I'm Still Off Accesskeys

January 04, 2005 10AM PST

A follow-up to last year’s article that denounced Accesskeys.

Just over a year ago I wrote that I believed Accesskeys to be more harmful than good, supported by three articles from WATS (Is it Worth it?, More Reasons…, Accesskey Alternatives) and my own personal experience.

Since then, I’ve decided that while there may be no explicit accessibility benefits, perhaps Accesskeys offer something for usability. Keyboard shortcuts, for those that know how to use them, can be a tremendous incremental time-saver.

I re-enabled Accesskeys on this site a few months back, following Richard Rutter’s research into Accesskey Standards. The idea was to provide quick ways of accessing common site functionality for those that are aware of them, while hopefully preventing any conflicts with existing shortcuts built in to browsers.

The verdict? I never use them, and I’ve received a grand total of one email about them in that time. Discoverability is yet another problem with relying on Accesskeys, but I had hoped that, at the very least, my contradictory position would have prompted a bit of discussion with the odd reader who happened to view source. No such luck.

Nothing new here, so if you’re going out of your way to implement Accesskeys? Don’t bother. I’m not in a hurry to take them out since they’re not hurting anyone (as far as I know), but I won’t be implementing them in future work.

Update: I should clarify I had web sites in mind as I wrote this, not web applications. For those who have commented that web applications are a special case and, be it through Accesskeys or custom Javascript that hooks into keyboard events or whatever else, some form of shortcut key interaction is a good thing for usability — I agree.

However, I also think that as the practice takes off, it will become necessary to do some serious testing to make sure that they help usability more than they hinder accessibility. The question of self-containedness is the issue, and how unlike a web browser you’re trying to make a web browser act.

As an application becomes its own little island of individual interaction standards, it’s not unreasonable to expect more leeway from a user’s default setup. But there will be some fun conflicts between those who expect the user/browser is in control, and those who expect the application is in control — look at the font size issue for a minor version of what’s to come.