I think that in (almost) every project I work in, when a web page contains one or more form elements, the most common question is: should we set initial focus to the first element in the form when the page has loaded? Heated debates follow, where people argue very convincingly for their view on it.
However, to me it isn’t an easy black or white-question.
My take is that it is all about context. In some web sites, it is expected and it will heighten the experience for the end user. Helping them saving time and become more efficient by easing the load from them of having to tab to, or click, in the field is a good cause. Take Google, for example: 99% or more are there to perform a search, and not to click on any of the links. Verdict: initial focus is justified (and is used).
Then you have web sites that are filled to the brim with content and navigation options, but additionally they offer some kind of search functionality as an alternate way to find what you’re looking for. Here, initial focus wouldn’t be helping the user since, most likely, not as many will start with the actual search option. Examples: Amazon and Technorati. Verdict: no thanks, no initial focus (and it isn’t used).
Why is initial focus ever bad?
For a couple of reasons, actually. Let me name the two most important ones:
- If the user is accustomed to using any keyboard navigation their web browser or operating system offers, an initial focus might interfere with that; the result will just be some characters in a text field instead.
- Accessibility. Let’s say that you can’t use your mouse and have to rely on the keyboard to navigate around in a web page (or if you just want to only use the keyboard). If you have a web page with a lot of content, navigation etc, you expect tabbing to begin from where the web page starts.
What’s your take? Initial focus or not?