The invisible problem: text editing on Android and iOS sucks

Android and iOS share a common problem: they copied desktop text editing conventions, but without a menu bar or mouse. This forced them to overload the tap gesture with a wide range of actions: placing the cursor, moving it, selecting text, and invoking a pop-up menu. This results in an overly complicated and ambiguous mess-o-taps, leading to a variety of user errors.

It’s less of a problem if you only do short bursts of text in social media or messaging apps. But doing anything more complicated like an email gets tedious. However, in my user study on text editing, I was surprised to find that everyone had significant problems and rather severe workaround for editing text.

With the extremely talented Olivier Bau, together we created a prototype called Eloquent, which offers a much simpler solution. We presented this work at UIST 2021.

This is now one of my favourite articles I’ve ever read. I despise text input and text editing on mobile devices, whether they be Android or iOS. I hate it with the passion of a thousand burning suns, but it seems like nobody else cares. Luckily, the author of this article, Scott Jenson, a man with an impressive career doing UI work at Apple, Google, and others, agrees with me, and together with his colleagues, during his time at Google, he came up with an entirely different, touch-first way of editing text.

The end result – be sure to watch the video to see it in action – immediately clicks for me. I want this. Now. This would be a massive usability improvement, and the fact it isn’t in Android yet, despite being developed at Google, is further evidence Google has no clue how to make good ideas float to the top. Jenson explains why Eloquent, as they called their new input/editing system, won’t ship with Android, while he expresses a bit more optimism Apple might be more open to rethinking mobile text editing:

Unfortunately, shipping something like Eloquent would be challenging. First, as too many people mistakenly see text editing as “done”, there is little appetite to fix it. Second, users have been trained to cope with this error-prone approach for well over a decade. Asking people to change at this point would be hard.

But most importantly, fixing text editing isn’t seen as important enough in the war between Android and iOS. It’s not the flashy feature that shifts your Net Promoter Scores. What I find ironic is that a fundamental change, like fixing text editing, could make people feel much more at ease using their phones and could be an enormous reason to switch. But it would be a slow burn and take years of steady effort. Android just can’t think this way. Apple just might.

Android needs this.


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