Access keys - are they a useful access technology today?

On this page: Access keys are intended to help users with motor difficulties, but in the absence of standards, Lois Wakeman wonders just how useful they are.

Stop press: the new HTML 5 standard, issued as a draft in late January 2008, does away with access keys altogether. RIP

What are access keys?

Access keys are defined in the current HTML standards to allow keyboard shortcuts within a particular web site. Web page authors can define a key that activates a particular link when used in combination with the Alt key (Windows) and the Cmd key (MAC). For example, on this site I used to have access keys based on the initial letters for each section. So, whenever you pressed Alt/W or Cmd/W in Internet Explorer, you would go to the home page for the web section, and so on. However, this caused more confusion than it was worth, so I have discontinued them.

People who find it difficult or painful to control a mouse or other pointing device should therefore welcome them, as should the significant minority of people who prefer using the keyboard because it's quicker.

Drawbacks of using them

However, I am not convinced that access keys offer enough to compensate for the drawbacks - chiefly that it is difficult to choose memorable keys that do not conflict with keyboard shortcuts available in the browser or other access technology. For example, Alt/H (Cmd/H) is the obvious choice for the Home page, but in most browsers, this calls up the Help menu by default. Microsoft suggests using G (for Go home), but I think this is a bit contrived.

Because different browsers and screen readers etc. use different keys for menus, there are very few "safe" keys left, and few function keys not reserved by the operating system (for example, Alt/F4 closes a Windows application).

Standards for using access keys

Before they become useful, I think we need some standards for how to use access keys. I have done some idle research, but there seems to be little positive activity in this area at present - if you know differently, please let me know! I do know that John Foliot of WATS.ca has come to similar conclusions after more detailed research: see his link to external site list of unavailable keys for example.

  1. Which key should be chosen for which page? Most sites have a number of standard sections, which, if the navigation is designed properly, will be accessible from every page - but how do we decide which key to use if there are two sections starting with the same letter? And if we use numbers because they don't conflict with menu keys, will the user remember these from page to page?

    There are some types of pages or links that tend to be common in many sites - Home, Contacts, Help, Site Map, Search, top of page etc. So a common key for these might be achievable, but not for the individual topical pages that make up the meat of a site. (By analogy, many Windows applications use Alt/F for a file menu, but thereafter the menus tend to differ according to the type of application - that is, they are content-dependent, and the user needs to invest some time in learning them before they become useful.)

  2. How do we identify access keys? We also need a standard for helping users to identify access keys without having to refer to a list somewhere all the time. I have seen underline suggested (by analogy with menu entries). This would perhaps be instantly meaningful to many users, but conflicts with the default appearance for a link. Research has shown that users are generally happier when links look like links - underlined, and preferably blue. So, removing the underline from most of the links decreases usability in one way whilst possibly increasing it in another - not an ideal situation. Perhaps reverse highlighting would be a possibility for users with style-capable browsers? For example, "visit my web section" - but then, what happens if the key can't be made to appear in the link text?

Where next?

Unfortunately, I can't answer this one. Unless there is a specific requirement for using access keys, or in a closed-audience situation (like an intranet) where users might be expected to invest time in learning the keys, I cannot see them becoming universally used and understood in the near future.

There are other accessibility techniques that are unequivocally useful - like titles on links and alternate texts for images for example, and even these tend to be ignored by less conscientious or knowledgeable web authors. So, I don't hold out much hope for access keys!