I spent three months as a keyboard-only user. Here’s what I learned.
Would you be able to use the internet for three months without a mouse? I did exactly that. Here’s what I learned.
A few months back, my laptop suffered a slight mishap — the cord, which was old and frayed, suddenly sparked, then smoked, and I found myself with a dead cord. No big deal — I could simply head over the local computer guy and replace it. Unfortunately, he didn’t have one that matched my computer. Alright. Being related to a tech geek, I had a couple old laptops sitting in the “graveyard”. I could take out the hard drive and put it into one of those, at least until I could replace my cord (or buy a new laptop). So, that evening, that’s what I did — I switched out the hard drives, and simply used that hardware. At the time, I had no way of knowing that doing that would end up changing how I looked at the web forever.
Around a week after I switched out the hard drive, I was sitting, browsing through Stack Exchange, when I noticed something was off: I couldn’t click. My ability to left click was simply gone. My left button would not work. I could drag the trackpad around, but my tap-to-click had stopped working. I tried plugging in an external mouse, through the USB port. I tried plugging in a dongle and using a wireless mouse. Nothing worked.
So there I was, stuck, without a mouse. Unable to click. I could drag the trackpad around and right click, but I could not left click. Funds were a little tight, so I couldn’t just go buy myself a new laptop. Lovely. So, with not much else to do, I decided to make the most of the situation. This could be interesting, I thought to myself. This way, I could discover what the web was like for those who aren’t able to use a mouse for whatever reason (such as being vision impaired or having physical restraints that prevent the use of a proper mouse), and one thing was clear: I’d be getting a lot more familiar with the keyboard shortcuts. And so, I set out to brave the web… mouse-less.
The Learning Curve
Making such a huge change in how you use the computer doesn’t happen overnight. There was a lot to learn, from something as simple as remembering that the [escape] key would usually close a dropdown menu, to something like discovering that [alt] + [`] would cycle through different Chrome windows on Ubuntu. A standard keyboard shortcut when editing text is [ctrl] + [b] to make your text bold, but different sites will do completely different things for [ctrl] + [k].
As time went by, I definitely got more used to how things worked as a keyboard-only user and I started learning the norms of keyboard access. After spending about a month without the mouse, I was much more comfortable using the keyboard to get around than I had been at the start.
Before I started this, I considered myself relatively proficient with using keyboard shortcuts to navigate. Who would ever click the new tab button when [ctrl] + [t] is much more convenient? After losing my mouse, though, I learned that I had barely scratched the surface. Especially when you’re using an operating system such as Ubuntu, which is used primarily by a young generation of tech-savvy folks, and keyboard accessibility isn’t necessarily a high priority, getting around suddenly gets a lot harder. Something I never did figure out, actually, is how to maximize a window in Ubuntu. It drove me crazy every time I opened a terminal window that I couldn’t maximize it. It was only after I managed to mostly regain use of my mouse (more on that later) that I discovered that holding down the super key (also known as the Windows key) for long enough will bring up a list of keyboard shortcuts… including the one for maximizing a window.
Ubuntu was hardly the biggest offender when it came to bad accessibility, though.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Some sites have good accessibility. Others don’t have any. Some have some steps in the right direction, but still unfortunately come up awfully short. I encountered a bit of all of them during my adventure.
Let’s run through a few of each type. (If you don’t find reports on individual sites interesting, feel free to skip to the next part.)
Google search Google was, unsurprisingly, one of the most accessible sites (if not the most) that I encountered. They have a convenient “skip to main content” invisible button that shows up when you start [tab]bing through the page:
This makes it easier to get to what you need without wasting time running through all those links at the top… but if you want to access e.g. image results, you can still [tab] to those to get to what you need. Everything has a clearly visible border around it when the keyboard focus is on it. All in all, they did a pretty good job. Which, when you consider they’re only the largest site in the world, makes sense ;)
Stack Overflow and the Stack Exchange network If you’re not familiar with Stack, Stack Overflow started as a question and answer site for developers to get answers to their programming questions. Now, ten years later, the Stack Exchange network has 180+ sites dedicated to various topics, ranging from Cooking to Science Fiction & Fantasy to Philosophy. I personally moderate their Literature site. The network has a pretty good set of keyboard shortcuts, with an auto-help that comes up when you press [?]:
I encountered some issues with their keyboard shortcuts (the largest probably being not on by default and not letting folks know they exist), which I reported to them, and hopefully they’ll get those fixed. On the whole, though, they do a pretty good job.
Slack Slack, at least the web version, actually surprised me. I don’t use it often, but when I did find myself using it, I could actually get around — they have a system that notices when you’re using the keyboard to get around, and it popped up and guided me through using their keyboard shortcuts to get around. Good for you, Slack — you’re not perfect with the accessibility, but you’re much better than the sites next up.
Chess.com Sorry, Chess.com. I like chess, and I like playing a 30-minute live game at times, but… without a mouse, it was practically impossible. I couldn’t even sign in, let alone get to a game. Nothing has an indicator when it’s got the focus on it, and you can’t access half the buttons without the mouse… at the very least, not that I could tell without any focus indicators. It was bad enough that I didn’t even try to use it after my first few attempts to sign in failed.
Medium Welp. That’s one you probably didn’t expect to see on this list, considering where this is getting posted. But yes, Medium’s keyboard accessibility (actually, a lot of accessibility stuff, not just keyboard) leaves a lot to be desired. It’s missing focus indicators, and trying to publish something was a nightmare. I was writing this article for a Google Code-In task, and it was… one of the most difficult experiences I had during these few months. If I hadn’t been able to use the right-click to get the focus where I needed it, I wouldn’t have succeeded.
What do I mean by “ugly” in this context? Essentially, it’s usable, but it definitely ain’t pretty. It’s confusing or not at all obvious how to use the site without a mouse, even if not totally impossible.
YouTube Perhaps unsurprisingly, YouTube is a bit annoying when it comes to keyboard-only access. After all, YouTube is directed mainly at sighted people, and one of the largest groups of people who are keyboard-only are those who are vision impaired, who generally aren’t going to be watching lots of YouTube videos. But there are blind folks who use the site, and blind people aren’t the only people for whom keyboard-only access is important. That’s an important bit that I’ll get to later. The main issue is basically the comment section. …of course, that’s probably the main issue on YouTube in general, and they’d probably be best served by removing it altogether, but this is a different issue. Let’s say I’m watching a video, and the YouTube algorithm manages to find a video I want to see and puts it on the sidebar, where suggested videos show up. So now I want to get there when this video is done (or sooner…). Naturally, I start pressing [tab] to move the focus through the page. I get through the player settings, and the video description, and then through the comments, and then through the new comments that loaded as I went lower down, and then more comments, and more comments… I have to go backwards through the page, using [shift] + [tab], to get to those suggested videos, which is unintuitive and a bit annoying. That, combined with a lack of proper keyboard shortcuts and the fact that [end], [space], and [pg down] changed what they did when the focus moved and that it wasn’t clear where the focus was, made my music listening a lot more frustrating.
Gmail The problem with Gmail is, unlike YouTube, not a lack of keyboard shortcuts. It’s too many. Or, rather, the complexity of the many shortcuts and that they’re not intuitive. I’m never going to remember that [q] is going to search my chat contacts, and the list that shows up if you press [?] is simply overwhelming.
There are a lot more examples of good, bad, and ugly sites; this is just a small sampling.
There are lots of external tools out there to make life easier for keyboard-only users. One popular one is called caret browsing. It aims to make things easier to copy-paste, or to select text, without the mouse, by having a cursor (or “caret”) that you can move through the page. It comes natively installed on Firefox, but on Chrome, which I use, you have to install an extension. So I installed the caret browsing extension. It… certainly left a lot to be desired. It interfered with using [tab] and the arrow keys to get around when it was on, and it really didn’t work well if I wanted to copy-paste a segment of text from a long document, such as a PDF of a short story. It was only useful when the page wasn’t too long and there weren’t a lot of buttons or anything that would get in the way.
I quickly learned that depending on these tools isn’t ideal. It’s much better to build the accessibility directly into the site. You can’t expect your keyboard-only users to be using such a tool, because… it doesn’t actually work so well.
Who needs keyboard accessibility?
When most people (including me!) think of keyboard accessibility, the main demographic that they’ll think of is those who are blind or otherwise vision impaired. It’s true; these people are a large percentage of the people who need keyboard accessibility, but they are hardly the only ones.
Another group is the elderly. They’re often overlooked when it comes to web design. This isn’t confined to keyboard accessibility, but stretches into other things as well — such as small text and bad color contrast.
People will also have physical constraints that won’t allow for what people would often consider to be perfectly normal — such as hovering over an image, or clicking a small target, or even just being able to press down on the mouse hard enough to click. Having keyboard accessibility in this case is essential. Being able to tab to a target rather than have to figure out how to click a small target (or any target, really) for whatever reason — eyesight, motor skills — makes things easier for everyone.
A Changed Outlook
So how has this experience affected me?
It’s changed how I look at things in several different ways. I learned a ton about various types of accessibility, not only keyboard-only — for instance, about High Contrast mode, or screen readers. I’ve learned how to do accessibility testing for different types of accessibility — a skill I plan to put into practice to give feedback to different sites and help them make themselves more accessible.
One of the things I do just automatically now is to tab through the whole page, and check that it’s accessible. It was a way of checking if I could use the page when I was without a mouse. It’s not necessary for me anymore, but it’s a habit I’ve developed. This means that I get to see the level of keyboard accessibility that the page has. I’ve gotten a glimpse into just how much work there is to do into making sure that the internet is accessible. The vast majority of people have never even heard of keyboard-only accessibility, let alone plan for it. There’s a lot of education to do.
It’s really been an eye-opening experience for me, seeing just how difficult it can be to do something as simple as checking an email when you have a disability; and I see how easy it would be to make things so much easier. If the people creating websites would make a bit more effort to just make sure that, for instance, everything is reachable with the [tab] key, the web could be a much easier place for differently-abled people.
What can I do to help?
If you own a website, then the first thing to do is to make your own site accessible. If you want to make sure that your site is accessible, then the first thing to do is to make sure that everything — everything — can be accessed by pressing the [tab] key. Every link or button. If anything can’t be accessed… fix that. Adding keyboard shortcuts would be a great thing to do, and having something that indicates they exist if someone is using [tab] to get around your site would be awesome. Make sure that everything has a visual indicator when the tab focus lands on it, such as a border. While a large number of keyboard-only users are blind or vision impaired, a lot aren’t and still need a visual indicator for where their focus is. If you can’t see that something has a focus, it’s almost as bad as not being able to move the focus there in the first place.
And, most importantly: Have an accessibility tester. Get a professional to take a look at your site, and have them test for all types of accessibility. They’ll probably find stuff that you never would have thought of.
To help in other ways, you can help spread awareness. Report accessibility problems to sites with bad accessibility. Check out the links at the bottom, such as the a11y project. Get involved. Add your voice. Most people are completely oblivious and are clueless about anything related to accessibility. Help educate people.
I’d encourage you try this experiment for yourself. Unplug your mouse for an hour, a day, a week. See for yourself just how difficult it can be. For other types of accessibility experience, try disabling images, or shutting your monitor and using a screen reader. I promise you, you’ll come out with a fresh perspective.
I’ve now mostly recovered use of my mouse. If I turn the trackpad on and off again every time I boot up the laptop, I can tap to click. It’s not the perfect setup, but I can live with it.
I’m by no means an expert on this stuff now. I’m just a teenager who happened to get a lot more experience with keyboard accessibility than they ever expected. I have a lot to learn about this stuff still. There’s a lot for me to learn about other types of accessibility, and even about keyboard-only accessibility.
I probably wouldn’t have made it through this as well as I did if I hadn’t had access to my phone, through which I could do many of the things I found impossible without the mouse. This really isn’t ideal; mobile often isn’t the most accessible thing either (understatement alert), and the fact that I had to resort to using it should say something about the current state of the web when it comes to accessibility.
I don’t fault anyone for not knowing about this stuff. It’s hardly what most people are thinking about. But with some effort, and education… we can start making a difference, and start making the web a more accessible place for all.
If you want to read some more on this topic, check out these links: