The Concept of Interaction on the Mac
Having worked with people and having also trained folks on the Mac for a good four years consistently now, as well as being a member of several blind Mac user email lists, I can certainly say that the interaction concept used in VoiceOver on the Mac tends to be one of the liveliest topics. Without a doubt, it can often be confusing to a new Mac user, especially if that user is making the transition from Windows. They might understand the proper keystrokes to start and stop interacting (control-option-shift-down arrow and control-option-shift-up arrow respectively), but the concept itself is frequently like a foreign language to some, and, of course, this leads to confusion and frustration.
I would say that the biggest question I am asked, beyond having to explain just what interaction is, would be the basic question as to when one is supposed to interact and when it is not necessary. Again, memorizing the keystrokes is usually not an issue, but knowing when to use those keystrokes presents the problem more times than not for the new user. I couldn’t even begin to try to guess as to how many times I have had this very conversation with my clients or other Mac users. It’s certainly a concept that I had my share of difficulties with wrapping my head around in the beginning.
Thus, I am going to attempt to shed some light on the whole interaction concept and try to offer some tips as to know when one has to interact and when one does not. Also, I will present some examples of the situations in which one has to interact and, hopefully, give you seven specific types of items one encounters on the Mac that require interaction. It really is not all that mysterious once one starts to understand that there are some rules to help guide you and enable you to navigate the rich waters of VoiceOver on the Mac.
What is interaction
Think of interaction as taking a closer look at something. If you were in a sight seeing helicopter and, of course, provided that you could see, the pilot would take you down to get a closer look at, let’s say, Niagara Falls or, the Grand Canyon. The lower you’d get, the more of the area and its details you would see. Interacting with an item enables you to view more of it and, after interacting, navigate that item.
Interaction can also be considered in a different way as well. To create less confusion for the user, parts of the screen are made up of different elements or items. In turn, these elements or items divide up the parts of the interface and group areas so that when you interact with them, you are only navigating or viewing items related to one another. Where in other operating systems in which the interface of an application or a window itself can be seemingly just one giant mess, VoiceOver and interaction allows you to make sense of a screen. For example, the way the Finder window is divided between the toolbar, sidebar and browser window, makes it much easier to know where you are and navigate your file and folder structure once you understand exactly what you are interacting with.
When Do You Have to Interact?
And now we come to that often asked question of when should one interact? When I teach and train someone on the Mac, my answer to that question comes in two parts. First, though, let me preface this by saying in no way do I believe my approach is the be all and end all for the interaction concept. Instead, it’s simply just my approach. Others, I’m sure, may have a different way of explaining interaction and may also have a different way of presenting what items or elements need to be interacted with on the Mac.
Nevertheless, the first part of my response to my clients is that realistically, the more you use the Mac, the easier it gets to begin to understand the whole interaction concept. Things just become second nature the more you use them, and as you get greater and greater experience with the Mac world, you won’t even have to think about just when you have to interact and when it is not necessary.
Beyond that, though, I will suggest that there are seven different item or element types that one should be aware of and try to associate them with the understanding that interaction is needed to work with them. These seven items are encountered throughout the Mac and your daily tasks, so it’s probably a good idea to try to make a note of them and become familiar with them. Once you start to recognize these seven item types, you should find it much easier to teach yourself just when you have to interact and when it is not necessary. Furthermore, in some instances, these items are found within one another, so you also will know when more than one level of interaction may be required.
Scroll areas are parts of the screen that can be scrolled in all directions by the user. You will encounter areas of the screen identified specifically as scroll areas, but also be aware that HTML content areas, such as web sites, are scroll areas and, therefore, one must interact with them to be able to navigate a webpage. Additionally, text fields or Edit Text areas also fall into this category. An example would be in the Text Edit application in which you must interact with the Edit Text field to navigate or read your document, and, similarly, the “body” area in a Pages document or the “edit text” area of an email message you are composing or replying to.
The Details Scroll area in the Calendar application is another example of a scroll area. In this case, one must interact before one can view the specific details of an event one is trying to customize. You will undoubtedly come across scroll areas in many other parts of the Mac, as well as in third party applications. Note that the message content area in the Mail application is another example of a scroll area too, and, thus, you have to interact with it as well to be able to navigate the message text.
Tables are another common element you will have to deal with on the Mac. The message table in Mail, the Sidebar in Finder or the music table in iTunes are three quick examples that come to mind. Tables are presented in rows and columns. So, considering the message table in mail, each message in your inbox makes up a row and the columns of each message would be the header information for the message, such as the sender, the date it was sent, the subject, etc.
With that said, tables have to be interacted with in order to navigate them. Once you do, you can than view and navigate the rows and columns with the VoiceOver navigation keys. This also includes tables on the web as well, though automatic interaction with tables can be toggled on or off with control-option-equals sign when web browsing.
Browsers are lists of items. In the Finder when you open a new Finder window or open your Macintosh HD from the desktop, you are automatically placed on the Browser side of the Finder window. Unless you intend to navigate to the Sidebar, you must interact with the browser in order to make your way through your folder and file system.
There is also a browser in iTunes in ones main music library that can be customized to list your music by artist, album and so forth. Again, this browser must be interacted with before one can use it effectively. You can utilize the browser in iTunes if you are trying to play songs from one specific artist or trying to play the tracks off of one album.
The Contacts Information Group in the Contacts app to see details about a specific contact or the search results for applications in the Mac App Store or for music in the iTunes music store are examples of where one might encounter groups. Sometimes, they might be called “radio groups”, but they are basically common items grouped together. In order to see the details of an app you have searched for or the email address for a contact, you then must interact with the group to do so. Note, though, that in Contacts, there is two levels of interaction required for obtaining information about a contact. The contacts information group must be interacted with first and then the contacts detail scroll area will contain the actual details of that contact.
Toolbars are found in just about every application on the Mac, including Finder. Also, application preferences usually have a toolbar that enables you to select specific preference panes to view. One must interact with a toolbar to navigate and select the items on them. In some instances, you also must stop interacting with a toolbar to be able to navigate the rest of the application interface.
As a side note, the Mac OS X keyboard shortcut, control-F5, will place you in an application’s toolbar or the toolbar for an application’s preferences and also automatically have you interact with that toolbar. It’s a handy keyboard shortcut to use, particularly when you want to jump right into the toolbar for an application’s preferences, such as Mail or Finder so that you can select a specific pane.
If one wants to adjust the amount of time that is needed before ones computer will go to sleep if there is no activity, the Energy Savor preferences in System Preferences would be the place for this. There are sliders one must interact with to allow one to change the default value of the settings. Another example where one encounters a slider is in the version history controls of a document if one wants to look at the version of a document in the past. Sliders can be navigated either horizontally or vertically using VoiceOver once you interact with them.
Grids are similar to tables in that items are in rows are columns. however, those items are not related and are just presented in a grid format. Usually, VoiceOver will tell you the dimensions of a grid, such as 5 by 4 or 3 by 5. If one uses iCloud and wants to view the documents they have saved in iCloud, the default view for documents is in a grid. If one uses month view in the Calendar application, there is a grid showing the current month in a grid of the seven day week and five total weeks. The iTunes layout for albums in the Music library is another example of a place where one might have to deal with a grid. When you interact with the grid, you can navigate it in any direction, but it’s a good idea to keep track of your position with a mental map so that you know when you have reached one end or the other and are cycling back around again (if cursor wrapping is turned on).
Interacting Too Far and Some Other Tips
Not to confuse the issue, but keep in mind that one can interact too far with an item. Typically, this can occur when you interact with the label of an element. For instance, the name of a volume or file in Finder or a label for a button or some other control. You can tell when you have interacted too far because you simply cannot move in any direction and when you stop interacting, you then can move around as expected.
Also, keep in mind that by way of Numpad Commander or Keyboard Commander, you can simplify the key combination used for starting the interaction process or stopping it. By default, with Numpad Commander enabled, the 7 key starts and the 9 key stops interacting.
Of course, you can also assign keyboard commands to Keyboard Commander if you also wish to decrease the number of keys required to start and stop interacting.
Additionally, with Quick Nav enabled, holding down the right and down arrow keys will enable you to start interacting, while holding down the left and down arrow keys will stop interacting with an item. Thus, there you have another way of handling the interaction process.
The concept of interacting and being aware of when one needs to do so on the Mac is one that is certainly new and different to many people. Hopefully, though, the information I have provided will help the user have a better idea of how interaction works and when one has to do so. I am surely aware that this subject is often confusing and even mysterious, but it honestly is not as challenging as one might think.
Remember that the control-option-j combination, the jump command, will sometimes allow you to easily jump between items that would normally require one or even two levels of interaction. For instance, this command can be used to get between the Finder Sidebar, which is a table, and the browser window without the need to stop interacting with one and start interacting with the other. This handy command can also be employed in iTunes to make navigation easier, and in the Contacts app between your list of contacts and the Contacts Information Group for a specific contact.
As earlier stated, remember that experience and exposure is the key to conquering interaction. Things will become second nature to you and you will not find yourself having to stop and think about whether or not interaction is required in a given situation. When all else fails, though, keep in mind that if you have VoiceOver hints turned on, you will also be prompted to interact with an item if it is necessary. Yes, folks, listening to your screen reader can be quite useful to you, so don’t be quick to turn off the hints because you think they are just added verbosity.