Monthly Archives: September 2008

Keyboard shortcuts: naming, sharing and seeing


The way we control computer programs is fairly inefficient.

Keyboard shortcuts are underused in favor of using a mouse to click through menus. This is short-term practical — it takes less thought to browse through menus than to remember a keyboard shortcut. But it’s not very productive.

Look at the whole picture and you find good reasons to make the less productive choice. There are barriers to using keyboard shortcuts. Help and learning tools for keyboard shortcuts are scant at best. And inconsistencies across programs make the learning task larger.

So how do we improve things?

We can (continue to) encourage software makers to improve keyboard shortcut documentation and consistency. This is important, but it’s not going to change the world.

I think things would improve greatly given universal abilities to

1. name our own keyboard shortcuts — this currently exists in some but not all programs
2. share sets of shortcuts
3. see all shortcuts for a given application, and even compare shortcuts across applications

This would provide a good mental map of functionality — both of individual programs and across the landscape of suites.

It would make efficient functionality accessible across the board. It would enable individuals, organizations, departments or corporations to make applications more efficient and even standardize shortcuts across applications. The ability to share shortcuts would put a lot of brains on the problem and make the process efficient and evolutionary.

Given a map of all shortcuts, you could make things even better by allowing the user to mark the map — maybe using color labels.

Tools like this are the equivalent of a downhill groove for water– it would make it easy to be more efficient.

Keyboard shortcuts are least standard and most lacking in Internet applications. I’m thinking an ability like this could be built into or be an add-on to a browser.

And in addition to increasing productivity across the board, keyboard shortcuts are central to accessibility. The blind community relies on keyboard shortcuts. And speech commands often tap keyboard shortcuts — they’re often the hooks people use to write custom macros, and Utter Command allows you to speak and combine keys including keyboard shortcuts.

So who’s going to step up to the plate?

Friday Tip: Cutting and pasting from the Web

I’ve been asking people two questions lately:

1. What tasks do you do the most on your computer?

2. What tasks are frustrating to do by speech?

Cutting and pasting from the Web comes up frequently in both categories, and the frustration lies in selecting text from the Web.

When it comes to selecting text from the Web there’s good news and not so good news. The good news is that it’s easy to select in Firefox. The not so good news is selecting is not as easy as it should be in Internet Explorer.

Selecting text in Firefox

In Firefox you can use the same selection commands you’d use in any program. There’s a trick, however.

The Caret Browsing hotkey — “Function 7” — toggles text navigation commands like “3 Down” and “Go Home” from acting on the text to acting on the scroll bar. If you’re clicked into a text field, you’ll see the cursor appear and disappear when you say “Function 7”. When you can see the cursor, caret browsing is on and you should be able to move the cursor in text.

To see this say

“New York Times Site” to bring up your default browser (should be Firefox) to the New York Times site

“10 By 30” to click somewhere in a text field — adjust the numbers of necessary

“2 Down” to move the scroll bar up and down (by default)

“Function 7” to toggle Caret Browsing hotkey

“2 Down” to move the insertion point in text

Once you have the insertion point where you want it, you can use regular selection commands like “1-100 Lefts/Rights/Befores/Afters/Ups/Downs/Lines/Line Ups…” commands to select precisely.

So if you wanted to move the insertion point to the beginning of a line a couple of lines down, then select the next three lines plus the first two words on a fourth line, you’d say, “2 Down Home”, “3 Lines · 2 Afters”.

Selecting text in Internet Explorer

In Internet Explorer, you can select text using the Shift mouse method (you can use this in Firefox too, but the above method is generally easier).

Say, for instance, “10 By 40” to click at the beginning of the selection, then, for instance, “40 By 60 Shift Touch” to select from the beginning coordinates to the new coordinates. If you want to adjust the selection, say the second command again with different numbers.

Copying and pasting

Once you have something selected in either program you can copy and paste by saying a copy command like “Copy to Word” or “Copy to Window 1”.

Your tasks

I’d like to know what tasks you do the most on your computer and what tasks are frustrating using speech — let me know and chances are I’ll find a way to speed you up.