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Initial focus on search field?


From: Robert Fentress
Date: Sep 22, 2014 1:34PM

Hello, all.

Do you have a sense for what is best practice concerning where focus
should initially be set on pages in complex web sites that contain a
prominent global search field on every page?

For our site, the search field appears after an initial set of
navigation links, and at this point, changing the order of the menu
links and the search field in the code isn't feasible. An original
design constraint was that the search field be automatically given
focus upon page load, since usability studies showed that most people
preferred using search to navigate the site.

However, I was concerned that this could present problems for screen
reader users who might not notice the list of links before the search
field. This does seem to be a common pattern on the web though, so I
wonder if screen reader users would expect (and perhaps prefer) this

Initially though, I recommended against explicitly setting focus.
Instead, I suggested best practice would be to add, at the start of
the page, a single skip link to the main content, and to create
landmark regions for the main page areas (including role="search" for
the where the search field appears). Screen reader users could then
use landmark navigation to quickly get to the search field.

The developer has gotten pushback though, because of the original
design requirement mandating that focus be set to the initial search
field. He has tried to be creative by not initially setting focus,
instead making it so that, as soon as the user begins typing, focus is
set to the search field. So a tab takes the user to the first link in
the menu on the page, but typing "a search string" automatically moves
the user to the search field and enters the text typed into the field.
This is problematic, though, because some keys are reserved as page
navigation commands by some screen readers, such that typing "b" takes
you to the first button on the page, etc.

At this point, given the constraints we're operating under, I'm
leaning towards just telling him to set focus to the search field,
with the thought that screen reader users may expect this sort of
thing and figure things out, especially given the landmarks provided.
What do you think?


Robert Fentress
Senior Accessibility Solutions Designer

Technology-enhanced Learning & Online Strategies
Assistive Technologies
1180 Torgersen Hall
620 Drillfield Drive (0434)
Blacksburg, Virginia 24061