For all the nerdy anticipation, I bet very few people use third-party keyboards on iOS. Their function is mostly symbolic: apple less rigid
— Farhad Manjoo 🍭 (@fmanjoo) January 2, 2015
I think Farhad is about half right. Third-party iOS keyboards can be really good and useful, but they need help from Apple to seal the deal.
When IOS 8 landed, the first batch of keyboards quickly shot up the charts, then promptly disappeared. To its credit, Apple even promoted a few. In addition to Android staples like Swype hopping over, we also got clever entrants like GIF Keyboard, which replaces all letters with a categorized library of shareable GIFs, Bitmoji, a sticker keyboard that turns you into all the stickers, and Clips (one of my personal favorites), a multi-clipboard utility.
As interesting as iOS keyboards can be, their initial implementation at the OS level is severely flawed. They’re cumbersome to setup, switching between them is needlessly tedious, and limitations make it difficult to teach users about keyboard features. As far as I can tell, all these problems require solutions and improvements from Apple at the OS level.
Dramatically easier setup
Installing iOS keyboards involves more than just downloading from the App Store. I wager most intrepid users open the ‘app’, which is often just a placeholder for instructions to open Settings and drill into General > Keyboard > Keyboards, then tap Add New Keyb…. oh screw it let’s check Facebook.
I get why Apple wants to make keyboard installation a deliberate action, but this process really could be worlds better (though I don’t get why “entering my password/Touch ID to download from the App Store” isn’t deliberate enough). For starters, maybe iOS could allow the keyboard ‘app’ to have a big red button that initiates the installtion process. It’s still manual, but the user doesn’t have to go spelunking.
Switching keyboards needs to be much easier
I bet you $10 one of the biggest reasons users stop (or never bother) trying keyboards is the pain of switching between them. Yes, you can long-press the language button in Apple’s keyboard to get a list of all enabled keyboards and skip straight to the one you need. But getting back? You’re on your own; start tapping all those different approximations of the language button no matter where developers (mistakenly) decided to place them, and damn your muscle memory straight to hell.
Developers tell me this long-press behavior for the keyboard popup list is hands-off. I don’t know Apple’s reasoning on this one, but I think we need to reassess. Having that menu available to the language button in all keyboards would do wonders for switching between them and getting back to our standard typing keyboard, be it Apple’s or a third party’s.
Force a standard place for the keyboard switch toggle
Speaking of that language button, I think enforcing a standard placement and design would also help significantly.
Since we have to repeatedly tap through the language button every time we switch keyboards, having to find each keyboard’s language button is a pain that further drags down the whole experience. This is another complaint that is high up on the list whenever I’ve mentioned this on Twitter.
No more clipboard juggling and pasting
From my discussions with developers, keyboards that deal with any kind of media are currently not allowed to paste said media directly into any input forms (such as Messages’ text box). This limitation doesn’t make much sense to me, but dropping it makes a ton of sense.
Sharing GIFs from a keyboard should work just like sharing emoji. User taps it, it appears in the box. Send.
Allow some kind of onboarding in-app (er, in-keyboard)
In some ways, a keyboard is just like any other app, which means users need help to learn about its features. You know how most apps these days display at least some kind of tutorial the first time you run them, or (better yet) the first time you try a specific feature or section?
As far as I know, iOS keyboards can’t display any kind of onboarding. That means if users manage to not be deterred by the manual setup process, they are largely in the dark about how the keyboard works and possibly even how to trigger it in the first place (since the Settings app doesn’t explain how to switch keyboards either).
We can debate whether keyboard onboarding should be triggered the first time users switch to it. But the point is that some kind of basic instruction is necessary to help users get familiar, nay, interested and excited to use these strange, new, exhilerating, but currently handicapped new apps.