Diacritical character entry made simple (by stealing from the iPhone OS)

I’m going to call it. Apple won on this one.

The whole host of Latin-derived diacritical characters (such as ç, ?, & ?) are too large to fit into a standard keyboard. The methods by which various operating systems have provided access to them have, in all but one case, sucked.


This sucks. It’s hard to access and takes way too much visual hunting, not to mention having to “select” and “copy” the character to the clipboard.
These suck. The Mac Character Palette has many of the same problems as the Windows panel, and the key chords must be memorized.


The website copypastecharacter.com, even though it’s clever, sucks for reasons similar to the palettes above.

The one place to provide access to the diacritical-characters that makes sense is the iPhone OS. As I noted in a previous article, to access these on an iPhone, you press and hold the base character for a few seconds and a menu pops up above your finger with diacritic options. You can then select the character you need with a tap

It doesn’t suck because it makes sense and it doesn’t take you too far “out of the moment” into application management, just to access that one special character. It’s also very memorable because the diacritics are kept under their base characters. (As are other related symbols, like money symbols $, £, €, and ¥.)

I’ve been using this feature in the iPhone for about two years now, and though it’s a bit of a speed bump, it works so well that now when I return to any other OS, I’m frustrated at how difficult it is to access these same things. So, I hereby declare it’s now time for software companies to reimplement this function on the desktop so that it works similarly. Let’s go with a tiny, second-person scenario. You’re writing a note…

…and you realize that you need not the “c” but the “ç.” You press and hold the “c” key…

…and a small menu pops-up inline with diacritic options

These options can be esc-key canceled, or manipulated with the arrow keys. You right-arrow over to the “ç” and press ENTER…

…which drops the character in place and you can continue with your note.

dearfrancois_funny.png

This method is slower than the key chords like Alt+0230 on Windows or option+’ on Mac, but they’re not incompatible. If you’re the memorizing sort, you can still mod key+whatever all you like.

Of course not all special characters can be accessed this way, but a majority of common, Latin-derived ones can.

The only thing we would lose from this functionality is the key repeat, which is still necessary for the arrow keys, the function keys on Mac OS X that control things like brightness and volume, and possibly the SPACE key. But repeated text characters are only ever useful to flame war veterans and writers given to histrionics, if you know what I mean!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! (!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!)

So, if this exists as a plug-in already please let me know, as I desperately want it, but hey, OS developers, this really needs to be a part of core OS text handling. (Also, this is another testament to the fact that because of touchscreens, click-and-hold is becoming the new hover or right-click for access to secondary functions.)

And of course, UX props to the iPhone for getting this one right.

18 Comments

Tim Allan
I love it as well, mainly because it doesn't interrupt your current task, by making you start another task, that is hunting for the correct character key. Even if it is, as you say, a 'speedbump' its a lot less of a problem than having to navigate a menu maze or hunt for the correct character through trial and error.
Nick Myers
Sign me up. I'd love to have this for those pesky copyright and trademark characters (I can't even be bothered to open the character map right now and illustrate what I mean).
Nik
Back in the Mac OS 9 days, I edited my own keyboard mappings to put all the diacritics for a character on the same column as that character, with the same diacritic on the row. I was able to put nearly everything much closer to related base charatcters or similarly-shaped glyphs. But I couldn't type on anybody else's keyboard.
Simon
I had to switch back to the desktop to verify this, but the core Mac way for the Latin-derived diacriticals from at least the days of the MacPlus is pretty intuitive, if not particularly discoverable… option-c for ç , option-n n for ñ, option-e e for é, option-s for ß, etc.
Joe Clark
Look, what the hell are you talking about? You don’t type anything at all like Alt plus a number on Macintosh, which has no Alt key. You type plainly memorable dead keys followed by the letter they affect. On US(/CA/AU/NZ) keyboards, keystrokes for six of those diacritics have remained unchanged for 26 years and lots of us have no trouble whatsoever touch-typing them. (© is Option-G; ™ is Option-2.) Finger-gesture input ? keyboard input. Your own inability to type is the culprit here.
Chris Noessel
Joe, you're right in that I miscalled the OS shortcuts (and will be editing to reflect the correct shortcuts), but that detail doesn't impact the core message, which is that recall is not as easy as recognition. Kudos to you for being a diligent memorizer, but most people would rather not memorize Option-G or Option-2. Only having to look and see the "e" will work much better for someone to suggest "café décaféiné."
Robert Ferguson
I think there are two parts to this story. If you want to enter a symbol that can be gained from context or not. When I type Francois I would prefer a popup to show me the option of having it say François than type the ç on my own. An extra click would be excruciating. Context driven is always happier for the user as it requires no thought (yay!). When I actually need to find a symbol: I would prefer not to have to move my hand on a keyboard to find the arrow keys. If its touch it's a different experience. I would have the menu come up from holding a letter and just rock on the keys next to it. Held down 'i' would cycle between îìí using 'u' and 'o'. Pressing i again escapes or selects the current choice. Alas any attempt to redesign a keyboard will have you laughed out of existence. BEHOLD MY CAPSLOCK KEY. sigh. Touch I do like the experience for the iPhone, but I am much more enamored of the swype keyboard with added smartness: http://www.swypeinc.com/ . You overloaded your capslock key, didn't you. Best, Rob
Juan Gomez
I'm pretty sure that's not the way to do it, the best way it should work for me it's a key combination that pops up a small window like charmap on windows but easier to use, let's say you click "windows+c" and a small window with a textbox appears you type "c" and it get's you all the variations, you move with arrows and click enter to choose, course you previously were writing on a textbox and if not, the character is placed on the clipboard ready to paste, this should solve the problem of loosing key repetition and wouldn't take much time to do, all you'll have to remember is the key combination to pop it up.
Michael Zajac
Maybe this method would be better than the character map for some folks, but the Mac keyboard shortcuts for diacritics have a clear logic that doesn't require memorizing them all. The acute accent, for example, which is commonly used over the e in English, is typed option-e (then type whatever letter you want under the accent). Grave is option-backtick (“`”, which looks like a grave), diaeresis option-u, tilde option-n, circumflex option-i, cedilla option-c. For a graphical aid, show the keyboard viewer while you type, and just holding the option key highlights all such dead keys in your current keyboard layout. The U.S. Extended keyboard layout lets you apply diacritics to many more basic characters using the same logic.
Chris Noessel
I agree, the Mac shortcuts do have a logic to them. But even in the example you raise, we're still talking about separate memorized key chords for diacritics (option-e or option-backtick) followed by the character. This doesn't account for the special characters like æ since there's not technically a diacritic mark that defines it, so you must memorize an arbitrary key chord for that. The iPhone solution does the OS solution one better, as it saves you from the memorization. æ is under the "a" key, as is à, á, â, ã, ä, and å, with no need to memorize key chords for each one (and no need to split attention between what you're typing and a floating palette.) It's a single key. The design relies on recognition, not recall, and means users can put that little bit of brain power to some other good use.
Ben McKenzie
Microsoft aren't entirely lame on this topic; Word interprets some very logical keystrokes for common diacritics. For example, for é, you would press Ctrl-', then e. It's very intuitive; once you figure a couple out, many others come naturally (Ctrl-^, Ctrl-:, Ctrl-` etc.). Of course, it's incomplete and not everything is as obvious as the good ones - å might be Ctrl-o or Ctrl-0, but probably neither - and it's not implemented OS-wide, which would make more sense. But it is better than any other keyboard-oriented method I've used. I do agree, though, that the iOS method is the best, and I'd love to see it in OSX or Windows.
Jonathan Abbett
I'd love a little configurable LCD keypad where I can put my most common non-keyboard symbols: middle dot, em and en dash, angle quotes... In the meantime, maybe I'll figure out how to remap my function keys!
Vishnu
This also works on OSX Lion FYI.
Vishnu
This also works on OSX Lion FYI.
Christian Mogensen
In Europe we have dead-keys - special keys on the keyboard just for diacritics. (Dead keys because the do nothing when you press them - you have to hit a second key to get an output) Hit the ` key and then the e to get è. Hit the ¨ key and then the o to get ö. But for touch input - the hold-and-select method makes a lot more sense.
Chris Noessel
@Vishnu, thanks for pointing this out! I'm pleased to see they took my advice. :)
Roy Tinker
The key chords on the Mac are very discoverable, unlike on Windows. Try holding option and hitting every key on the keyboard. It doesn't take very long at all to get through 5 rows of keys. Now imagine the same on Windows - alt+101, alt+102, alt+103, alt+104, alt+105, alt+106... darn, it'll take me an hour to find that character! Guess I have to open the character map. I agree that the iPhone's interface is easier to memorize, but the Mac's approach is the only one that is fundamentally touch-typable (and discoverable to boot).
Tim Molendijk
Whoah! Having read this article, I suddenly discover that GMail has this functionality. Amazing!

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