Do standard users use Alt key shortcuts for controls such as buttons anymore?

eg. an OK button could have a shortcut of Alt-K which would be the same as pressing it.

Any control on a form or window could have a shortcut key. In the old days of VB6 you would simply put a & before the letter you wanted to be the shortcut key in the Text field for the control, and it would underline that letter so the user would know which letter is the Alt shortcut key.

But does anyone actually use these kind of keyboard shortcuts anymore? Aren't they just a hangover from pre-mouse days?

Should I bother to support Alt shortcut keys when designing GUI for a modern app?

  • Alt + E (End Task) in the Windows Task Manager is a good way of regaining control of the machine when the mouse has frozen.
    – PhillipW
    Aug 9, 2012 at 16:24
  • 2
    Minor nit-pick: OK is actually a special case, and per guidelines, does't have a letter shortcut. Instead, it's set as the default push-button for the dialog, so is activated if you hit Enter when focus is on something that's not another button. Cancel is also a special case, with a shortcut of escape. (This is mentioned here, though that's not the original source doc.)
    – BrendanMcK
    Aug 17, 2012 at 8:53

6 Answers 6


Yes, absolutely they are used. Not only are they useful for 'standard' users, they are a beneficial accessibility enhancement.

Taken from WebAim:

Keyboard shortcuts can be useful to all computer users because they often allow for faster interaction than allowed by mouse clicks. Power users of all abilities frequently use keyboard shortcuts. Among people with disabilities, people who are blind or who have motor disabilities also make frequent use of keyboard shortcuts.

Don't forget that people with disabilities are still standard users too.

While keyboard shortcuts are not a requirement by WCAG requirement for accessibility, they are recommended.

Although not required for conformance, the following additional techniques should be considered in order to make content more accessible.

  • Providing keyboard shortcuts to important links and form controls

You're not going to lose users by including shortcut keys, but you may very well do so by leaving them out.

  • 3
    They're also very important for power users, which shouldn't be ignored for many apps. Take alt keys away from programmers and designers (anyone using any complex software) and there will be blood in the streets
    – Ben Brocka
    Aug 9, 2012 at 15:23
  • @BenBrocka Yeah exactly. At one point a few years back I considered getting a touchscreen laptop with a reversible screen so I could use Photoshop with touch. That was until I watched myself actually using Photoshop and realised just how much I use the keyboard while using it.
    – JonW
    Aug 9, 2012 at 15:35

Keyboard shortcuts can make navigating a website/app much quicker. If it's a B2B web app designed to replace an old green screen interface then good keyboard support can be a key requirement and a good selling point.

Making keyboard shortcuts discoverable and learnable is just as important as adding them in the first place.

Some apps list the shortcuts in a modal overlay, for example, the overlays in gmail, jira etc. when you press ? / (shift+/), but I think that showing tool tips next to the anchor/buttons with shortcuts when the user presses Alt (or whatever the modifier key for shortcuts is in their browser) makes them discoverable and easier to learn because it shows the shortcut key in the context it will be used. Displaying tooltips when the user presses Tab is possibly better as the user will be tabbing between form inputs to navigate the interface and will more open to learning shortcuts. One app where I have seen this done well is Asana. It underlines accesskeys in labels and placeholders when the user holds down Tab. (The placeholder underlining means asana uses custom placeholders and not the built in browser placeholders.)

Tooltips are how the Microsoft office ribbon shows keyboard shortcuts:

enter image description here.

The KeyTips jQuery plugin can be used to add these. See the demo

  • 1
    The tooltips approach works great for sighted users, but a modal listing all keys one after the other may be more convenient for screenreader users to browse - and can also list commands that might not have explicit UI. Have them both, and you have win-win.
    – BrendanMcK
    Aug 17, 2012 at 9:04
  • 1
    @BrendanMcK, true. I didn't mean to imply that there shouldn't be a list of all keyboard shortcuts, or that it should be removed; just that it was likely to be overlooked by most users and there were ways to make the fact that there are shortcuts discoverable by most users. Ideally there shouldn't be shortcuts without visible UI.
    – Sam Hasler
    Aug 20, 2012 at 10:17

Note that one of the Shneiderman's Eight Golden Rules of Interface Design is Enable frequent users to use shortcuts:

As the frequency of use increases, so do the user's desires to reduce the number of interactions and to increase the pace of interaction. Abbreviations, function keys, hidden commands, and macro facilities are very helpful to an expert user.

Never ignore power users. There's a big trend to keep stuff simple and weed out unnecessary buttons; that's great. Making all actions discoverable and workable without keyboard shortcuts? Cool.

But the problem is keyboard shortcuts are free efficiency. Efficiency is one of the most important parts of Human Computer Interaction; it's allowing users to complete their tasks as quickly and as accurately as possible.

Keyboard shortcuts don't clutter interfaces. There's pretty much no risk in including them because of this. Sure they aren't as discoverable (See Sam Hasler's answer for a helpful way to combat that), but that almost works to your advantage. "Invisible" keyboard shortcuts allow you to give power users all the efficiency you can while keeping the visible interface uncluttered and discoverable for non-power users.

This is of course in addition to the matter of Accessibility mentioned in other answers; keyboard shortcuts can often be much easier than attempting to select features via the "mouse" if controlling via keyboard only. If you've ever tried to tab through a form on a website, then try to get back to the Address bar, you'll note it's pretty painful. Iterating through all items on page is pretty unacceptable; instead keyboard shortcuts can allow immediate access to common features, like Alt F4 to close.


One small caveat: For web pages instead of native GUI applications, Alt- shortcuts can interfere with screen readers for visually impaired users. Probably best to stay away from keyboard shortcuts on web pages.

  • This is not the case. Shortcut keys used by screen readers take priority over shortcut keys in the website. The worst that will happen is that the screen reader user will not be able to use certain shortcuts because the reader (such as JAWS) uses those keys instead. The screen reader won't be interfered with other than this.
    – JonW
    Aug 10, 2012 at 6:05
  • Use of @accesskeys has issues; but that's not the only way to get good keyboard accessibility: gmail has great keyboard support - hit ? to see the list of shortcuts. It works well in their case because the main gmail interface isn't a text-input area, so they can use non-modified keys - eg. c to compose - without having to worry about conflicting with browser hotkeys. As far as screenreader keys go, screenreaders typically have a method to "escape" the next keystroke so that it goes to the app rather than acting as a screenreader command.
    – BrendanMcK
    Aug 17, 2012 at 8:59

I would ask that all developers remember to accommodate at least simple keyboard controls like scrolling up/down, sideways and common functions. The mouse is difficult to use in some situations and is quite hard on your shoulder if you're tied to mouse centric applications for many hours daily. Even worse are apps or webpages that have you go back and forth from mouse to key incessantly. This may seem trivial, nonsensical even to today's developers, but its a position that I believe some of todays developers will come to understand first hand after a couple of decades of their own mousing.

I'm a 50 year old IT professional and have only in the past couple of years come to have ongoing tendonitis of my shoulder, primarily from overly mouse oriented applications. Were it not for my recent experience I would regard this very post as whiney and tell the old man to "deal with it." I want to qualify that I use a desk mouse to the right of a 10-key integrated keyboard. 10-key on a desktop keyboard is also detrimental to the shoulder. Laptop users have a much better scroll pad position, as it is in front of the body.

Work to think about the consumer's user experience. Try not to project your preferences upon others who may not be as fortunate. You have the power.


As you can see from the answers, the shortcuts are still widely used.
But please remember, that the shortcuts will be used if they are designed wisely, i.e.

  • they don't interfere with already known shortcuts (e.g. Alt+F4 for "window close" in general and perhaps some important add action in your app - users may get angry when they place their focus on some wrong place and instead of adding stuff they close something other window)
  • they are comfortable to use - the Alt+K given by you - have you tried it? Unless I'm planning to exercise I'd rather move my mouse and click OK than raise my complete arm to reach Alt+K combination - don't forget that Alt and AltGr are two different keys and you should not mix them with each other. And engaging both hands for a shortcut is not a shortcut - two clicks with a mouse are faster (especially that one's palm is already on the mouse)

If you are planning to give the user the possibility to traverse through the form fields simply make sure that the tab order property of the fields is logically sorted and the fields themselves are grouped by meaning. This way the users will simply walk through the form instead of randomly jumping the input fields. And remember - with tab key it's first OK than Cancel

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