Remember Thine Tab Stops

I like to pretend I’m an old-school computer user, steeped in the command line world of old operating systems and the dark screen and keyboard unfettered by the need to use a mouse. I know all the operating system hot keys. I like the Tab key. I don’t like wasting the time to move my hand a couple inches to the left to inelegantly maneuver a collection of pixels on my screen so I can work. I know, with that much attempt at cred, you’d think I’d learn to touch type, but this article isn’t about my shortcomings. It’s about the shortcomings of interfaces that don’t allow you to interact with the application without the mouse.

Now, we’re not talking about playing Missile Command here. Most applications are about getting data into or out of the PC. Hence, some people like me like to use the keyboards. That’s why Tab stops are important. Tab stops represent the order in which the user can set focus to various and sundry controls on the screen using just the Tab key. If you’re building a desktop application, the development environment might put those in for you based on the order in which you add the controls. Developers can and should get in to the control properties to make sure that the Tab stops flow in a good, usable order so that late-breaking controls don’t make the cursor jump all over the screen.

Also, you should make sure to have Tab stops on all relevant controls, unlike this particular Flash-based sweepstakes entry form:

4 out of 7 is bad, actually
Click for full size

This particular form only has tab stops on four of the controls, the edit boxes; the user cannot reach the checkboxes or the button to submit the form.

Aside from my demanding usability concerns, Tab stops enable the disabled who cannot use a mouse to get through the site. Hence, using Tab stops makes your site slightly more accessible and helps keep the lawyers away. Some of them, anyway. Also note I am not an attorney and this does not represent legal advice; only an additional argument to try to get you to do things the way I want, the right way.

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