Stroking the Keys in Office 12

There are three ways to use the keyboard to get work done in the new Office 12

Type 1: Keyboard Shortcuts

Let's start with the simplest and most direct form of keyboard access: keyboard
shortcuts.  Keyboard shortcuts are single key combinations that perform a
command.  Some of the most well-known shortcuts in Office are CTRL+S for
save, CTRL+P for print, and CTRL+B for bold.

All of the keyboard shortcuts in Office continue to work exactly as they did
in previous versions.
 In fact, we're doing more in the UI to
advertise the keyboard shortcuts and adding new ones based on usage data. 
That's because keyboard shortcuts will usually be the single most efficient way
to perform commands with the keyboard.

Word continues to support customizable keyboard shortcuts as it did in previous
versions, although this capability hasn't been extended to any of the other
programs yet.

Type 2: Accelerating the Ribbon with KeyTips

In menus-based Windows UI, you can navigate the top-level menus by pushing Alt +
a series of accelerators (underlined characters in each menu item) to "navigate"
the menu structure like you would with the mouse.

"KeyTips" take
the keyboard accelerator idea and adapt and extend it to take advantage of the

When you press ALT in Office 12, KeyTips appear in front of the Ribbon tabs and
each of the chunks in the tab.  KeyTips are little tooltip-like indicators
with a single letter or combination of letters in them, indicating what to type
to activate the control under them:

(Click to view full picture)

In the case of the picture above, I could type 'I' to navigate to the Insert
tab, or press 'U' to navigate to the Page Setup chunk.  When I press 'U',
the next set of KeyTips appear, this time showing letters for every control
within the Page Setup chunk:

(Click to view full picture)

Now, I can press any of the letters indicated to perform the command under
the KeyTip.  We've even extended the metaphor to menus and dropdowns hosted
in the Ribbon:

(No need to click, there's no bigger version!)

In the above example, I could press ALT+U+G to toggle the Excel gridlines. 
If I wanted to memorize a keyboard shortcut so that it worked from wherever I
was in the product, I would memorize ALT+P+U+G (the P is for switching to the
Page Layout tab).

Overall, this system has some advantages.  Number one, it is very easy
for people to learn--even people who are normally turned off by using the
keyboard.  I like to call it "Hansel and Gretel."  You just follow the
crumbs of bread, pushing the letters as you go.  It couldn't be simpler.

Second, KeyTips allow every control in the product to be keyboard accessible. 
In Office 2003, only the menus could be easily navigated using the keyboard;
gaining keyboard access to toolbars could be done but only with an extravagantly
long and convoluted series of keystrokes.  In the new system, everything
can be accessed efficiently with the keyboard, helping keyboard aficionados get
even more done with just their trusty 101 keys.

Third, KeyTips take advantage of the Ribbon's
to help save keystrokes in the same way that it helps to reduce mouse clicks. 
When you're in a Ribbon tab, you don't have to press the letter for that tab to
use the commands within it.  Press the letter for the chunk and command you
want directly.  In the same way that you save mouse clicks because all of the table
layout commands are on one tab, you save keystrokes as well.

Of course, for those most common keystroke combinations--the ones you intend
to memorize--you'll probably want to remember and use the first letter, even
though it's not necessary if you're already in the tab.  Doing so ensures
that you can use a consistent key combination no matter what Ribbon tab is up.

So, why did we design KeyTips, vs. going with a more traditional "underlined
accelerator" approach?  One, the Ribbon is dense, and on some tabs, we
would have run out of letters quickly.  Two, we wanted to provide keyboard
access to controls regardless of their display state.  This means that even
controls without text labels or that are part of a "button set" (like
Bold-Italic-Underline) have KeyTips.

I believe it will be beneficial for most keyboarders to use the KeyTips
system, especially since it puts virtually everything you can do with Office
within a small number of keystrokes.

Type 3: Office 2003-compatible Keyboard Accelerators

Yet, we know you hardcore keyboard elements are out there.  You've got
the "ALT+O+H+R" tattoo and you can use Excel with your eyes closed.

While I think even you would benefit from KeyTips is the long run, you'll be
happy to know that you can turn on a mode in which all of the keyboard
accelerators from previous versions of Office work.  It's as if you're
navigating the "phantom" Office 2003 menu system right in Office 12.  We
show hints in the status bar to help keep track of where you are and what you've

We know it's important that you can be effective day one with Office 12, and
being able to fall back on familiar keyboard accelerators is an important part
of that mission.


We designed the Office 12 interface to incorporate a rich set of goodies for
keyboard lovers.  There's more I didn't mention (such as using the keyboard
to navigate the Ribbon as a 2D document for use with a screen reader), but I
believe I covered the essentials.

There's a new mechanism for accessing UI with the keyboard called "KeyTips." 
KeyTips provides consistent, efficient access to every control and command in the
product.  But, if you prefer, you can continue using the old keyboard
accelerators that are burned into your brain.  It's up to you, but I'm
hoping the bread crumb trail leads a whole new generation of keyboard newbies to
the candy house to try a bite.

(Don't worry, I won't
pop you in the oven

Comments (38)
  1. Brian says:

    KeyTips…Ummm…are you guys sure that you want to emulate something from the Lotus Notes UI, the worst Windows UI in existence?

  2. David Harrison says:

    Actually, it sounds more like a modern version of the Lotus 1-2-3 UI, with Alt standing in for the backslash.

  3. Dan McCarty says:

    As a fellow user-interface designer, let me just say this:

    Hiding the keyboard accelerator key will slow your users down.

    It’s a simple statement, but I don’t think it’s arguable. I hope whoever was responsible for the "Hide keyboard navigation indicators until I use the Alt key" feature of Windows–and the other guy that made it the default option!–are no longer employed at MS. If you’ve already made it a point to show text next to most your icons, go the extra mile and do your users the favor of underlining the letter that will help them use that feature faster.

    Holding down the Alt key to see what you can do with it is a waste of time.

  4. bg says:

    Keytips – nicely pinched from Lotus Notes.

  5. Mr. Dee says:

    I would have preferred if you used glowing letters instead of the boxes.

  6. Stefan Schultze says:

    It would be great if one would be able to switch to "global" (e.g. US English) hotkeys. For example, in the German version, you have to press Ctrl+Shift+F (3 keys for bold! argh), where it is Ctrl+B in the English version. Extremely confusing for one who works with both versions.

  7. Mike Dunn says:

    Just a little bit of feedback – in this picture:

    I found it hard to find the key for the "Page Setup" chunk with a quick glance. "B" is right next to "Themes" and "C" is next to "Scale to fit", but the "U" is very far away from "Page Setup".

    Since Page Setup is a big chunk, I have to mentally figure out how wide it is (move eyes to the right) which is also not too easy because the chunk dividers don’t stand out enough. Then I have to calculate the location of the middle (move eyes back to the left edge of the chunk, then to where I think the middle is) and find the tool window, making sure I don’t accidentally look at the tip for a tab.

    I’d recommend moving the tooltip to be directly to the right of the chunk label, instead of horizontally centering it in the chunk. That way the chunk name and its tooltip are in close proximity, which I think would make scanning easier.

  8. EAW says:

    +1 to what Mike said. Also, like Mr. Dee I hope the visual treatment is revised in the end (I know these are placeholders).

  9. jensenh says:

    On "hiding the accelerators will slow people down."

    Well, this is how Windows works. And previous versions of Office as well (you can’t see the accellerators for items in the Edit menu until you press the keystrokes to reveal the Edit menu.)

    Plus, remember that we need to make accessible unlabeled buttons.

  10. jensenh says:

    The visual design is, of course, not final as I mentioned in earlier posts. Thanks for the feedback on ways to jazz them up.

  11. Smug Doug says:

    "This is how [the product] works" (a.k.a. "behavior is by design") is always a tempting explanation for why you’re not fixing something broken, but I think most of us like hearing it a lot less than we like saying it.

    I’m surprised the hidden underscores got through usability testing. I hate those almost as much as the "personalized menu" misfeature, or the way XP broke the search-files feature in Windows Explorer by adding an additional and purely redundant layer to click through, with that annoying, distracting, and purely non-functional animated dog cartoon. I suppose the focus groups must have felt differently.

    My concern about the "KeyTips" is that in the screenshots, they obscure the labels on the features. Will they be "smarter" about where they place themselves when you release?

  12. Haszprus says:

    Hiding the underscores not just slows down the user, but it makes much harder to memorize the key combinations because you don’t see them all the time.

    Even when I navigate with mouse (by default), I run into useful and easy-to-remember combos. But only when they are visible without pressing any key first.

    So those icons which have a label, should have underlines too, or at least an option to have underlines without pressing Alt or anything else.

  13. Mike says:

    I must be the only person in the world who uses menu navigation as shortcuts. For me Find isn’t Ctrl-F, it’s Alt-E,F. I’m still trying to recover from Visual Studio deciding to popup an "advanced find" menu instead of just giving me the standard find dialog. Hopefully Office won’t do that.

    I have to say that KeyTips looks really ugly to me. What’s wrong with just underlining the corresponding letter when alt is pressed like normal? Especially since, as I think you said earlier, you always have labels in addition to icons on the ribbon?

  14. anon says:

    Mike, how would you underline letters when there are no labels?

  15. jensenh says:

    Hot topic today!

    OK, let me reiterate the reasons we don’t use keyboard underline accelerators (they’re also in the artcile itself.)

    1) Because of the density of the Ribbon, there are many places in which we have to use letters that aren’t present in the label itself.

    2) Unlike menus, the Ribbon supports galleries and toolbar layouts that contain no label (such as the "Center" button or a specific visual style). There’s literally no text to underline.

    3) As you resize the window down, labels drop off of controls. Again, there’s no text to underline.

    We could have gone with a inconsistent model in which multiple different schemes were used, but we found that the KeyTips scheme performed well and allowed consistency across the entire Ribbon.

    I suspect this is one of those features you’ll have to use to get the hang of how they feel and work…

  16. Perhaps you should test doing both like you currently do on menus. In the screenshot of the menu you posted accelerator keys are underlined AND you still show the KeyTips.

    KeyTips is good thing because it gives much better visual representation of accelerator keys but I can tell you that many people want accelerator keys underlined and visible all the time.

    I’ve seen countless questions about why underlines are not visible and how to turn them on. We even added explicit support to show them in our control regardless of Windows settings so people can have that visible at all times thats how much need for that there is.

    We’ll certainly provide both options in our ribbon control so people have choice…

  17. TC says:

    I think the keytips look great. But I’d prefer if they did /not/ obscure any part of the text labels (where possible). As soon as something is obscured, your mind thinks: "what has been obscured here?". That takes your mind away from the obscuring element (the keytip), and onto the obscured one.

  18. Helen says:

    Nice to finally hear something about keyboard access as well. 🙂

    I agree that it’s helpful to see the underlined accelerator keys even when Alt isn’t pressed, but I can see why that wouldn’t work here. And I’d rather get accelerator keys for all buttons (including those without labels) than get the underlines. It’s an OK trade-off.

    Very much agree with the comments above re location. The keytips should be next to the label text – not far like the page setup example in the screenshot, and definitely never hide the label text.

    I would also suggest making the keytips fixed-width, and/or using a fixed-width font. Consistency makes it easier on the eyes (less noise) and the I’s will be easier to spot (quite narrow now!).

  19. James Schend says:

    Just because it’s used in Lotus Notes doesn’t make it inherently bad… well… maybe it does. I don’t know. I agree with the first poster here, I’d really, really carefully examine *any* use of a Lotus Notes "feature" in a product you intend people to actually use.

  20. headtoadie says:

    I for one won’t miss the underscores – at my screen resolution I can’t see them anyway.

    At least with the new method the shortcuts are more obivious and standout so I can read them.

    I prefer using keystrokes to using the mouse and I see now way that this change will slow me down.

  21. BlueJay says:

    Interesting discussion… Just like the topic on DVORAK keyboards, I didn’t know how many people actually use the Alt-key shortcuts.

    I’ve always utilized keyboard shortcuts — for both CTRL-key and ALT-key combinations. (Of course cut/copy/paste aren’t quite as nice on the DVORAK keyboard…)

    When I was a software instructor, and even now as a software developer, I thought it was amazing how many people don’t know about keyboard shortcuts. Most people use their mouse for everything instead.

    Most people I know don’t have any idea what the ALT key is for — so showing and hiding the key combinations has actually been a great discovery tool for many people, since when they press the ALT key something happens.

    I personally think it would be an interesting idea to have CTRL key shortcuts do something similar in the Office UI, and for the Windows/Start key in Windows.

    As a long-time keyboard shortcut user, for me the movement on the screen would be distracting and annoying after the initial adjustment period. The ideal would be an option to turn them on/off — or even better, to adjust the timing, opacity, rate of fade in/out of the keytips.

    One last suggestion is to have the tip highlight the letter of the text if it’s available. It’s a great mnemonic to help remember the association for the next time. For key tips without text, opacity might mitigate the concerns of covering the associated text or icons.

    Overall, I think the whole Office 12 UI, including the key tips, is a step forward.


  22. Pete Wall says:

    There is mention of a facility to revert to keyboard short cuts available in previous versions.

    I’m only thinking of Excel: It’d be handy to be able to go back to Excel 2002. Excel 2003 for some reason has some variations from all previous versions – such as CTRL-A in 2003 doesn’t select the whole sheet.

    The backwards capability will be handy for me, thanks.

  23. PatriotB says:

    Certain times I always use Alt menu shortcuts versus control shortcuts. For example, for Save, I always use Alt-F S. Never Ctrl-S. Why? Windows 95 Notepad didn’t support Ctrl-S, only Alt-F S. And old habits never die. 🙂

  24. Max Palmer says:


    I like the idea of the keytips, but find it difficult to work out what goes with what in the screenshots. If you could do something to make the association clearer that would be great – perhaps by refining the positioning. Also, I second the idea of highlighting letters in the word, wherever possible.


  25. Eric says:

    Jensen, I tried following your example and it doesn’t look right. The "Gridlines" option appears to be part of the "Sheet Options" chunk, not part of the "Page Setup" chunk, so the accelerator combo should be Alt+P/O/G, right?

  26. Abigail says:

    I’m an Access developer, FYI. (Unfortunately, I don’t share Jonathan’s Dvorak love.) I hated the new keytips with a passion that rivaled my hatred of personalized menus until another friend and fellow dev pointed out the "Use 2003 accelerators" option, which made my week (if not my month!). I think that KeyTips will be useful eventually, but certain tasks (format slide in PowerPoint, insert cell in Excel or format paragraph in Word) might as well be tattooed on my brain. I’m glad I won’t have to unlearn them right away.

    As to the commenter who said that old habits never die: It’s true. I’m on my third version of Photoshop since Photoshop 5, and I *still* mess up and use the 5 keycommands (they changed in 6, and I made the same mistakes in 6 and 7 as I do now). Which is why I’m glad that Office is cognizant of the need for backwards compatability.

  27. Charles says:

    One more voice in favor of not obscuring any text with the keytips.

  28. Henrik says:

    I think that…

    …you ought to improve the export to HTML mode (the html generated is garbage!), adopt a standardized document format…

    …and especially that they fix the _very_ annoying bugs when working tightly with Excel and working with lots of data – doing physics lab reports and having to format the graphs and tables is a night-mare.

    For example: I copy-paste a graph from excel – only one line-height of its hight is visible… Annoying. So I rightclick and choose layout. Boxed, center. It centers on top of the page outside the paper margin. I move it down – but I have a table on the same page. Alright, think Word, I’ll position it INSIDE a TABLE CELL! This of course makes the whole table 2x with width of the paper and also makes it a lot harder to move it down where is SHOULD be.

    Perhaps you have already fixed this for version 2004 but in XP it works like that, i.e. not at all.

  29. I mentioned a few days ago that the team has been immersed lately in improving the
    Office 2007 keyboard…

  30. I mentioned in mid-March that we had been putting a lot of thought and effort into improving the Office…

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  32. If you are a fan of keyboard shortcuts and wonder what Word’s new UI means for them, or if you don’t

  33. As this link to a blog posting points out there are also three ways to use the keyboard to get work done

  34. As this link to a blog posting points out there are also three ways to use the keyboard to get work done

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