How-to Understand Access Keys Part II - Yes or No?

In How-to Understand Access Keyes part one, we looked at Access Keys, what they are for, how they work and th UK government recommendations for standard Access Keys.

In 2004, a standard emerged using numbers, which promotes consistency for users, and the
increased predictability of keyboard shortcuts on different sites. These include, for example, 1 to go to the homepage, 4 for search, 9 for contact, and others.

Now things get more lively; are they a good idea and should you implement them? This is exactly what I found myself asking in an accessibility review this week.

The Government thinks so, the UK Government recommendations clearly state ‘Use UK Government Accesskey Standard’ (Guidelines for UK Government websites, Illustrated handbook for Web management teams).

A poll of web designers at the Accessify Forum in 2013 resulted in a 58% NO vote.

Problems With Access Keys
  • most implementations are flawed: they clash with shortcuts in the browser or the OS (even if you only use 0-9 as Access Keys. Internet Explorer will bring up the program ‘Help’ menu if you assign the key ‘h’ to a navigational option.
  • if you don't use or deviate from the standard set, then you no longer have a standard.
  • defining things on a per-site basis is likely to confuse visitors, unless they can be told clearly and in a consistent manner what the access keys are on a given site.
  • convoluting the keyboard shortcut to make unique Access Keys (Shift+Alt+Accesskey) is actually making accessibility worse not better, so that's no answer, either.
  • users can’t rely on Access Keys. As a 'standard' they didn't take hold, so today only a fraction of web sites use them, and those that do are inconsistent. You may be better off using the rel="" attribute instead and providing good link text.
  • how do you tell people there are Access Keys available? Don't suggest assigning an Access Key to an Access Key assignment list. That's too meta.
  • they can't be customised for the user's own preferences or to work around key-clashes.
  • the keys that you as a publisher choose to activate a navigation option could well conflict with keys that are already assigned by disabled user's assistive software.
  • mouse and keyboard navigation should be good enough for most if not all users and those with particular accessibility needs are most likely meeting them by other means, which questions the validity of access keys.
  • others have suggested that Access Keys are semantically un-sound: the data (a web page) should not determine device behaviour (which keys do what)

Should you use access keys in web development? Probably not. Unless you are in central or local government in the UK, in which case, you're supposed to. But many don't. And if they do, you won't know about it. I love standards. RC

Image credit: I am Typing. Hands, fingers, keyboard. Adios 手。 Creative Commons via Flickr