I mentioned in mid-March that we had been putting a lot of thought and effort into improving the Office 2007 keyboard access model for Beta 2. Getting keyboarding for the new UI model right is a necessity--not only for accessibility but also for efficiency. As a result, we've continued to tweak and redesign and tweak some more based on all of the feedback we've received.

Today, I'm finally ready to reveal the improved keyboard model you'll find in Beta 2.

There are four ways to access features using the keyboard in Office 2007: shortcuts, menu accelerators, KeyTips, and navigation.

Keyboard Shortcuts

Keyboard shortcuts are dedicated keystrokes you can use to access specific features, such as CTRL+B for Bold, CTRL+X for Cut, and CTRL+P for Print.

Every one of the Office 2003 keyboard shortcuts continues to work the same in Office 2007; there's no relearning necessary.

We've also used the data from the Customer Experience Improvement Program to track down the most frequently-used features without good keyboard shortcuts so that we could add them. For instance, you'll find CTRL+ALT+V added for Paste Special.

Menu Accelerators

"Menu accelerators" refer to the way that you can use the keyboard to kind of "navigate" the top-level menus in old-UI programs. For example, you can type ALT+O+H+R to navigate Format - Sheet - Rename to access the Format Sheet dialog box in Excel 2003.

Starting in Beta 2, you will be able to use all of the menu accelerators just like you were running Office 2003. If you have ALT+I+R memorized in Excel (Insert - Row, in case you were wondering) you can type it and it will magically work. No need to activate any sort of legacy keyboard mode or anything like that--your menu accelerators just work.

We've designed this part of the feature for people who have these keystrokes memorized ("in the fingers" as they say), so there's no UI to explore the old menu structure. In other words, this isn't the way to discover new ways of doing things with the keyboard.

But, when you do start to enter an Office 2003 menu accelerator, we pop up a small window over the Ribbon to show what keys you've pressed and that you're entering an Office 2003 menu accelerator.


Using Office 2003 menu accelerators

KeyTips

KeyTips are the new way to access commands with the keyboard. I describe KeyTips in great detail in my original keyboard article from last year.

In short, every single command in the Ribbon receives a letter which you can press to activate that command. Unlike in the menus-and-toolbars system, every feature in the Ribbon is efficiently keyboard accessible.

The letters are indicated by small "KeyTips" which indicate the letter to press to activate the control. KeyTips are displayed using the Alt key, so using them feels similar to how menu navigation works in Windows.


KeyTips in the PowerPoint Slide Show tab

The feedback we got from Beta 1 on the KeyTips was loud and clear: good idea, but the KeyTips key sequences are too long and inefficient compared to the old menu accelerators.

So, we went back to the drawing board and looked at how we could shorten KeyTip sequences to be as short as possible. We removed an extra keystroke everywhere by no longer requiring you to type the KeyTip for the group a control is in. And, we did away with most of the two-letter KeyTips by adding numbers as potential KeyTips for very dense Ribbon tabs.

The result? We ran an analysis of every single command in Office 2003 and Office 2007--and the average "keystroke length" to access a command has gone down considerably. And for frequently-used commands in Office 2007, most are accessible with Alt + two keystrokes, just like the top-level menu commands in Office 2003.

We also added one-letter KeyTips for commands in the customizable Quick Access Toolbar: Alt+1 for the first command through Alt+9 for the ninth command (after that, it's double digits.) This lets you have hyper-efficient keyboard shortcuts to your favorite features.


KeyTips in the customized Quick Access Toolbar

So we hope that KeyTips are now worthy of even the most keyboard-obsessed Office user. And, because every single command can be accessed with an efficient set of keystrokes, the result is a much more accessible product.

Navigation

The final way to use the keyboard to access features is not really about efficiency, but about accessibility and discoverability.

You can use the arrow keys and Tab to navigate the Ribbon, letting the accessibility aid (such as a screen reader) identify the controls you have selected. Because the Ribbon uses dialog box-like navigation, it provides enhanced accessibility compared to the old toolbars.

Summary

It's been a very long road, but thanks to everyone's feedback, we finally feel like we have a keyboard model to be proud of. There's no more "legacy" keyboard mode, and the design of KeyTips has been much improved.

In short:

  • Every keystroke from prior versions continues to work out-of-the-box: no special mode required.
  • KeyTips provide a more efficient and complete keyboard model than prior Office user interfaces.
  • KeyTips + navigation provides a great accessibility experience.

Note that there are still a few issues we're still looking into for post-Beta 2, such as making sure you can use KeyTips while keeping the Ribbon collapsed.

But we feel like Beta 2 represents a huge step forward for the keyboard model of the new Office UI.