By using the correct semantic HTML elements you may be able to meet most or all
of your keyboard access needs. That means less time fiddling with
and more happy users!
Keyboard support for free (and better mobile experiences)
There are a number of built-in interactive elements with proper semantics and keyboard support. The ones most developers use are:
In addition, elements with the
attribute are sometimes used for freeform text entry.
It's easy to overlook the built-in keyboard support that these elements offer.
Below are some example elements to explore. Instead of using your
mouse, try using your keyboard to operate them. You can use
SHIFT + TAB) to move between controls, and you can use the arrow keys and keys like
SPACE to manipulate their values.
If you have a phone handy, you can see that many times these built-in elements have unique interactions on mobile. Attempting to reproduce these mobile interactions yourself is a lot of work! It's another good reason to stick to built-in elements whenever possible.
button instead of
A common accessibility anti-pattern is to treat a non-interactive element, like
div or a
span, as a button by adding a click handler to it.
But to be considered accessible, a button should:
- Be focusable via the keyboard
- Support being disabled
- Support the
SPACEkeys to perform an action
- Be announced properly by a screen reader
div button has none of these things. That means you'll need to write
additional code to replicate what the
button element gives you for free!
button elements have a neat trick called synthetic click
activation. If you add a "click" handler to a
button, it will run when the
div button doesn't have this feature, so
you'll need to write additional code to listen for the
keydown event, check
that the keycode is
SPACE, and then run your click handler. Ouch!
That's a lot of extra work!
Compare the difference in this example.
TAB to either control, and use
SPACE to attempt to click on them.
If you have
div buttons in your existing site or application, consider
swapping them out for
button is easy to style and full of
Links versus buttons
<a href="#" onclick="// perform some action">
Both buttons and links support some form of synthetic click activation. So which should you choose?
- If clicking on the element will perform an action on the page, use
- If clicking on the element will navigate the user to a new page then use
<a>. This includes single page web apps that load new content and update the URL using the History API.
The reason for this is that buttons and links are announced differently by screen readers. Using the correct element helps screen reader users know which outcome to expect.
Some built-in elements, in particular
<input>, can be difficult to style.
With a bit of clever CSS you may be able to work around some of these
limitations. The (hilariously named) WTFForms project
contains an example
that demonstrates a number of techniques for styling some of the tougher
Using built-in HTML elements can greatly improve the accessibility of your site, and significantly cut down on your workload. Try tabbing through your site and look for any controls which lack keyboard support. If possible, switch them out for native HTML alternatives.
Sometimes you may find an element that doesn't have a counterpart in HTML.
That's okay! Read on to learn how to add keyboard support to custom interactive
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