Navigating the internet using only the keyboard


7 min read

There's a really interesting article on Smashing Magazine that's over 4 years old now, where someone used the web for a day using only the keyboard. I fancied the idea of trying something similar. I can't face using only the keyboard for a whole day, so instead I have set myself tasks that I will try and do using only the keyboard.

To stop me from trying to use a mouse/touchpad I have no mouse plugged in and used the function key to turn the touchpad off.

Task 1: Gmail

Find a starred email in Gmail, go to the link within it, read the article in the link, then unstar the email and return to the inbox

Gmail is good for keyboard shortcuts: I use a lot of them already. Some will be useful in this task but there's a lot I don't know.

I started by pressing ? in the hopes that would give me a list of keyboard shortcuts and it did! Scrolling down that I found the one that would take me to my starred emails. From there I already knew the keyboard shortcut to go through emails (j to go down, k to go up) so I easily found the email I wanted, then Enter opened it.

I started by scrolling through the email and then realised that although that showed me where the link was, it didn't help me click on it. Pressing tab took me through a lot of links above the email before I eventually got to the email. I thought there must be a simpler way of doing this, but the shortcuts help gave me no clues.

The link it took me to was on Smashing Magazine, which had a cookie pop-up. It is in the bottom right corner of the screen, but it does cut off the text at the right a bit. I couldn't work out how to get rid of that. I ended up scrolling a bit so I could read everything.

I usually scroll using page down or spacebar, so reading the article was no different to me.

Back in Gmail, I already knew how to unstar emails, but then I had to refer to the keyboard shortcuts help to get back to the inbox. Going between the inbox and starred emails is something I've been wanting to do using the keyboard, but never got round to looking up how to do. Now I know, it's something I'll be able to use more often.

In conclusion, that was relatively painless.

Task 2: YouTube

Find my watch later list, watch a video on it that's not last on the list, look at the comments, then remove it from the watch later list

YouTube is another website I know some keyboard shortcuts on. Well, one - how to make the video full screen. I purposely said the video I choose mustn't be the last on the list because YouTube likes to autoplay the watch list whether you want it to or not, so I will have to be quick to pause it at the end so I can read the comments.

The first thing I did when I opened the website was to press ?. It gave me a list of keyboard shortcuts, but none of them would get me to the watch list. The list is in a pop-up with a scroll bar, but when I scroll using the keyboard, it scrolls the page behind it. So if there is a shortcut I want, I can't find it.

I started by pressing tab, it gave me an option to skip navigation, which I took. It then took me through all of the grey boxes you can use to filter the videos it shows on the home page. And then through the videos. Which is not what I wanted. A lot of shift-tabs later I got lost and ended up refreshing the page. This time a lot of tabs got me to the watch later link on the left.

I watched the video, made it full screen - and then failed to stop it before it went to the next one. Fortunately, the keyboard shortcuts help gave me the shortcut to get back to the previous video. This time I paused it at the start and scrolled down to the comments. And then realised I couldn't read replies or Read more links.

A lot more tabbing got me to those. But weirdly, the Read more/Read less links have no focus state. I guessed I was there on the basis that the focus state disappeared, and I was right, but I did worry a bit about what I could be doing by pressing Enter.

I just used the browser's back button (Alt+left arrow) - which I then realised I could have done to get back to the previous video! Some more tabbing got me to the three dots beside the video, and pressing Enter on that gave me an option to remove the video from my Watch later. Which it did.

So that was also relatively painless.

Task 3: BBC iPlayer

Go to the BBC iPlayer, search for Click and play the most recent episode.

I wanted to do something outside of the really big websites. And on this one I don't know any keyboard shortcuts, which will make it harder. The latest episode of Click is in my Continue Watching list, but I wanted to make it harder.

I tried the ? here, in case there were shortcuts but there weren't. Interestingly though, the option after skip to content is Accessibility Help. But that took me to a page of links about accessibility on the BBC.

I ended up tabbing across all the links to get to the search. Although it looks like a search box, typing in it once it was focussed did nothing. In the end I tried pressing Enter and then it dropped down a search box.

I typed Click, the first result was the one I wanted, so I pressed Enter, hoping it would take me to the first result, but it's actually taken me to all the search results. But then the first one here is also the one I want.

Skipping to content didn't get me quite as far as I thought I would, so the first result took quite a bit of tabbing. There was another accessibility help link, this time for the iPlayer specifically. But that page was just about subtitles and audio description. Some more tabbing and the episode played.

But then I wanted to pause it so I could write that last bit up. But the focus was below the video. And the video itself has a lot of controls that can be focused. Which were in what felt like a random order. A load of Shift+Tab and Tab eventually got me to the pause button, but I couldn't tell you how exactly I did it, or be sure I can reproduce it.

I also wanted to turn the volume up. The control is on the left. The pause button button is in the middle. To get from pause to the volume control I had to tab through the rest of the controls in the middle and on the right and then I reached the volume control. Which probably explains why I was so confused earlier. At least as I went through I then knew how to get to the full screen control.

If you just wanted to play a small video and not touch any controls it would be a pass. I suppose it still passes, but only just.


I was expecting Gmail to be pretty easy, and thought YouTube would be too, since they are big sites and I already knew they had some keyboard shortcuts. I thought the iPlayer would be, since the BBC has to comply with accessibility laws. And I suppose it is, it's just harder than I thought it would be.

You might think that I've made my life easy by only testing big websites that I know will be accessible in some form. But that's because occasionally on random websites I like to press tab a bit and see if I can tell where I am. 99 times out of 100, I don't. And I couldn't face putting myself through that. Which just goes to show accessibility still has a long way to go.