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Windows Keyboard Access FAQ

Version 1.9

Copyright © Alan Cantor 2004 - 2014. All rights reserved.

Content

 

Introduction

Welcome to the Windows Keyboard Access FAQ. This resource is for people who want to operate Windows® more efficiently by using the keyboard more effectively.

To drive Windows from the keyboard, it is more important to internalize techniques than it is to memorize hotkeys. Once these techniques have been mastered, it is possible to perform almost all tasks in Windows® — perhaps 98% — without a mouse. For detailed descriptions of these techniques, order a copy of Keyboard Access Tips.

This FAQ has two main sections. The first, "Conceptual questions," deals with a range of fundamental questions about the Windows® keyboard interface. The second section, "Practical questions," tells how to perform specific tasks without the mouse, and discusses tasks that cannot be done easily (or at all) via keyboard.

This is a work-in-progress, so bookmark this page and check back often. Your feedback and questions are welcome.


Conceptual questions

Overview


Who needs to master the Windows® keyboard interface?

People need choices in how they operate a PC. A well-designed computer system allows users to interact with software in different ways. Ideally, the mouse and keyboard interfaces should be equally easy to learn and use. Unfortunately, operating Windows® by keyboard is less straightforward than by pointing and clicking. Nevertheless, some people have no choice but to learn mouseless techniques. For example:

Finally, anyone who wants to work quickly and with fewer errors can benefit from knowing a few keyboard "tricks." Many tasks that require precise mouse movements and accurate clicking can be done by pressing one or two keys on the keyboard. For reasons of efficiency, speed, and directness, power users often prefer using the keyboard to the mouse.


What tasks can be done faster by keyboard than the mouse?

The majority of tasks in most applications can be performed significantly quicker by keyboard. I have timed individuals working both ways. A competent keyboard user can complete the following tasks much faster than by pointing and clicking:

In some cases, keyboard techniques are 20 or more times faster than pointing and clicking:

Picking "Zambia" from an alphabetized list of 150 countries by clicking on a scroll bar may take 10 or 15 seconds. A more efficient way of selecting an item from a list is to press the first letter of the word. Pressing "Z" takes a fraction of a second. The keyboard technique is less physically and cognitively taxing: it takes less muscular effort to type a single letter than to hold down a button, and less mental effort to recognize one word than to scan or read a long list of words. The keyboard technique is also more accurate: there is little chance of overshooting the mark as often happens when clicking on a scroll bar.

There are tasks that can be performed more quickly and easily using the mouse. For example, when accessing a web page with dozens of links, it may be faster to click on the desired link than to use keyboard techniques to activate the link. The mouse may also be the most efficient way to perform tasks in graphic-intense applications.

The fact that the mouse is more efficient for certain tasks does not mean that the mouse is inherently faster and easier. Better designed applications would allow keyboard users to perform tasks as quickly, or more quickly. Microsoft Word and Mozilla Firefox, for example, have much-better-than-average keyboard user interfaces.


Is it easy to learn to operate Windows® without the mouse?

No. The Windows® keyboard interface is extremely complex, and most people need a lot of time and practice to master it.


Why is it difficult to learn?

The Windows® keyboard interface is not particularly usable. Usability, according to The Free On-line Dictionary of Computing, is the "effectiveness, efficiency, and satisfaction with which users can achieve tasks in a particular environment of a product." A system that is highly usable is efficient to operate, easy to learn, easy to remember, fun to use, and not prone to causing user error.

The Windows® keyboard interface is riddled with inconsistencies. It is hard to learn and hard to remember, and can cause users to make mistakes. Some aspects of Windows® are extraordinarily well-designed, and help keyboard users work productively, easily, and reliably. However, other aspects are poorly designed, and these glitches render Windows® less usable to people who cannot — or choose not to — use a mouse.

In addition to problems that are inherent to Windows®, application developers often fail to consider keyboard access when creating software. The vast majority of access problems would evaporate immediately if developers adhered to UI design guidelines, and tested their applications to ensure they can be easily operated by keyboard.


What are the biggest barriers to learning to operate Windows® by keyboard?

Impediments to using the keyboard interface include:

In some situations, the only way to determine which object has focus is through deduction. For example, in some GUI web-browsers, the page itself has focus when the text in the address box is not selected and the insertion point in the address box is invisible. There are even situations when the focus indicator is completely invisible. For example, there is no visual indication whatsoever when a user moves the keyboard focus to the taskbar.


Are more recent versions of Windows® easier to access by keyboard?

Although there are exceptions, the answer is generally no.

Each successive version of Windows introduces more "global" hotkeys, and these hotkeys may help some users. But overall, each generation of Windows® adds complexity and inconsistency to the keyboard interface. The number of techniques that users must learn has also multiplied:

In Windows® 3.1-based word processors, users had to master only one technique to navigate to the menu bar, the application system menu, and the document system menu. Beginning with Windows® XP, users must memorize three different techniques to access the same menus.

The complexity of the keyboard interface reached new heights with the release of Windows® Vista and Office® 2007. The trend toward increasing complexity continued with Windows® 7 and 8; and with Office® 2010 and 2013. Keyboard access is generally more difficult than in the past. The ability to spot focus is fundamental to easy keyboard access. Yet for many screens, it is hard — or impossible — to determine which window, or which part of a window, has focus.

Difficulties with the keyboard interface are especially conspicuous in Microsoft® Office 2007 and beyond. Office applications feature a graphical user interface called the Ribbon. The Ribbon replaces the menus and toolbars that have been core to Windows since its inception.

The Ribbon degrades the quality of keyboard interaction. With menus, navigating to and activating most commands requires only four keys: Alt, Enter, right arrow (or left arrow), and down arrow (or up arrow). With the Ribbon, performing these actions require approximately eleven keys and key combinations, including unusual combinations such as Ctrl+F1, Shift+F10, and F6. Most users are unlikely to discover these keystrokes through trial-and-error experimentation. Interacting with the Ribbon by keyboard requires more mental effort than interacting with menus.

For individuals who prefer the keyboard over the mouse, ribbons are less accessible and usable than menus. Microsoft does not offer a choice between menus and the Ribbon, but it is possible to customize Ribbons. Several third-party companies have developed add-ins that simulate traditional menus as a Ribbon tab.


If someone has trouble handling a mouse, why don't they use MouseKeys?

MouseKeys is a mouse emulator built into Windows®. It uses the keys on the numeric keypad to choose a mouse button, move the pointer, click, and drag. While MouseKeys is suitable for some people who have upper-body mobility impairments, it does not work for most individuals who have visual impairments. Even when it is suitable, MouseKeys is an extremely cumbersome access method that requires tremendous patience and concentration. However, when a person who cannot operate a mouse needs to perform a task that is not keyboard accessible, MouseKeys may be the only way to do it. (Note: it is sometimes possible to create macros to workaround such problems.)


Why bother? You need to memorize hundreds of hotkeys!

Not true. To master the keyboard interface, you have to internalize about 25 techniques, not memorize hundreds of hotkeys. By learning basic techniques, the need to memorize specific keystrokes is reduced. The techniques enable you to perform most tasks without memorizing hotkeys, and to discover shortcuts as you need them. Mastering techniques is more important than memorizing keystrokes.

With practice, the techniques become automatic. But nobody masters them without practice.


But there is much to remember!

Nobody becomes a competent PC user without memorizing something. For frequently-accessed applications, experienced users know which menus contain the commands they use most often. They remember when to left-click or double-click, and when right-clicking brings up a context menu and when it does nothing. They memorize the meanings of dozens of icons, and know exactly what to expect when certain icons are clicked or double-clicked. They recall the names, positions, and purposes of controls within dialog boxes, and much, much more.

Memory is an important aspect of learning to use any computer system. Keyboard users learn to operate PCs in the same way as mouse users: through repetition, trial-and-error experimentation, practice, reading, getting help from friends and colleagues, calling technical support, and perseverance.

There is a logic to the keyboard interface. It is a rational system, and there are rules that govern it. Unfortunately, there are exceptions to every rule. Novices need only recognize that exceptions exist; they do not have to learn the exceptions immediately.


Can you tell me how to drive Windows® from the keyboard in 25 words or less?

22 words: Identify the object that has focus. Learn how to move focus to other objects. Know how to act on these different objects.


Focus, shmocus! What is the keyboard focus?

The keyboard focus is the point or object in a window that receives input from the keyboard. No more than one window can have focus at one time. The window with the focus usually displays an insertion point (sometimes called the cursor or caret). When you click on an object with a mouse, you are giving the object keyboard focus.


What are the most important techniques to learn?

You must master about 25 keyboard techniques to be able to perform most tasks in Windows®. All of the techniques require you to be comfortable identifying which window contains the object that has focus, and the object that has focus.

These techniques are detailed in my booklet, Keyboard Access Tips. Order Keyboard Access Tips.

The more important techniques include:


What is the best way to learn to operate Windows® without the mouse?

Drop the mouse behind your desk, work through the techniques, and practice! Trial-and-error experimentation is an effective way — maybe the only way — to master the keyboard interface.

Practice everyday. Cultivate fresh approaches to using Windows®. Devote time to developing and honing your new skills. The key to mastering mouseless computing is to gradually "rewire" your nervous system so that you perform tasks automatically, without thinking about techniques.


Should people give up their mice?

There are only two reasons to stop using a mouse: you have no choice; or you want to perform software tasks more quickly and accurately.

For most tasks, I do not bother with a mouse because I find the keyboard faster and easier. But I do not hesitate to reach for the rodent when tasks cannot be performed efficiently by keyboard.


Are there references on using Windows® without the mouse?

Yes, but most references focus more on hotkeys than on techniques. Keyboard Access Tips is a guide to operating Windows® sans mouse based on internalizing techniques rather than on memorizing hotkeys. Order Keyboard Access Tips.

These references are also worth checking:


Are there ways to make the keyboard interface more efficient?

Yes. There are three main approaches to improving the efficiency of the keyboard interface:

1. Customize Windows® and Windows® applications

To take full advantage of the keyboard interface, you must customize the appearance and functional characteristics of Windows® and Windows® applications. Most default settings are not conducive for keyboard access. In fact, default settings tend to be optimized for pointing and clicking.

To improve accessibility and usability of the keyboard interface, the appearance and operating characteristics of the operating system and applications must be altered. These customizations result in simpler navigation, more conspicuous focus indicators, better visibility of screen elements, and fewer visual distractions.

Customization techniques that enhance mouseless access are detailed in Keyboard Access Tips. Order Keyboard Access Tips.

2. Choose applications that offer superior keyboard access

Some applications are much easier to operate by keyboard than others. Microsoft® Office products can be customized to improve keyboard access, and include features to perform tasks quickly and easily by keyboard. For example, there are hotkeys in Word to select a sentence or paragraph without manually navigating to the beginning or end of the region; move a paragraph without selecting text or using the clipboard; and copy and paste formatting properties.

Mozilla Firefox is a web-browser with superior keyboard support. Its incremental search makes it possible to navigate to hypertext links by typing; typing two or three characters is often enough to give a link focus. Once a link has focus, press Enter to activate it. Mozilla Firefox also supports selection by keyboard. Move focus by typing and/or pressing cursor movement keys (e.g., arrow keys, PageUp, PageDown, Home and End) and then use Shift + cursor movement keys to select.

To enable the incremental search and keyboard selection features, go to Tools | Options | Advanced | General | Accessibility, and check these two checkboxes:

These two features are imperfectly implemented in the current version of the program. For example, making a typo while performing an incremental search causes the focus indicator to disappear. Despite a few glitches, Mozilla Firefox is the best thing to happen to mouseless browsing in years, proving that it is possible to build a browser with an efficient, intuitive, and easy-to-learn keyboard interface without degrading the quality of the point-and-click interface.

3. Use macro software

Running Windows® without macro software is like cycling in the mountains with a one-gear bicycle. It can be done, but it is a lot of work. Macros substantially reduce the physical and mental effort needed to operate a Windows®-based PC.

A macro is a sequence of commands for performing a specific task. The tasks may be simple, such as inserting a word; or complex, such as copying data from one program and pasting it in another. Macro software packages, such as Macro Express, Active Words, AutoHotkey, and KeyText can launch applications, send keystrokes, execute commands (such as maximize, resize or close a window), and control the mouse. See my Macros FAQ for more information about macro software.


Practical questions

Overview

Over the years, many people have written me to ask questions like "What is the hotkey for..." or "what is the keyboard equivalent of clicking on..." In this section, I reproduce and answer many of these questions.

In general, hotkeys are not substitutes for mouse clicks. The keyboard interface has its own logic and means of operation. To use the keyboard interface effectively, you need to learn techniques (as outlined above). The questions and answers that follow illustrate that understanding techniques is often more important than knowing keyboard shortcuts.

A list of shortcut keys for performing specific tasks can often be found by consulting Help systems. In this section, I answer these questions:


Is there a hotkey to close all open windows simultaneously?

No. But you can minimize all windows simultaneously by pressing Windows-key+D. This hotkey does not work in Windows® 95 or NT. In these older operating systems, press Windows-key+M. If your keyboard does not have a Windows-key, press Ctrl + Esc followed by Alt+M.

Another approach is to Shut down Windows without closing any applications or windows. If documents need to be saved, Windows® will prompt you to do so before closing down.


How do I right-click on the desktop without the mouse?

This is a two-step process:

  1. Move keyboard focus to the desktop: Press Windows-key+D.
  2. If an icon is selected, unselect it by pressing Ctrl+spacebar. Otherwise, press the Application-key. If your keyboard does not have an Application-key, press Shift+F10.

How do I access the System Tray using only the keyboard?

It is not possible to do this in Windows® 95, NT, and 98. In Windows® ME, 2000, XP, Vista, and 7: Press Windows-key+B.

If you do not have a Windows key, press Ctrl+Esc, then Esc, and then Tab (or Shift+Tab) several times until the focus indicator arrives in the System Tray. The number of times you need to press the key depends on how your PC is configured.


How do I maximize and minimize windows?

Every window has a system menu. The Maximize and Minimize commands (along with Restore, Move, Size, Close, and sometimes others) can be accessed from the System menu. To activate the system menu, press Alt+spacebar. Then choose a command by either scrolling using the up arrow or down arrow, or by pressing an underlined letter.

To maximize a window, press Alt+spacebar and then X. To minimize it, press Alt+spacebar and then N.


How do I move or resize a window?

To move or resize a window, use the Alt+spacebar shortcut to activate the System menu. Then choose "M" to move it, or "S" to resize it.

The technique to move and resize is rather arduous. Use the four arrow keys to move or resize, and press Enter to complete the operation. Hold down Ctrl while pressing an arrow key to move or resize in one-pixel increments.


How do I drag-and-drop using the keyboard?

In general, it is not possible to drag-and-drop by keyboard. Some screen readers support drag-and-drop operations, but the techniques are very complex.

Most software that supports drag-and-drop also supports moving and copying items without the mouse. The equivalent actions usually involve the clipboard: you select an item, copy or cut it, navigate to another location, and paste the item.

Some applications have built-in commands for moving or copying items without using the clipboard. For example:

In Microsoft Word, "MoveText" (default hotkey is F2) allows you to move a selection within or between documents. Select some text, press F2, and follow the prompts that appear on the status line.


How do I navigate around web sites?

On most GUI browsers, press Tab to move forward from link to link, Shift+Tab to move backwards through the links, and Enter to activate a link. Press Alt+left arrow to go back to the previous page, and Alt+right arrow to return to the page that you went back from.

In Mozilla Firefox, you can reach a hypertext link by typing it. For example, to move focus to the "Site Map" link, type "site," "ite," or even "e M," and then press Enter to activate it. To enable this feature, read this. Note: This technique will not work to activate image links, i.e., links for which the text is embedded in an image. It is possible, however, to use the incremental search to come close to an image, and then use cursor movement keys, Tab, or Shift+Tab to select it.

In Internet Explorer, press Ctrl+Tab to move focus to the next frame, and Shift+Ctrl+Tab to move focus to the previous frame. In Mozilla Firefox, use F6 and Shift+F6.


What are your questions?

Feel free to submit your questions. Any comments about this FAQ are welcome.


Acknowledgements

A special thank you to Jane Berliss-Vincent, June Isaacson-Kailes, and Debby Gilden for their incisive editorial comments on earlier versions of this FAQ and on Keyboard Access Tips. Sahar Husseini spotted a surprising number of minor errors in Keyboard Access Tips. Thanks to her diligent reporting, I have been able to improve this FAQ as well. I also thank the hundreds of people who have attended my lectures and hands-on workshops on keyboard access over the years. Observing your struggles and listening to your questions have shaped my approach to this subject. Very special thanks to everybody who suggested questions to include in this FAQ, and to everyone who wrote to offer encouragement.


Disclaimers

The information contained in this FAQ is intended as a guide only. It is current to the best of the author's knowledge, having been compiled from sources believed to be reliable. No warranty, guarantee, or representations are made by the author as to the absolute correctness or sufficiency of any representation contained in this FAQ.


Trademark information

Microsoft, Windows, Office, Word, Microsoft Explorer, and Internet Explorer are either registered trademarks or trademarks of Microsoft Corporation in the United States and/or other countries.

"Windows Keyboard Access FAQ" is an independent publication and is not affiliated with, nor has it been authorized, sponsored, or otherwise approved by Microsoft Corporation.