I'm designing a business application.

When the user enters the main data entity in the application part of the form is tabular. Since some of the users will have an intensive usage of this application, I want to make sure that keyboard navigation is possible. I think that using arrow keys to navigate up/down is standard, but how do I combine thes with using the arrowkeys in the drop downs as well?

To be specific: When a cell in the table gains focus, it should be immediately editable. For cells that contains a drop down this means that arrow down should expand the dropdown and set focus on the next first/next entry in the klassification.

So what key(s) should I use to navigate the lines of the table, or should I settle on only using the TAB key/ SHIFT+ TAB to let the user move forward/backwards, and not supporting moving directly up/down

3 Answers 3


I think it will be frustrating to the user if you leave out the possiblity to "navigate" with the arrow buttons.

How about the following:

  • You use arrow keys (left, right, up, down) as a means to navigate
  • TAB and SHIFT+TAB are identical to right and left
  • When you focus a cell that has a drop down box on it, you open the drop down by pressing ENTER or SPACE. You can then use the up/down arrows to navigate (change the selection) within the drop down box. Pressing ENTER or SPACE again, sets the drop down's selection and closes it. After this, the arrow buttons are used again to navigate to another cell.


  • It does require some extra keystrokes from the user in case of drop down boxes.


  • The up/down/left/right buttons have a consequent behaviour.
  • User is not forced to use a double keystroke (SHIFT+TAB) to navigate. (user can operate with right hand only)
  • User can navigate up and down.
  • Thanks, Bart. I think you are right to focus on the consistency of the arrow keys. Having to pres SPACE or ENTER to open the drop down is parallel to them having to press the mousebutton when using the control with a mouse, and as such I don't think it will get in the way of the users
    – katDNA
    Nov 8, 2011 at 10:14

Navigate using arrow keys

  • If there is a dropdown in a cell, it will automatically have focus. Up/Down to navigate into the dropdown.
  • To get out of the focus and navigate again in the cells, press esc.
  • So what does a user need to do if he wants to navigate down a column with 10 drop down boxes? DOWN, ESC, DOWN, ESC, DOWN, ESC, DOWN, ESC, DOWN, ESC, DOWN, ESC, DOWN, ESC, DOWN, ESC, DOWN, ESC, DOWN, ESC. Nov 8, 2011 at 9:17
  • I reckon it depends on the number of cells which have dropdowns.
    – Marc D
    Nov 8, 2011 at 9:51

Drop down boxes in tables get the interaction focus with the SPACE key and will be opened by pressing the ARROW DOWN key subsequently. In some desktop applications drop down boxes get the interaction focus also with ALT+ARROW DOWN.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.