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Keyboard Access Tips

About Keyboard Access Tips

Early in my career as an assistive technologist, I bought a Windows® 95 computer. Aware of the pressing need for good mouse-free access to software, I decided not to install a mouse on my new computer, and through trial-and-error experimentation, I learned to drive it by keyboard. I did not need long to figure out the basics; and within days, I could do almost everything using only the keyboard. To this day, I rarely have reason to reach for the mouse.

But my backgrounds in computer-related topics and adult education made me acutely aware that few people had the time or inclination to master the skills of driving a GUI as I had.

So when I decided to write a book on mouse-free access, I envisioned a guide for individuals who must learn to operate Windows® without a mouse. I knew I could do better than regurgitating lists of hotkeys — which most people cannot remember, anyway. Although knowing a handful of hotkeys is helpful, I came to realize that mastering mouseless operation was not really about memorizing hundreds of keys. It is about becoming familiar with a finite number of techniques.

In creating Windows, Microsoft developers incorporated many consistencies into the design of the operating system and applications that made keyboard-only interaction more-or-less discoverable. As I worked on the book, I found I could distill mouseless operation down to only 18 techniques, or "rules." So the approach I took was to focus on these 18 basic techniques rather than to list hotkeys. My assumption was that internalizing a handful of techniques would be easier than memorizing hundreds (or thousands) of hotkeys. I began sketching out the book in 2000, and completed Keyboard Access Tips in 2004.

I promoted Keyboard Access Tips through on-line disability forums and my own email lists. I sold copies to people who attended my workshops at Closing the Gap, the CSUN Conference and the RESNA Conference. For several years RESNA offered Keyboard Access Tips through their on-line store.

Although not a best-seller, nearly 200 individuals and organizations from around the world bought it. I sold many copies to libraries, so I like to think Keyboard Access Tips reached a much wider audience than sales numbers suggested.

Readers wrote to thank me for compiling the information, and some passed along their suggestions for improvements. I incorporated their ideas into revised versions — I updated Keyboard Access Tips six times in all.

I began drafting a greatly expanded edition, with illustrations, a chapter for absolute beginners, a survival guide (tentatively called "ten things everybody should know about operating Windows without a mouse"), and a chapter for advanced users on developing intuitions about keyboard interaction to Windows.

But finally, I stopped working on Keyboard Access Tips. When Microsoft introduced Windows® Vista and Office 2007, keyboard-only interaction became more convoluted as ribbons replaced menus, and the Aero (and later, the Metro) display theme became ascendant: sequences of two keys became sequences of three, four, five or more keys; focus indicators became harder to spot; developers increasingly hard-coded screens as grids without the possibility of changing them to lists; incremental searches could no longer be relied upon to efficiently navigate listview controls; and mnemonics for remembering key sequences were now illogical. (For example, the key to access the "Columns" feature was "C" before Word 2007, and "J" after.) Overall, interaction was increasingly hotkey-based rather than rule-based. Mouse-free access had become cognitively and physically much more challenging. I found myself increasingly reaching for the mouse; performing certain tasks via keyboard wasn't worth the effort!

Fast forward to the present, I would say that 95% of Keyboard Access Tips remains relevant. But I do not intend to update the book. The details of mouseless interaction have become too difficult to describe. There are now too many exceptions to the rules; both the number and the types of exceptions have increased. Nevertheless, if you are interested in getting a copy of Keyboard Access Tips, get in touch with me.

On the other hand, I still update my Windows Keyboard Access FAQ, so feel free to check it out.


Publication information

  • First published in 2004, and updated seven times until 2008.
  • Published by Cantor Access Inc.
  • Saddle-stitched 8 x 5.5 inch booklet
  • 48 pages
  • Also available as a Word or PDF file

Publication history

  • Version 2.3: June 2008
  • Version 2.2: March 2007
  • Version 2.1: March 2006
  • Version 2.02: December 2005
  • Version 2.01: October 2005
  • Version 2.0: March 2005
  • Version 1.0: October 2004

Table of Contents

  1. Introduction
  2. Why good keyboard interaction is vital
  3. Tips for learning to work without a mouse
  4. 18 fundamental keyboard techniques
  5. Common questions
  6. Essential hotkeys
  7. Configuring Windows to improve keyboard access
  8. Additional resources