After our recent move to the Google cloud and all the services within it like Docs and Gmail, our Languages department have had to face a few new challenges. We teach several different languages here at PLC Sydney and many of them requires the use of special characters. French, for example, uses accented characters like é, è, ç, å and so on. Prior to the move to Google, our language teachers knew all the various keyboard shortcuts to enter these characters into a program like Word or Outlook, and life was good.
After the move to Gmail and Docs however, these same keyboard shortcuts no longer worked, making the potential move to Google Docs seem like a bad idea for language teaching. “It’s ridiculous that Google Docs can’t do such basic things when it’s so easy in Word and Outlook” was the general consensus.
Searching for a solution online revealed that we were not the only ones who were struggling with this issue. Lots of people were complaining about the poor diacritical mark support in Google Docs. “If Google Docs is ever to be a credible alternative to Office, they really need to fix this!”
After Googling around for a solution, the suggested workarounds were (in my opinion) unsatisfactory from a user perspective (and hence me taking the time to write this blog post… hopefully this might be helpful to someone else trying to solve the same problem). The suggestions were…
Technique 1: Use the Insert > Special Characters option in Docs. Not only is this method really messy and cumbersome, it doesn’t solve the problem of typing a message in Gmail, where inserting special characters is not an option. Not useful.
Technique 2: Use Alt Codes… basically you hold down the Alt key and type the 3 or 4 digit code for the character you want. Apart from being an extremely engineering focused solution rather than a user experience focused one, the Alt Codes only worked when using the numbers on the numeric keypad of a keyboard, and not when using the numbers from the top row of the keyboard. Given that almost our entire school userbase uses laptop computers, this would have involved typing Funtion+NumLock to turn the numeric keypad on, then holding down Alt while typing the 3 or 4 digit code, then typing Function + NumLock again to turn the regular keyboard back on. That’s 8 or 9 keystrokes to type a single character! Hardly an elegant solution.
Both of these “solutions” were unacceptable to me. I could not seriously expect a user to go to all this hassle just to type a single character, and in any piece of French text there were likely to be many of these characters needed. The fact that Google Docs was so crippled in this regard was very annoying.
Then I tweeted about it, asking if anyone had a solution to the problem of typing these diacritical marks. Alex Guenther replied to say that it worked fine and it was really easy on a Mac, just type Option + the letter. I tried it on a nearby Mac and yes, of course it worked… right there in my open Google Doc!
Hang on… if the Mac can type these characters into the Google Doc, then it can’t be a problem with Google Docs. The problem has to be with the way the text input to Google Docs is being implemented within Windows itself. As it turns out, the fact that we used to be able to use Windows keyboard shortcuts for these characters in Office applications, but now not in GoogleDocs, had nothing at all to do with the change to GoogleDocs… it seems that the Windows shortcuts won’t work in ANY environment outside of Microsoft’s own Office tools. The Mac, on the other hand, handles the text input for characters at the operating system level, not the application level… which is far more sensible.
Ah ha! The penny dropped… If that’s the case, maybe we just need to get something like TextExpander, a neat tool for the Mac that allows you to create customised, system-wide keyboard shortcuts. Once you define your shortcuts you just type those few keys and the text expands out to reveal the full version of the text… so, for example, a shortcut such as “ilu” could be defined to expand out as “I love you”, and be implemented at the system level and therefore work using ANY application on the computer.
Something like that might solve the problem… if we could have a system-wide keyboard shortcut that took a set of simple user-defined keystrokes like a` and converted them to à, would solve the problem nicely. Unfortunately, TextExpander is only for the Mac.
A quick search using [windows equivalent of textexpander] turned up this article from LifeHacker which mentioned a Windows alternative called Texter. Even better, it is an GPL licenced tool, so it’s free! We installed it and after adding a whole collection of French keyboard shortcuts, it works a treat! We can now open a Google Doc, or any other application, and the shortcuts work nicely. They can be a wee bit laggy at times, but the important thing is they work!
So, if you’re a Windows user who needs to enter French diacritical marks in Google Docs (or any other web application) the best solution seems to be to use a text expander style program to create customised keyboard shortcuts that work on the system level.
Here’s the interesting kicker to this story… In my initial frustration of thinking this was a Google Docs problem, I sent off a support ticket to Google’s eSupport team, complaining that not being able to enter accented characters into their software was a problem that needed to be addressed but thinking that, realistically, nothing would come of it. After all, this is Google right? The big faceless behemoth that worships the cult of the algorithm.
Over the next hour or so we worked out the solution using Texter mentioned above and realised that it was Windows that was the cuplrit, not Docs. But imagine my surprise when I got a call from Nicholas, a Francophone Google employee in Montreal Canada, who was calling me directly to help sort out our problem. We chatted for a while about the various options and I explained to him what we eventually did, but simply getting a call directly from the Big G was quite the surprise.
Sorry for blaming you Google Docs. ilu.Image from http://ilovetypography.com/2008/10/03/diacritical-challenge/