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

[Nota bene: This post was originally written in 2010. It argues that the iOS diacritical-selection function should be ported over the MacOS, and explains the reasons why it’s a good design. Later that same year MacOS did in fact adopt this microinteraction. This post is preserved only as historical evidence that I am sometimes right. ☺]

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

The whole host of Latin-derived diacritical characters (such as ç, ø, & š) 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.

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.

Originally published at www.cooper.com on July 23, 2010.