Getting Gmail working well with speech commands

By Kimberly Patch

If you haven’t used speech commands to control a computer, it might not be obvious that single character commands, for instance “y” to archive a message in Gmail, can present a challenge.

Single-character commands seem like a great idea, especially for Web programs, because your Web browser already takes up some common keyboard shortcuts. Gmail has a lot of single-character commands, and once you get to know them you can fly along using the keyboard. In general I’m all for more keyboard shortcuts because it’s easy to enable them using speech.

Command conundrum

Single-character commands that can’t be changed, however, can get speech users in a lot of trouble. Say a command or make a noise that’s misheard as text in a program that doesn’t use single-character shortcuts and either nothing happens or you get some stray text you can easily undo. Do the same thing in a single-character-command program and you can cause many actions to happen at once.

A stray “Kelly” in your Gmail inbox, for instance, will move the cursor up one message (single-character command “k”) and archive it (single-character command “y”). “Bruno” causes even more damage.

Turn off the keyboard shortcuts, though, and the program becomes fairly inaccessible for speech users. We need the shortcuts, and we can combine multiple keystrokes into single utterances to make things even better. It’s having little control over them that presents a problem.

Speech-safe single character shortcuts

Google Labs has a nifty extension that presents a simple fix. It lets you change the characters you use for keyboard shortcuts, including using two characters rather than one. Add a plus sign (+) to the beginning of every shortcut and they all become speech-safe.

Here are step-by-step instructions.
– go to your Gmail account, click the settings gear icon at the top right of the screen
– click “Labs”
– search for the “Custom Keyboard Shortcuts” extension and click to download. This will add a ”Keyboard Shortcuts” tab to your Gmail settings
– now, click the settings gear icon at the top right of the screen
– click Keyboard Shortcuts
– add “+“ to the beginning of every command

If you’re using Utter Command 2.0 you’re now all set. Say “Plus” and any one- or two-character command. Say, for instance “Plus j” or “Plus Juliet” to move down one item. You can also say a command multiple times in a single utterance. Say “Plus j Repeat 5” to move down five items, for instance. And you can combine two commands: “Plus j Plus y” moves down one item, then archives that item (say “Question Mark” to call up the keyboard shortcuts list.)

Raising the bar

The Google Labs add-on enables Gmail for speech users, but there are many other programs out there that use single-character shortcuts, including other Google programs, and other Web-based programs like Twitter. Message for Google: How about one facility that would let us control keyboard shortcuts across Google programs?

It would also improve things if we could have a larger number of characters available for a given character shortcut, the ability to also control control-key shortcuts, the ability to save and share different sets, and the ability to apply at least some shortcuts across applications

Important Note: If you were a beta tester or received the Utter Command 2.0 pre-release, you might not have the “Plus” set of commands. If this is the case, send e-mail to “Info” at this web address, and we’ll make sure you have the release version. The release version shows 15 new sets of commands on the “New commands for 2.0” list you can open from the Taskbar icon menu.

Tips, tricks, productivity, accessibility, usability and all things speech recognition.

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