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Using the keyboard to navigate on macOS

Posted in Accessibility

I’ve just been setting up a new Mac and there’s a setting I turn on every time but can never quite remember how to find. So this post serves to remind me in the future, and will hopefully show you something useful that you didn’t know was there.

I find using the keyboard, or a combination of mouse (or trackpad) and keyboard, to get around my operating system and apps is much quicker and more efficient than a mouse alone. It’s also a good way to build empathy with people who, due to motor or visual impairment, are unable to use a mouse/trackpad/stylus or identify a pointer on a screen: folk who have no choice but to use their keyboard to get around.

By default, keyboard navigation on macOS is a bit limited, but luckily there’s a way to make all controls in pop-up dialogs and Preferences windows focusable with the keyboard tab key (). The controls you’ll have access to with the keyboard will then be:

  • Text input boxes (including search boxes)
  • Dropdown menus
  • Range sliders (for things like adjusting trackpad speed)
  • Radio buttons
  • Checkboxes
  • Number increase/decrease steppers
  • Tab bar buttons
  • Icon-style buttons (found in System Preferences and across the top of many apps’ Preferences window)
  • Text-only buttons (for example ‘Cancel’ in dialogs, or the help question mark icon in many apps’ Preferences)
  • Fully coloured buttons (like ‘Save’ in document save dialogs)

The way you interact with each of these elements once it has focus is worth taking some time to get used to:

  • Simply type in a text or search box
  • The up () and down () arrows (or space bar) activate a dropdown menu and cycle through the options; space or return () select an option
  • Left () and right () move range sliders
  • / and / move the selected option in a radio group
  • The space bar toggles a checkbox on or off
  • and increase/decrease the number in a stepper
  • and cycle between tabs
  • The space bar presses a button (whether icon-style or text-only)
  • The key submits a form via its main full-colour button, regardless of what element currently has focus

How to enable keyboard access

To turn on full keyboard navigation on macOS, go to:

  1. System Preferences
  2. Keyboard
  3. Shortcuts
  4. “Use keyboard navigation to move focus between controls” checkbox

The extra text on the checkbox label is useful too:

Press the Tab key to move focus forward and Shift Tab to move focus backward.

A quick tip

There’s something very useful when a pop-up dialog has only two options, for example ‘Cancel’ and ‘Save’.

‘Cancel’ will have a highlighted outline, meaning it currently has focus, so hitting space will cancel the action you were about to take. Hitting , on the other hand, will activate the submit button, which in this example will trigger a Save.

So you can often hit space or to quickly move past a dialog.

Accessibility in your inbox

I send an accessibility-centric newsletter on the last day of every month, containing:

  • A roundup of the articles I’ve posted
  • A hot pick from my archives
  • Some interesting posts from around the web

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More posts

Here are a couple more posts for you to enjoy. If that’s not enough, have a look at the full list.

  1. How to use the keyboard to navigate on Safari

    A great way to start accessibility testing is to navigate with the keyboard. Safari is limited by default, so here’s how get it working properly.

  2. Images as the first thing in a button or link

    If the text of an interactive element like a button or link is preceded with an accessible image, we’ve probably got an accessibility problem.