Fast Form Access in Firefox

Album Cover: White Blood Cells

"Every breath that is in your lungs is a tiny little gift to me."
White Stripes / Dead Leaves and the Dirty Ground

Posted on February 11, 2006 2:13 PM in Browsers
Warning: This blog entry was written two or more years ago. Therefore, it may contain broken links, out-dated or misleading content, or information that is just plain wrong. Please read on with caution.

I don't think I've seen this tip anywhere before, but it's one that I think could potentially save you some time. One of the unfortunate things about web pages that contain forms is that they often do not give keyboard focus to the first form element when you first access the page.

I could be sneaky and refer to sites like MozillaZine Forums (which might benefit from starting users off with keyboard focus in the Search field) or del.icio.us (which might benefit from the same approach), but I only need to travel as far as my Archives by Luck page to find a culprit of this oversight.

As you'll notice, that particular page's main purpose is to search my archives. Because someone who has come to that page has likely come there to search (or because they don't know what the heck 'archives by luck' actually means), ideally keyboard focus should start out in the search box.

Because that is not the case, someone who does not wish to use their mouse is forced to tab to the form field before they can start typing. At the time of writing, it takes a total of 17 Tabs to get focus in that form field. If I try to be smart and come in through the back, it takes a total of 9 Shift-Tab combos to get focus. This isn't good design.

So here's where the tip comes in. It's what I call fast form access in Firefox. Instead of hitting Tab over and over to get where you want, identify a piece of text just before the form element, begin typing it, and then hit Tab only once. Voila! You've got form focus and have saved several keystrokes in the process.

To use my Archives by Luck page as an example, it only takes 2 keystrokes to get focus in the form field (a colon followed by Tab). In the case of the MozillaZine Forums it takes 3 keystrokes (a close-parenthesis followed by a colon and a Tab) and for del.icio.us it takes 3 as well (u followed by t followed by a Tab). Though, admittedly, the del.icio.us method isn't quite as intuitive as the others (I tried "items" first, for instance).

If you've tried the methods I've described here, you've seen how Firefox's find-as-you-type feature can be utilized for more than just finding text on a page. Theoretically this technique could be applied on any other browser that allows you to do find-as-you-type, but I've only tested it in Firefox.

Ideally, sites you visit that need to emphasize search (like Google) or logging in (like Gmail) will automatically give keyboard focus to the main form element. However, this isn't always the case. Knowing about fast form access can (and hopefully will) save you some time.

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