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Personally, for the sites I have worked on and used, I like to have the page load input focus of a page that is primarily a form have set to the first box, e.g. 'your name'.

I believe that the internet is 'all about speed' and I consider 'Contact Us' to be the second most important page on some websites, therefore I want to get it right. To me contact us forms that don't handle the pageload focus are inconsiderate and unfinished.

Earlier on another SE, after suggesting setting the input focus I get told that:

Modifying the normal behavior of a web page/browser is typically seen as a universal usability no-no. It's also big accessibility problem. If I were to load your form, my screen reader would start reading "Form, First Name". A user may want to read the title of the page. Or intro paragraph first. If they want to jump to the form, they can.

I now would like to know what is best practice and how to build my form so as to account for screen readers, e.g. some check in my script to set the focus only if a known browser is used.

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Really? I'm a troll and I 'barked' at you by pointing out a usability/accessibility issue? How about a bit of maturity here. –  DA01 Jun 24 '11 at 14:39
    
FWIW, this is an excellent question. Sadly, you pitched it as "OMG someone has an opinion that I don't agree with so I'm going to belittle that person by implying that they are a troll and are unable to seek meaningful employment". sigh –  DA01 Jun 24 '11 at 14:51
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@DA01 - Usability has long dictated that you focus the cursor on the first form element on a form page. If screen readers truly do drop to the focused element, it really isn't hard to tell it to go back to the top. –  Charles Boyung Jun 24 '11 at 14:55
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@DA01 - In a 10 field form, most users, depending on personal preference mind you, would most likely be hitting tab not clicking. By setting the focus initially, the mouse is eliminated altogether from the contact form, unless they want to click submit or send other than hitting enter. –  Matt Rockwell Jun 24 '11 at 15:42
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@DA01 - That's only the case if the first tab (when there isn't auto-focus) takes you to the form field. That would mean that the form field would have to be the second "focusable" element on the page. That is rarely the case in my experience. –  Charles Boyung Jun 24 '11 at 16:20
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4 Answers

up vote 1 down vote accepted

The benefits of auto-focusing on the 1st field outweigh the "disadvantages" that this may cause for screen readers. If you think about it, if a person with a screen reader clicks on (or navigates using) the contact link, they don't need the label or header of the contact page read to them, it would be redundant. Don't get me wrong, accessibility should always be a concern, but it does not provide the greatest good for the largest group of people to not focus of the first form field.

It is important though to not leave any users behind. Is this more work, perhaps, but isn't that what we do here? We take special care in crafting an excellent experience for people and in order to do that we may have to go the extra mile to make sure we don't leave anyone behind. So, when choosing to auto-focus a field, make sure that it will be clear to a user with accessibility issues what exactly they are doing, who they are submitting it to etc. Any accessibility issues that may arise could easily be squashed by making sure the information is still conveyed one way or another.

Update: Auto focusing would also provide a huge help to mobile devices by starting up the keyboard/entry area without having to tap the screen.

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Actually, accessibility is meant to provide the greatest good for the largest group of people. It's a lot more than just screen readers, for instance. It's really about making your web site more usable for more people across more devices. Admittedly in the grand scheme of things, auto-focusing on a form isn't necessarily a major issue. –  DA01 Jun 24 '11 at 15:46
    
Thank-you for the update regarding mobile devices. Too many tutorials online about simple forms overlook usability and go for pretty styling as what matters. This attitude also is present with my colleagues and with accessibility+mobile discussed here I can fully reason auto-focus and other usability matters that some can discard as of no requirement. –  ʍǝɥʇɐɯ Jun 26 '11 at 10:52
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Like most things, if automatically focusing on a specific field is done well the upside can be bigger than the downside of breaking a useful convention. Focusing on a username field, for example, can help the user understand what the page is about, it's purpose, etc., and make the form flow simpler. This is probably most true when the page is sparse enough to make the focus experience the obvious thing to do.

You can also make the focus experience more fluid by adding an animation to the focus event, so the user sees that the username field is being focused on rather than just dropping the cursor in the field.

The Tumblr login page, for example, is simple enough that focusing on the username field seems like the right thing to do.

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I would say yes, put the focus on the first input field. It's in the spirit of Jenifer Tidwell's notion of Good Defaults which help people getting started quicker.

I don't know much about screen reader technology, so I can't you tell whether the "yes" approach is appropriate when it comes to that.

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If a person doesn't want to care about usability or accessibility, that's fine. That does not make one that is concerned about that "yet another SE troll without a proper job to go to."

Not that it should matter, but this is my proper job. I get paid to care about usability and accessibility.

Now that that is out of the way, some information:

  • screen readers aren't necessarily a specific browser. Often, and increasingly so, it's software on the computer that is using a standard browser. So you can't 'detect' such a thing with any accuracy.
  • auto-focus should be treated as a way to lead people in a particular path. The intent of auto-focusing on your first form field is good, as you are trying to get people to the start of the form. But I'd suggest auto-focusing on the form's title, or instructions first.
  • Tabbing isn't really a difficult or slow way to focus through a page. Many people (both with disabilities and without) prefer to navigate pages with the keyboard...it's often much faster than the mouse. Auto-focusing gets in the way of that.

These are bits of information you should take and incorporate into your decision making process. The decision you make is going to depend on this, as well as the specific context of your form, the users you are targeting, and any number of other factors.

A couple of other opinions for consideration (not mine):

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we're now on a downvote war? Again, sigh. C'mon people, let's keep UX civil like it has been for so long. –  DA01 Jun 24 '11 at 15:31
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I take responsibility for a downvote for the purpose of civilly disagreeing with your answer, no hard feelings :) –  Matt Rockwell Jun 24 '11 at 15:47
    
Well, you did follow protocol with at least explaining the downvote. Thanks for that. ;o) (That said, downvotes are really meant for cleaning up irrelevant answers and questions...not necessarily for disagreements...especially in UX, there's a LOT of disagreement [which is good and introduces healthy discussions] but would quickly lead to a site full of negative voted answers if everyone downvoted every answer they didn't necessarily agree with ;o) ) –  DA01 Jun 24 '11 at 15:49
    
And definitely no hard-feelings. I'm not mad at Mathew as much as I am just disappointed to see that tone in a question pop up here in UX. For the most part, this has been a very civil group even with plenty of passionate discussions. It's something we should be collectively proud of and try to preserve. –  DA01 Jun 24 '11 at 15:56
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@DA01 - Negative voting makes perfect sense in those cases. If a lot of people disagree with someone's opinion, it should be downvoted a lot. That means that the opinion is likely not the commonly held opinion, and deserves to be at the bottom of the list. –  Charles Boyung Jun 28 '11 at 14:24
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