Has anyone designed a website where they have used the tab key on the keyboard as a primary method to navigate within the navigation of the website? I am doing a website where the client wants to rely a lot on usage of key "tab" on a keyboard rather than a mouse. Just don't have enough experience with this and was wondering if any of you could share your experience in a similar situation or any resources or online articles on it?

  • The only users I've ever seen to use tab to navigate anything are users in Excel. Only very web adept people even know to tab through forms. It lead us to never bother setting the tabindex attribute on our pages, no one was tabbing anyway. Not to say you should ignore tabbing, it can make filling in repeated forms much nicer; our users are very stable (employees) and we've had to assume they're just not going to use the feature. – Ben Brocka Nov 3 '11 at 12:43
  • Don't dismiss the huge amount of people who might mouse through a UI but still use the Tab key to fill forms. It's a common practice taught to people well outside of the sphere of 'IT' - with mental associations in users of old mainframe based systems and even Universities recommending the technique on their web sites, it's a far more common than you might think. Definitely an exception to the stereotype of "mouse-only-newbies", I will also rain down hellfire upon anyone who suggests tab key usage is irrelevant. When designing, tab order is CRITICAL to establish for logical navigation. – Chris Woods Mar 12 '13 at 21:06

Well, you shouldn't really be asking other designers - you should be asking your users. They might have very different expectations to web-adept IT professionals. That being said, I expect that you'll still get the same answer - 'no'. In usability tests, I can't recall seeing many users rely on keyboard navigation.

More to the point, tab keys have a particular meaning on the web: they change the focus on page elements. Anything that disrupts that paradigm is going to confuse people. Even if your users rely on other tools or services where the Tab key has a particular meaning, that doesn't mean they'll instinctively apply the same assumptions to your website.

Sometimes, people will suggest you can get around that with helptext. That won't work. Users do not read ancillary text on websites - they have other priorities.

Now, if your tab key's meaning doesn't disrupt convention (it just shifts focus on elements and fields in your pages), and if the user can still rely on their mouse, fine. But anything else sounds like a bad idea. If your client still insists, though, then conduct a usability test by all means.

  • Thanks for your time Jimmy. I probably should have mentioned that I already have spoken to my users and they do feel they want to use tab to control the flow. My user is not a IT admin/power user, however they are medical billing consultant and deal with 1000 of forms and 100's of tables a day. For them time is a very big factor when it comes to success of user experience. I disagree with most of your comment but it's not your fault as I didn't explain the context very well. I didn't mean to ask other designers to help me design, I believe in learning from their experience and improving.:) – varun86 Nov 3 '11 at 15:46
  • Just to give you a hint into the user data, age group of 18-25 don't like to use mouse. Mouse is technological device which will not last more than 10-15 years, so keys like tab will take prominence. Windows 8 developer version does a good job and proves the direction I mentioned. Thanks – varun86 Nov 3 '11 at 15:54
  • If you're dealing with tables, then yes, tabbing is appropriate, and a tab's action in a table is similar to that in a web form. Still, do make sure your UI clearly deploys the conventions of a spreadsheet and do still support mouse-led actions. That metric about young people not using mice sounds a bit dubious. – Jimmy Breck-McKye Nov 3 '11 at 16:26
  • Also: when I tell you to ask your users, I'm not telling you 'do your own work'. I'm telling you: real user research will grant you far more than asking a designer who doesn't know the context. – Jimmy Breck-McKye Nov 3 '11 at 16:27

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