccessX may allow users to press the keys sequentially rather than simultaneously, but this of course means the operation will take longer for them.
  • Ensure that any text that can be selected with the mouse can also be selected with the keyboard. This is a convenience for all users, but especially for those for whom fine control of the mouse is difficult.
  • Ensure that objects that can be resized or moved by drag and drop can also be resized or moved with the keyboard. For example, icons and windows on the desktop. Where precision sizing and placement is potentially important, e.g. shapes in a diagram, also consider providing a dialog into which you can type co-ordinates, or a means of snapping objects to a user-definable grid.
  • Don't use general navigation functions to trigger operations. For example, do not use basic Tab keyboard navigation in a dialog to activate any actions associated with a control.
  • Show keyboard-invoked menus, windows and tooltips near the object they relate to. In GNOME 2.0, users can call up popup menus with Shift+F10, and tooltips with Shift+F1. Do not completely hide or obscure the object to which the menu or tooltip refers, however.