Windows Keyboard Access FAQ
Version 3Copyright © Alan Cantor 2004 - 2019. All rights reserved.
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.
- Who needs to master the Windows® keyboard interface?
- What tasks can be done faster by keyboard than the mouse?
- Is it easy to learn to operate Windows® without the mouse?
- Why is it difficult to learn?
- What are the biggest barriers to learning to operate Windows® by keyboard?
- Are more recent versions of Windows® easier to access by keyboard?
- If someone has trouble handling a mouse, why don't they use MouseKeys?
- Why bother? You need to memorize hundreds of hotkeys!
- But there is much to remember!
- Can you tell me how to drive Windows® from the keyboard in 25 words or less?
- Focus, shmocus! What is the keyboard focus?
- What are the most important techniques to learn?
- What is the best way to learn to operate Windows® without the mouse?
- Should people give up their mice?
- Are there references on using Windows® without the mouse?
- Are there ways to make the keyboard interface more efficient?
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 are 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:
- Individuals who are totally blind cannot see the mouse pointer, and therefore cannot use a mouse. Most blind individuals use a standard keyboard in conjunction with "screen reader" software. A screen reader translates information into synthetic speech, and can handle any information that can be represented as text, including menus, word processing documents, and hypertext links on web pages. Screen reader users need to know two sets of keyboard commands: those built into Windows® and Windows®-based applications, and those that drive the screen reader.
- People who are deaf and blind cannot use a mouse, either. Most deaf and blind individuals use a standard keyboard, but "read" the screen using a hardware device called a refreshable Braille display.
- Individuals who have low-vision may be able to discern an enlarged mouse pointer, but finding and identifying targets may be visually taxing. In many situations, pressing two or three keys is easier and more reliable than reaching for the mouse, finding the pointer, hunting for a small screen object, and clicking on it. Using the keyboard instead of the mouse reduces eye strain associated with pointing and clicking.
- Users with upper-body mobility impairments, including one-handed typists, toe-typists, and people with dystonia and cerebral palsy, may also find it awkward to point and click. Ditto for individuals who access computers via mouthstick, headstick, or similar appliance.
- Pointing and clicking may be difficult for people with musculoskeletal injuries. Pasqueralli and Quilter estimate that 25% to 30% of computer users experience symptoms related to overusing their computers. For people who develop mouse-induced repetitive strain injuries, the ability to access a computer by keyboard can be a lifesaver.
- People who have learning disabilities that affect hand-eye coordination may also find it easier to perform certain tasks by keyboard. In fact, some screen objects are so small that people who do not have hand-eye coordination problems find it difficult to target and click on them. Mouseless techniques can be a boon to these people.
- When users develop temporary disabilities or are injured — for example, a broken arm, dislocated shoulder, or tennis elbow — the ability to use the mouse may be compromised, and a few keyboard techniques can be beneficial.
- Older users and children sometimes have difficulties controlling a mouse for certain tasks. Double-clicking is especially difficult for some individuals. Knowledge of a few keyboard techniques can make it much easier for seniors and younger users to operate computers.
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:
- Launching applications, and opening documents and e-mail messages.
- Choosing items from menus.
- Navigating through long documents.
- Selecting text in a full-featured word processor.
- Formatting text in a full-featured word processor.
- Revising text in a full-featured word processor.
- Selecting an entire column or row in a spreadsheet application.
- Finding specific text on a lengthy web page or in a long document.
- Exiting applications and Windows®.
- Picking items from a list.
- Minimizing, maximizing, and closing windows.
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:
- Focus indicators are hard to see. Efficient use of the keyboard interface depends on the user's ability to immediately spot the focus. There are many different focus indicators in Windows®. Some are barely visible:
- The focus indicator for a push-button is a faint dotted line around the perimeter of the button.
- When a drop-down menu is selected but not yet opened, it looks almost the same as adjacent menus that do not have focus.
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.
- The rules that govern the operation of the keyboard interface are inconsistent and complex. The keyboard interface appears to be more of an afterthought than an integral part of the design, and therefore, inconsistencies and complications abound. For example:
The Alt-key is used as a modifier key to perform many tasks. Sometimes Alt must be held while pressing another key; sometimes it must be held while tapping another key; and sometimes it must be pressed and released before pressing another key. Even tasks as simple of activating drop-down menus can be daunting. One way to activate a drop-down menu is to press Alt, release it, and then press the underlined letter in the menu name. For example, to activate the "File" menu, press Alt F. If you then want to activate a command on the File menu — say, Save — pressing Alt S closes the File menu and inserts "S" in your document.
- Some tasks are too complex to perform by keyboard. Some tasks that can be performed by keyboard are so complicated that many users will not bother, even if they know how. In my experience, people resist pressing sequences of three or more keys. Yet some tasks require 10, 20, 30, or more keystrokes.
- Some tasks cannot be performed by keyboard. Despite some improvements to the keyboard interface in newer versions of Windows® and Windows®-based applications, there are still tasks that cannot be performed by keyboard.
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, 8 and 10; and with Office® 2010, 2013 and 2016. 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.
Some people find that 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 most tasks to be performed 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 computer 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:
- Activate pull-down menus and ribbons (easy).
- Navigating through menus (easy) and ribbons (challenging).
- Choose a command on a pull-down menu (easy) and a ribbon (harder).
- Activate a command on a pull-down menu (easy) and a ribbon (harder).
- Navigate between controls in a dialog box (easy) or a web page (easy to challenging).
- "Push" a push button (easy).
- Activate the default button in a dialog box (looks hard, but it's easy).
- Check and uncheck a check box (easy).
- Select a radio button (easy, but more challenging than a check box).
- Select text (basic technique is simple; extended techniques are challenging).
- Close any window or application (easy).
- Close a window that has a "Cancel" button (easy).
- Close a drop-down menu or a ribbon without choosing a command (easy).
- Activate the Start menu (easy).
- Navigate around the Start menu (easy to challenging).
- Minimize all windows and put focus on the desktop (easy).
- Navigate around the desktop (easy).
- Switch between open windows (worth practicing!).
- Activate the System menu (easy).
- Navigate to a specific item on a list (easy).
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:
- The Microsoft Keyboard Assistance web page.
- The Microsoft Windows 98 Keyboard Guide does not appear to be available on the Microsoft site anymore. You may be able to find copies elsewhere on the web. It was an excellent guide.
- Joe Lazzaro's Adaptive Technologies for Learning and Work Environments, Second Edition has an excellent chapter about driving Windows® from the keyboard. ISBN: 083890804-7 (Print Edition); 083890814-4 (CD-ROM Edition)
- Help systems sometimes (but not always) contain lists of hotkeys. Try searching Help for "keyboard shortcuts" or "hotkeys."
- Printed computer manuals sometimes list keyboard commands in an appendix.
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 | Browsing, and check this checkbox:
- Search for text when you start typing
Despite a few glitches, browsing in Mozilla Firefox without a mouse is exemplary, proving that it is possible for developrs 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.
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?
- How do I right-click on the desktop without the mouse?
- How do I access the System Tray using only the keyboard?
- How do I maximize and minimize windows?
- How do I move or resize a window?
- How do I drag-and-drop using the keyboard?
- How do I navigate around web sites?
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:
- Move keyboard focus to the desktop: Press Windows-key+D.
- 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, 7, 8 and 10: 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. (This method does not seem to work in Windows 10.)
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 and Chrome, use F6 and Shift+F6.
What are your questions?
Feel free to submit your questions. Any comments about this FAQ are welcome.
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.
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.
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.