Friday, April 27, 2012

Still Life With Robin: Key Insights

by Peggy Robin

I am currently engaged in a project that has given me an awesome sense of passage through a new portal into the universe...or at least that ethereal part
of the universe known as cyberspace. The new insight comes from the need to enter and move about that space without the use of a mouse or trackball. I have been exploring ways to make everything accessible entirely through keyboard
commands. It's given me a whole new tactile sense of how everything is connected.

The force behind this project is my 89-year-old mother, who has decided to learn to use email, despite a loss of fine motor skills with her hands, making it all but impossible for her to guide the mouse-pointer and click with any degree of accuracy. On top of that, her declining vision has made it difficult to see when she has clicked on something in error. I consulted various guides to accessibility and discovered there are many work-arounds available for those who can't use a mouse. For each and every mouse-click you can substitute simple keyboard commands. You can customize these to match the typing abilty of the user. Increasing the font on a large, high-contrast monitor substantially improves the user's ability to see what's what. So far, so good.

With every elimination of mouse-movement, however, I have found myself pausing for for a moment to reflect upon what actions are absolutely necessary and what things are unnecessary fluff. So the project has made me seek simplicity -- or ruthless efficiency -- and strip down the tasks involved to their bare essentials. To that end, I have adapted her email so that with a single keystroke she can do each of the following tasks: open a new message, start a reply to that message, return to the inbox, compose a new message, and send.

We have also changed any command that would normally take two- or three-fingered coordination, such as hitting the control and shift keys at the same time as a letter. The familiar "undo" command, Control-Z, is now on a function key. We have no cut-and-paste functions: They are too complicated, and therefore

A few other modifications to streamline and improve function: We have turned off all repeating keys, so that an endless line of dashes does not appear when a single hyphen is all that's wanted. We have turned off the infamous "caps lock" key -- something I now realize would be good to do to my own keyboard, so that I don't waste any time undoing A WHOLE LINE WHEN I meant to hit the "a" key and my pinky simply traveled one key too far to the left.

The thorniest problem turned out to be moving the cursor quickly around on the screen. Without a mouse it's like drawing lines on an Etch-a-Sketch: You need to use the directional arrow keys and Page Up and Page Down keys to get where you want to go, and it's a cumbersome process. No diagonals or curves allowed! It helps that my mother has no sense of how quickly this can be done with good mousing skills, so she has no sense of how slowly she's moving with her keyboard commands. On the other hand I am experiencing a weird distortion of time-space as I watch her cursor flicker, flicker, flicker, like an old-time nickelodeon, until it finally settles into the desired spot.

Eventually, I believe everything will work out, and my mother will become comfortable, even skilled, at this form of communication. After all, this is a woman who once ran the membership department of a national organization with a good many employees reporting to her. She has decades of experience running things, organizing things, making things work. Just not in this particular way, or at least, not just yet. (At one time she typed 90 words per minute, too. She used to pound the keys so hard that the lettering would wear off her typewriter very quickly.)

As she learns, I'm learning, too, what's really important --and what's not important-- about getting a message from one person to another. Today, email, tomorrow... Facebook!


  1. Wouldn't something like an iPad prove easier to use than a keyboard and having to use a bunch of function commands? It's so easy to make the screen larger or smaller, too. Just a thought.

  2. Yes, I thought so too, and that was the first thing we tried. But the keys were too small --and on-screen keys don't give any tactile feedback-- and so she hit the wrong keys over half the time she tried. Then we ordered her a special keyboard for low vision users, and a gigantic monitor, so that we could make the font really big and still have everything fit on a single screen. If you make the font super-big on an iPad, you can only see a few words on a line.