This article is an introduction to types of inputs beyond a computer mouse. Most of us are very used to using a computer mouse or touchpad to browse and navigate web pages, but there are other input methods used to do the same task. As a website owner or maintainer, it is important to learn about these input methods.
Keyboard only navigation
From the time that the web first became popular up until touchscreen smartphones broke through, most people used a traditional computer mouse to move their cursor around their screen, click on links, and scroll up and down web pages.
Once upon a time the scroll wheel between the two mouse buttons was not even a common feature. Prior to this, it was common to use the mouse cursor to click buttons on the scroll bar on the side of the browser window to jump down the page or click and drag the scroll puck up and down the scroll bar to navigate up and down the page. As you might imagine, it actually quite a dramatic increase in convenience just by adding this scroll wheel. This just goes to show how much things can change over time when it comes to interacting with our computers.
Though it may surprise you, there are still many people today who use primarily keyboard input to browse web pages, even if they are a small minority of website visitors.
There are a variety of reasons that somebody may stick with keyboard navigation. Perhaps they are not physically able to use a traditional computer mouse. Perhaps they are an advanced computer user and find that reaching and taking a hand off the keyboard to use the mouse is inefficient (yes, really!).
Or perhaps, for accessibility reasons, they are even using a software system that emulates keyboard use without using a physical keyboard. I myself have frequently made use of such a system since late last year, which is something I will talk about more in future blog posts.
So, how does keyboard navigation actually work?
Prior to 2007, when the world was introduced to the modern mobile device paradigm with the iPhone, touchscreen devices were generally niche and finicky.
Since that time, smartphones have exploded in popularity. For the first time, touch input has become extremely common. Our analytics for the utility websites we manage show that mobile phones usually account for more than half of all website visits, and we expect this to continue increasing.
When browsing web pages with a mobile phone, generally all input is done with your fingers on the touchscreen. Swiping up and down on the screen with a finger generally scrolls the web page, tapping on elements of the web page with a finger activates them, and tapping on input fields brings up the onscreen keyboard, which is also used with fingers.
Browsing web pages on a smartphone allows a more immediate interaction with the web page, avoiding the intermediate layer of using a computer mouse to drive a cursor around a separate screen.
Although this may not be immediately obvious, it turns out that fingers are actually a less fine grained pointing device when it comes to selecting items on a touchscreen. A mouse cursor on screen is really quite small in most cases — in comparison your finger much larger. Your finger also covers up the portion of the screen that you are touching, temporarily obscuring content on screen. This is one of the reasons why buttons and other items on web pages need to be larger than they used to be, to make sure that it is easy for website visitors to touch the right element on screen. When elements are too small and too close together, it becomes very frustrating as you try to touch the right item and instead activate the wrong one.
People who have limited or no use of their hands often turn to voice input with their computers and mobile devices. This includes web browsing.
Using specialized software, they may emulate keyboard presses or mouse clicks and movement using voice commands. Or they may use entirely different modes of web browsing, such as software that overlays a number or letters over each link on the web page, allowing them to easily activate the link by voice.
I myself use such software due to repetitive strain injury in my arms and hands, frequently browsing web pages entirely with voice commands. I plan to talk more about this in future posts to this blog.
Screen reading software used by visually impaired website visitors
Visually impaired website visitors typically use specialized software typically referred to as “screen readers”. This is a fairly accurate name in that the software processes text and buttons on screen, describing them using a software voice to the person using the screen reader and allowing them to take action using voice commands or physical buttons (including keyboard buttons).
These website visitors must rely on the software to explain to them the layout and content of the page. It may not even be possible for them to use the other input methods described earlier to interact with the page. Web page content is typically read out by the screen reading software in a linear way, but it is possible to jump through links on the page or headings on the page, which is why it is so important to use descriptive link text and to use headings properly to break up long passages of text.
Content from your website may be accessed in other ways that you do not expect
Sometimes people may not even visit your web page directly but are reading or listening to content from your website. Examples of this are:
- Google search result snippets
- Smart assistant requests, such as Siri or Google Assistant
These mechanisms harvest content from your website to answer questions that people pose to the search engine or voice assistant and directly present snippets of that content to them. Realize that these visitors may not actually be visiting your website directly at all.
Why this makes website accessibility and content important
- Visitors who are using alternate input methods may not be able to use website navigation mechanisms that rely on clicking a mouse button or on hovering the mouse cursor over a certain area, like a drop down menu
- Content can actually be an important part of accessibility as well. It’s best to get to the point as quickly as possible, providing key information at the top of any section of content. If you would like to provide further details and explain background, you can do so underneath the key details presented at the beginning. This way people who do not need the additional information can complete their task as quickly as possible and users for whom navigating websites is more difficult do not need to expend the effort of sorting through unnecessary information to find the key information.
- It also makes sense to think about this when designing or updating the information architecture of your website. Forcing website visitors to wade through unnecessary information or too many levels of hierarchy to get to what they need is frustrating for anybody. This goes double for website visitors who may not be using traditional input methods.