There is much about accessibility which we are still learning and want to share with you and last week we touched upon the Pilcrow, gave some historical context and a rough guide to how we use it now.

This week we’ll still be using the Pilcrow to demonstrate good and bad use of tabs in documents. Let’s begin!

What are tabs?

The definition of tabs depends on context. In stationery, a tab is a sticky out label to identify a section you can quickly access within a book / folder of information. Where the internet is concerned, a tab is another internet page sharing the same browser instance.

In MS Word, tabs relate to spacing. Tabs are a formatting feature within paragraphs and used to align text. When the tab key is pressed, Word inserts a tab character and moves the cursors’ insertion point to that tab location. This is also known as a tab stop.

By default, tabs are set to evenly distribute text between the left and right hand margins at every 1.27cm.

Tabs are set to help place text, i.e., a departments’ name, address and email. When text is placed like this, it can look tabular, similar to a table layout but without the table (see the example below):

Example of using tabs to place text in MS Word
Example of using tabs to place text in MS Word

Visually, the placement of the text above looks good.

What do tabs do?

Tabs simply let you move along the same line of text and essentially leaves a space between the last bit of text and the next on the same line.

Very handy.

Bad practice:

  • using default tabs to place text
  • using spaces to place text

Good practice:

  • use the ruler and set tabs at the required intervals to align information

Last week, we looked at the Pilcrow regards spaces and returns. Let’s use the Pilcrow here to see how are tabs are set up in the example below:

MS Word with Pilcrow on, this shows the default tabs usage
MS Word with Pilcrow on, this shows the default tabs usage

Unfortunately default tabs have been used in the above example. Every arrow indicates a tab press. For screen reader users, this would read ‘tab‘ for every instance the arrow icon appears. This is an example of poor or bad practice using MS Word.

To improve practice, tabs can be set at intervals for text placement. Here, we will show you two methods of setting tabs.

Method 1 – tab dialogue box

MS Word defaults to using A4 pages and margins set at 2.54cm (top, bottom, left and right). Tabs are set at 1.27cm default.

To place text where you intend it to be, ensure the ruler is showing (View Ribbon and Ruler).

MS Word - displaying the ruler
MS Word – displaying the ruler

Then go to the Home Ribbon (1) and under the Paragraph section (2), click the expanding arrow (3) to access the Paragraph dialogue box (4):

MS Word - accessing the tabs dialogue box
MS Word – accessing the tabs dialogue box

When the tab dialogue appears on screen, decide on tab measurements (1), alignment (2) and set the tab (3). If you have more than one tab, repeat steps 1 to 3. When all tabs are set, click OK (4).

On the ruler, you will see indicators of tabs being set at the increments you defined:

MS Word - tabs set on ruler at 10cm and 13cm
MS Word – tabs set on ruler at 10cm and 13cm

Here, we move on to method two.

Method 2 – setting tabs using the ruler

Of course, there are always quick methods of achieving things in most software programs. In MS Word, ensure the Ruler is showing on screen (View Ribbon and Ruler).

MS Word - displaying the ruler
MS Word – displaying the ruler

On the ruler, look to the far left of the screen to see which tab icon is active. Click on this to scroll through the available icons.

MS Word - the tab icons live on the left hand side of the ruler
MS Word – the tab icons live on the left hand side of the ruler

Once you have a tab with the alignment you need, click on the ruler at the required measurement. That icon will stick to the ruler and the tab will be set. From here, you can now enter text using the tabs you have set.

If you need to remove a tab from the ruler, click and drag it away and it will unstick.

Below, we set different tab alignments to demonstrate how they would look on the ruler:

MS Word tab characters - left (1cm), centre (2cm), right (3cm), decimal (4cm) and bar (5cm)
MS Word tab character alignment – left (1cm), centre (2cm), right (3cm), decimal (4cm) and bar (5cm)

Note: If text is already existing on the page, please select the text first (that may be several lines on the page) and then set the tabs.

Improving practice

At the start of this blog, we showed you some text set out using tabs and visually, this looked nice:

Example of using tabs to place text in MS Word
Example of using tabs to place text in MS Word

We then showed you the same text with the Pilcrow turned on (bad practice). Unfortunately, this is not optimized for screen reader users:

MS Word with Pilcrow on, this shows the default tabs usage
MS Word with Pilcrow on, this shows the default tabs usage

Since then, we selected the text and set tabs (and removed extraneous tabs). This is good practice. Screen readers will now read ‘Key Contacts, tab, Address, tab, Email, new line…‘ and so on.

MS Word with Pilcrow on, this shows good practice with the tabs set
MS Word with Pilcrow on, this shows good practice with the tabs set
Tab Alignment

The lovely thing about tabs is they can be set to suit text alignment. For example, text can be left-aligned, centered or right-aligned depending on need. And, if you need to line up monetary figures, a tab can be set for the decimal point.

MS Word tab characters - left (1cm), centre (2cm), right (3cm), decimal (4cm) and bar (5cm)
MS Word tab characters – left (1cm), centre (2cm), right (3cm), decimal (4cm) and bar (5cm)

Typically, left aligned tabs are the norm. However, sometimes footnotes get set and these should be right-aligned. This can be set with a right-aligned tab close to the right hand margin in the footer area.

Next time

We are taking a break next week (Easter break). Our blog post the following Monday (April 12th) will look at the Design and Output using MS Word and how tables can improve accessibility.

Remember, the DigiKnow blog posts are now released at noon on a Monday.

Please do join us then to learn more and don’t forget to follow us on Twitter: @MDBSelearn.


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