Category Archives: Keyboard shortcuts

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?

Gravity on the Web


Computer commands of all kinds — speech, keyboard and mouse — are much easier to use when they’re consistent across programs.

At the base level, it’s important that common elements like drop-down menus act the same. You control drop-down menus without thinking — click on an element or use the Left, Right, Up, Down and Enter keys.

Consistent commands are the real-world equivalent of having the same gravity in every room, or keys turning the same way to unlock.

Web applications are looking more and more like standard computer programs, but sometimes the elements that look familiar don’t act the way we’re used to. Drop-down menus usually respond in a familiar way to the mouse, but often don’t respond to the Up, Down and Enter keys.

But perhaps things are getting better.

The first drop-down menus to show up on Google Docs didn’t respond to Left, Right, Up, Down and Enter. Then most of the folder-view drop-down menus were arrow key/Enter enabled, but not document menus. A few months ago document menus changed from looking tab-like to looking more menu like, but still didn’t respond to arrow keys and Enter. Then, sometime in the last few weeks, the Doc menus were arrow key/Enter enabled (the change didn’t show up on the update notice).

The keyboard shortcuts enable better speech navigation as well. I can say, for instance, “3 Down Enter” to choose an item in an open menu, “3 Down 2 Right Enter” to choose a color on the open color menu, or “7 Right Wait 3” to take a three-second peak at each of the seven successive menus starting with the file menu open.

This is a great trend.

Now all we need is keyboard shortcuts to open the menus in the first place. We also need the same kind of control in all Web applications, including Google spreadsheets.