By Kimberly Patch
Keyboard shortcuts have a lot of potential. They’re fast.
For example, cutting and pasting by
- Hitting “Control x”
- Moving the cursor to the paste location
- Then hitting “Control v”
is speedier than
- Moving the mouse to the “Edit” menu
- Clicking “Edit ”
- Clicking “Cut”
- Moving the cursor to the paste location
- Moving back up to click “Edit ”
- Then clicking “Paste”.
Add this up over many tasks and you have a big difference in productivity.
So why don’t we see more people using keyboard shortcuts?
Ask someone who uses the mouse for just about everything and you’re likely to get a compelling answer — it’s easier. And it is — it’s cognitively easier to choose a menu item than to remember a shortcut.
Given a choice, people generally do what’s easier. On a couple different occasions I’ve heard people say that, all else being equal, they’d hire a blind programmer over a sighted one because the blind programmer is faster. The blind programmer must use keyboard shortcuts.
This is a common theme — we have something potentially better, but human behavior stands in the way of adoption.
In the case of keyboard shortcuts there’s a little more to the story, however.
As a software community we haven’t implemented keyboard shortcuts well.
Many folks know keyboard shortcuts for a few very common actions like cut, paste and bold, but it’s more difficult to come up with keyboard shortcuts for actions like adding a link or a hanging indent because they are used less often and are less likely to be the same across programs.
So the user is often stuck with different shortcuts for the same tasks in different programs, requiring him to memorize and keep track of multiple sets of controls. This is cognitively difficult for everyone, and more so for some disabled populations and the elderly.
This type of implementation is akin to asking someone to speak different languages depending on who they are speaking to. Depending on how motivated and talented they are, some folks may be able to do it, but not many. And if there’s an easier way, even those capable of doing it either way will often choose easier even if it’s less efficient.
So we aren’t letting keyboard shortcuts live up to their potential.
There’s a second keyboard shortcuts issue that’s getting worse as Web apps become more prevalent: clashing shortcuts. If you hit “Control f” in a Google document, do you get the Google Find facility or the browser Find facility? Go ahead and try it out. It’s messy.
This is already an issue in the assistive technology community, where people who require alternate input or output must use software that runs all the time in conjunction with everything else. For example, a speech engine must be on all the time listening for commands, and screen magnifier software must be running all the time to enlarge whatever you’re working in.
So there are two problems: keyboard shortcuts aren’t living up to their potential to increase efficiency, and, especially on the Web, keyboard shortcuts are increasingly likely to clash.
I think there’s a good answer to both problems: a cross-program facility to easily discover, adjust, organize and share shortcuts.
- We need to easily discover shortcuts in order to see them all at once so we can see patterns across programs and conflicts in programs/apps that may be opened at once.
- We need to easily adjust shortcuts so we can choose common shortcuts and avoid clashes. We need to organize so we can remember what we did.
- We need to easily arrange commands and add headings so we can find commands quickly and over time build a good mental map of commands.. Lack of ability to organize is the Achilles’ heel of many macro facilities. It’s like asking people to play cards without being able to rearrange the cards in their hand. It’s possible, but unless there’s a reason for it, makes things unnecessarily difficult.
- We need to share the adjustments because it makes us much more efficient as a community. My friend Dan, for instance, is very logical. He uses many of the same programs I do, and we both use speech input. So if there were a facility to discover, adjust, organize and share keyboard shortcuts, I’d look to see if Dan had posted his changes, and I would adjust to my needs from there.
The organizing and sharing parts are the most important, because they allow for crowdsourcing.
Over the past few decades the computer interface ecosystem has shifted from single, unrelated programs to separate programs that share information, to programs so integrated that users may not know when they are going from one to another. This has increased ease-of-use and efficiency but at the same time complicated program control.
At the same time programs have grown more sophisticated. There’s a lot of wasted potential in untapped features.
If we give users the tools to discover, adjust, organize and share, I bet we’ll see an increase in speed and efficiency and an uptick in people discovering nifty new program features.