Misguided accessibility: access keys

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In the early days of WCAG 1.0, access keys within web pages were seen as a staple of accessibility best practices: assigning a letter or number which could be pressed alongside an accelerator key (such as Alt) to enable users to instantly activate a link or form field. In reality, they are a poor accessibility practice that gets in the way of users.

For people using computers, programs are full of access keys, such as Control + S for the Save command, or Alt + F to activate the File menu. For people using screen-reading software such as NVDA or JAWS, there are a lot more features activated by access keys, such as changing the reading mode or context. The access keys set on a web page may override screen-reading access keys and combinations built into the web browser. For example, Alt + F may activate the "Find" form field on the web page, instead of the File menu within the browser. Whether the built-in access keys are overridden depends on the browser.

For people who are fully sighted, this can have the effect of making the browser appear to malfunction (Alt + F no longer has the desired outcome of activating the File menu), while for people using screen-reading software, the web page (and browser) can become completely unusable because the screen-reading tools can no longer be activated with keyboard combinations.

These days, accessibility experts recommend strongly against the use of access keys, instead putting focus on accessibility enhancers such as "skip-to" links and clear navigation and layout, fully tested with assistive technologies like screen-readers.

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4 Comments

    • Brad
    • Wednesday, 11 Aug 2010
    • 12:03am
    • Reply
    Thanks for posting this article. You raise a very interesting issue. I can certainly understand how a liberal use of access keys might cause usability issues. What I can't quite understand however is why you would want to completely remove access keys from web page content.

    The UK gov lead the way and adopted an access key set consisting primarily of numbers (0-9). I might be mistaken but screen reader software and web browser makers don't usually use numbers as a shortcut/access key, do they?

    Maybe screen reader software and browser makers should avoid using this number set (0-9), and, web designers/developers can avoid using the letter set (a-z)?

    Interestingly, the BBC in the UK largely adopt the UK gov standard but go a little further... they have dropped the letter 'S' for skip to navigation and instead replace it with a number '2'. Hooray!
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/accessibility/win/keyboard/mouse_alt/accesskeys.shtml

    Reading up on WCAG 2.0... it appears that a recommended technique is ''Avoiding use of common user-agent keyboard commands for other purposes"
    http://www.w3.org/TR/UNDERSTANDING-WCAG20/keyboard-operation-keyboard-operable.html#keyboard-operation-keyboard-operable-techniques-head

    Your post mentions that accessibility experts recommend strongly against the use of access keys... could you post some links to where these recommendations are being made so that I can understand this further? Thank you.
    • James Mansfield
    • Wednesday, 11 Aug 2010
    • 09:51pm
    • Reply
    I don't think having access keys adds a huge amount of value to most websites but in some cases they can make a big difference - particular for web based applications used by internal employees like call centre staff or customer support.

    I recently used a web based customer support application to ask and respond to feedback from a user base and the access key shortcuts made this process a lot quicker than it would have been had I needed to move a mouse and click on small targets every time.
    • Webdragon
    • Thursday, 12 Aug 2010
    • 12:45pm
    • Reply
    Quoted Brad
    Thanks for posting this article. You raise a very interesting issue. I can certainly understand how a liberal use of access keys might cause usability issues. What I can't quite understand however is why you would want to completely remove access keys from web page content. The UK gov lead the…
    Brad,

    There is certainly a good use for access keys where they are done properly and only using numeric keys, but even then, they can be more hassle than they're worth when different sites use conflicting standards (see http://www.clagnut.com/blog/193).

    While the discoverability of access keys is quite high for people using screen-reading software, typically only self-identified beginners use them very much (see http://webaim.org/projects/screenreadersurvey/) while everyone else is more or less unaware that the access keys exist.

    Here are a couple more articles you might find useful:
    http://www.thesitewizard.com/webdesign/access-keys-are-useless.shtml
    http://www.webcredible.co.uk/user-friendly-resources/web-accessibility/errors.shtml

    When Webdragon gives accessibility advice, we recommend steering clear of access keys, as they are likely to produce fewer benefits for a small number of users than the problems they may create for everyone else.
    • Webdragon
    • Thursday, 12 Aug 2010
    • 12:46pm
    • Reply
    Quoted James Mansfield
    I don't think having access keys adds a huge amount of value to most websites but in some cases they can make a big difference - particular for web based applications used by internal employees like call centre staff or customer support. I recently used a web based customer support application…
    James,

    You've raised a good point about the usefulness of access keys within specialised applications. Often the applications used for repetitive tasks can follow different conventions (such as including access keys), because there is the expectation that users will be operating in a standarised environment (with known browsers and screen-reading software, for example) and with training provided for the task.

    Out on the wild plains of the web, this is often a greater challenge, where the types of conflicts listed in the article can cause real problems for visitors.
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