Using Accelerator Keys in Usability

Designers too often take accelerator keys for granted, and forget how powerful and useful these mechanics are. Of course, this concept is nothing new, inheriting its logic from the early days of GUI and command line architecture overlapping a bit. Press a series of keys, get a command that takes clicking and moving around through levels of interface in order to do via the GUI.

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A lot of software uses these heavily to this day, you’ll notice keyboard shortcuts in all the menus, underlining for alt-pressing and a whole plethora of likely hidden key combinations to do lengthy tasks quickly.

However, a lot of SaaS designers and new software designers are overlooking these, excluding them. This is partially because of the very premature rise of the mobile first mentality, but even mobile devices are beginning to include physical keyboard frequently.

Yet, you will notice, when you look at any of the good, expensive software, such as Office, Adobe stuff, etc. have intuitive keyboard accelerator key sets. Some are obvious, some you have to be taught or look up, and then, you’re in the know, and you’re an expert at that software.

Well, yeah. This shortcut theme is very helpful. Consider the GUI, which, while faster than entirely command line interface, and quick to learn due to visualization, is a slow way to do things repetitively. Once you learn the copy, cut and paste commands handled across programs, notice how quickly you grow accustomed to them, and can manage folders and files deftly.

Considering complex software requires lengthy, sequential tasks to be performed, having to click buttons and move a cursor would quickly make this a tiresome and time consuming endeavor.

The reason people overlook this so badly today is because of that undervaluing of the keyboard’s continued longevity. The advent of touchscreen technology has led many people to believe that people will soon lose the need for keyboards. I don’t understand that line of thinking, because writing by hand on a handwriting reader, or touch-pecking out a lengthy document would be unpleasant.

Voice dictation is an exhausting exercise as well, and there are times when the ability to silently and quickly write what’s on your mind will always be there. So, keyboards are not going to go away from workstations, and as such, this is simply, on the parts of many, an excuse to be lazy. Keyboard shortcuts do take a little extra effort to implement and tie to events, and it may be a little more difficult to do overall in browser software. But, the extra work is not that much of a chore or challenge, it can come with polishing the candidate into a release.

Yes, in modernity, some devices are completely free of heavy keyboard use, such as tablets, set top boxes and mobile devices. However, in the cases where these devices are purchased for diverse use, people opt for a keyboard to plug into their tablets, and want physical keyboards on their mobiles as well.

There is always going to be a presence of the keyboard, so using accelerator keys to empower the user to increase their speed and proficiency is something you should simply do.

Jessica Miller
Jessica is the Lead Author & Editor of UsabilityLab Blog. Jessica writes for the UsabilityLab blog to create a source for news and discussion about some of the issues, challenges, news, and ideas relating to usability.
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