By Dan Moren
November 19, 2018 11:40 AM PT
Amazement at iOS cursor movement shortcut says a lot about discoverability
Note: This story has not been updated for several years.
Over the past few days, I’ve seen a ton of people on Twitter (including plenty of folks I’d describe as pretty tech savvy) have their mind blown by a tweet explaining how to move the cursor on the iOS keyboard.
How come you guys never told me this iPhone trick? I feel duped. pic.twitter.com/2RfRhI4Y1X
— Krissy Brierre-Davis (@krissys_kitchen) November 18, 2018
It is a handy tip, for sure, but not one that I, or probably most people who read this site, would consider particularly obscure. But there’s a confluence of reasons why this is making waves at this particular moment, and I thought it might be interesting to break down why as well as what it might mean for Apple and iOS.
It’s not a new feature…except it is
This cursor-movement feature first debuted with the iPhone 6s, where it was one of the most lauded capabilities of 3D Touch. Force pressing anywhere on the keyboard would essentially turn the whole thing into a trackpad, allowing you to drag your finger to move the cursor and even select text.
Previously, the only way to move the cursor so was to directly tap the place in the text you’d like it to be—which was hit or miss, given the size of most of our fingers—or, for more precise movement, tap and hold to use the magnifying loupe introduced way back in the iPhone’s earliest days.
Around the same time, Apple also added this trackpad feature to the iPad, but since the tablet has never had 3D Touch capabilities, it went with an alternate mechanic: tapping and holding on the keyboard with two fingers.
However, despite that, older iPhones without 3D Touch have never had this trackpad mode…until Apple added a similar feature in this year’s iOS 12. Now if you have a device that doesn’t support 3D Touch—and I believe this includes the new iPhone XR—you can tap and hold on the spacebar and slide your finger to move the cursor.
That interface isn’t exactly new, either. Google’s Gboard third-party keyboard for iOS has the same mechanic, and I believe many Android devices use that functionality as well.
The more you don’t know
This has raised a number of questions about feature discoverability. After all, there’s nothing particularly obvious about pressing and holding the spacebar to move the cursor—there’s no inherent semantic reason why the spacebar should be connected to cursor movement; it’s simply a convenient place to put the feature because it’s a large, centrally located key that’s present on most keyboards.1
3D Touch itself is not the most discoverable of features. While users may have encountered it in triggering the flashlight or camera shortcuts on some iPhones’ lock screens, or perhaps even stumbled across it by accidentally pressing too hard on their screens, it’s not well explained or laid out by Apple. Even having found it, some users may not quite get what they’ve found.
Moreover, the company’s most recently released phone, the XR, doesn’t support 3D Touch, instead using a similar feature called Haptic Touch—which doesn’t work everywhere 3D Touch does.
So, complicating the discoverability of this feature is that Apple has three separate mechanics for the same cursor movement feature on 3D Touch iPhones, non-3D Touch iPhones, and iPads. That is a little bit bananas, and has led to confusion and more than a few inane arguments on social media.
But at the root of this issue is that this feature is not necessarily well known, not because it hasn’t been written about or discussed, but because it’s not discoverable—which is to say, if you were not aware that such a feature existed, how would you ever know to go looking for it in the first place? Certainly, those folks who seek out every tech detail or hint might come across it online, or those people might tell their friends, but it’s not something one is likely to just come across. It’s up there with Shake to Undo, which is also pretty undiscoverable, and possibly the “tap the status bar to go to the top of a list” shortcut.
The evolution of iOS
This points to a larger, more fundamental issue cropping up with iOS as the platform becomes more mature: how do you add functionality and make it easily discoverable?
Some of the challenge here is simply because of iOS’s constraints: Where on the smaller screen can you add more features that would be easy to discover? But another challenge is how the OS is architected. The Mac nearly always treated the menu bar as a “safe” zone to which you could always retreat if you needed to find a command. There’s no real analogue to that on iOS, with the exception perhaps of the status bar, which isn’t, aside from the aforementioned “jump to the top” feature, an interactive element.
I think this is a big part of the challenge Apple is dealing with as it continues to evolve and push iOS forward. iOS has made easy so many things that used to be difficult or require a lot of technical know-how, but as we ask more from our devices and as developers deliver it, we lose some of that initial pared-down elegance that Apple sought.
And, I’d argue, this is one reason the feature isn’t particularly discoverable: it’s a bolt-on that Apple added later after trying to essentially do away with what it probably considered and old outmoded interaction model—after all, the cursor system has been around for longer than many of us have been alive.
It’s not too different from the way that Apple aimed to avoid having users interact with files on iOS; there too, it eventually had to relent and add file management features. With iOS, Apple has attempted to push the computing model forward, dropping some of the cruft it has acquired over the last several decades. In large part, it’s succeeded—but it turns out that some of the old ways of doing things were there for a reason, meaning Apple had to reclaim the baby from the bathwater.
I’m not sure exactly what the fix is for this situation. Maybe it’s as simple as Apple providing a better tutorial experience for letting people know that these otherwise hard-to-find features exist. Or perhaps it’s as complex as finding a different way to design this functionality. Either way, it’s clearly a feature that people need and want2, so it shouldn’t go anywhere.
On the Mac, Apple long eschewed the addition of hard-to-discover features, such as contextual menus or keyboard shortcuts not listed in the menus.3 But it eventually gave in on many of those fronts as we all became more conversant with the conventions of computing.
Maybe that’s the direction this spacebar cursor movement is going: eventually it’ll just be something that everybody knows about and has accepted as “that’s just how it works”. Then again, maybe it’s another opportunity to look at how iOS is ready for the future.
- This wasn’t always the case on iOS keyboards; you used to have some that didn’t have spacebars, such as entering URLs, but those seem to have largely fallen by the wayside. ↩
- I use it all the time, but I’d argue that it can be a bit too finicky and annoying to control. ↩
- There have been some exceptions. The ability to move through text using the Command and/or Option keys in conjunction with the cursors, as well as selecting text by throwing Shift into the mix is still not well documented. ↩
[Dan Moren is the East Coast Bureau Chief of Six Colors. You can find him on Mastodon at @email@example.com or reach him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. His latest novel, the supernatural detective story All Souls Lost, is out now.]
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