On a web page/application, the 'special' keys – Tab, Space, Esc etc. – can perform generic keyboard interactions. They move the focus to the next or previous element, or they open or close something, or they start or stop a process. Sometimes, their functions can be reversed or altered by holding down the Shift, Ctrl, or Alt keys simultaneously. A well designed keyboard interaction should behave in a way that a user would intuitively expect it to.
Keyboard shortcuts, on the other hand, simplify a specific interaction. They tend to be letter keys, often in combination with Shift, Ctrl, or Alt. There are two types:
- action shortcuts do things like: save, spell check, or favourite
- whereas navigation shortcuts jump between different regions, like jumping from comment to comment without having to tab through the elements of each one.
Both types reduce the time and key strokes required to perform an interaction.
Users who cannot see the position of the cursor on the screen, or who do not possess fine motor skills in their hands, often rely on the keyboard. However, keyboard interaction can be useful for other types of user as well. Advanced users sometimes choose to interact with a web page/application via the keyboard because the interaction is faster. Here, for example, are the keyboard shortcuts for Gmail users. Some of the shortcuts can be used immediately, for others you will need to enable the keyboard shortcuts setting first:
- in Gmail, click the gear in the top right and select Settings
- find the Keyboard shortcuts section and select Keyboard shortcuts on
- click Save Changes at the bottom of the page.