Stop Misusing Autocorrect

Photo: Martino5

There’s a right way and a wrong way to use your phone’s autocorrect, says the person who invented it. Ken Kocienda, former Principal Engineer of iPhone Software for Apple and author of the new book Creative Selection: Inside Apple’s Design Process During the Golden Age of Steve Jobs, led the team creating the first software keyboard for the first release of iOS. And he says that it’s possible to get too aggressive with autocorrect.

Autocorrect has evolved since its first form, but it’s still mostly based on the same fundamental factors. When you type a word, your keyboard’s software asks these three questions:

  1. What dictionary words, when typed “correctly,” would make similar tap patterns to the user’s? (Your taps make a “keyboard constellation,” which your phone compares to the ideal constellations for every dictionary word.)

  2. Which of these words are more common, and how much more common? (Kocienda points to Zipf’s Law, which predicts proportional word frequency in any language.)

  3. Which of these words show up in the user’s “dynamic dictionary”—their most frequently used words, or the names of their contacts, or words they’ve retyped even after autocorrect changed them?

For each word, the software has to choose how much to weigh these three factors to decide what you meant. To understand how difficult this choice is, and how much is at stake, remember how long it took to teach your phone the word “fuck.”

But this whole process works best if you don’t stop to fix every word. It’s much more efficient to type a whole sentence or message, then proofread at the end. That’s what the system was designed for, and what works best in Apple’s user testing.

And this will get even truer as autocorrect and predictive text become more sophisticated, says Kocienda. As keyboards examine longer passages, they can recognise more mistakes. For instance, he says, your phone might think you typed of, but realise several words later that you meant to type if. (It knows you didn’t mean “Of you like piña coladas, and getting caught in the rain...”) The more advanced autocorrect gets, the more it can fix things without you constantly watching it. So learn to trust autocorrect. (Or turn it off.)

Turn Off Autocorrect, You Coward

When was the last time autocorrect made your life easier? Reach back in your memory and try to conjure up a time that autocorrect really nailed it.

I know we only notice technology when it's not working, but if you can't think of one, it's time to accept that autocorrect is bad.

Read more

And don’t constantly rely on predictive text. I use this bad habit too often, checking the suggested words above the keyboard, seeing if I can tap the finished word to save a couple of seconds here and there. Kocienda calls this context switching — you’re typing, then you’re reading, then you’re looking, and every time you switch between those tasks, you lose some time and attention. In Apple’s tests, most users (not just advanced phone typists) typed much faster if they just completed their own words. Predictive text is best ignored outside of unusual words or situations.

This kind of revelation reminds me how much I miss the hardware keyboards on the BlackBerry and the Sidekick. But as Kocienda points out, because software keyboards can disappear and make room for twice the display space, they’re necessary for full-screen phones. In his view, we couldn’t get the full-featured apps we have now while lugging around a hardware keyboard. So we have to give up the simplicity of clicking a real physical button — which wasn’t actually all that easy.

What separates Apple from competitors like Google, Kocienda tells Lifehacker, is that Apple always aims to make the single best choice for most users, instead of handing the choice off to users, which can overwhelm busy people who just want to send a text. That means that some features and options come out later on iPhones than on Androids, but once they show up, they’re usually thoughtfully designed. (Usually.)

Kocienda says this is another reason that tech needs diversity: Devices like the iPhone are meant for everyone, and you can’t design for everyone if everyone isn’t represented on your design and engineering teams. You can’t design a software keyboard without considering the sizes of the hands and fingers that use it. And if you’re not anticipating problems until you start user testing, you can’t come up with the best solutions.


Comments

    They didn't invent autocorrect. They simply implemented it on iOS with the same heuristics as was used in preceding decades on desktop devices.

    Given the tiny little keys on the iPhone, auto-correct was a necessity for me (and I suspect for most males over the age of 11) when using an iPhone.
    It was also the strongest reason why I eventually threw my iPhone in the bin in disgust, because it repeatedly refused to learn words it believed were misspelled.
    Moving to a Blackberry z10 was a huge revelation on just how reassuring proper auto-correct could be, and I was able to write with confidence, without having to check that I wasn't inadvertently asking someone if they wanted to eat a box of dogs nuts, instead of doughnuts.
    The software keyboard is one of the few things I really miss about the BB, since moving to Android.

    Admittedly, all this malarkey was with iPhone 4, so I'd sincerely hope they have implemented a much better version of auto-correct in the years since, but for the lead engineer to do a Steve Jobs, and tell users (years later) 'You're doing it wrong' sounds like either a guilty admission of failure or just arrogance.
    If the tool was to have been used in a particular manner, then they could have put it in the manual that accompanied the phone. Oh, wait..

      Well, iphone 4 screen size has been overtaken many times now, making it easier. And yes, the autocorrect has gotten better.

      You can also go into "keyboard text expansion" and put the words you want in there.

      Android on last check (2015?) still had better auto-correct customisation than iOS today.

    Autocorrect would be much more usable if you could UNDO it easily. Sadly UNDO will also undo your previous typing as well. Someone wasn't thinking when they designed that.

    It’s much more efficient to type a whole sentence or message, then proofread at the end.
    Not on an Iphone it isn't. Trying to touch a single word to select it in IOS is like trying to pick a toy out of a claw machine. You can put your finger on the exact spot where you want to edit a word but the cursor will randomly move to a different spot and so you have to try another few times or just delete the whole sentence and try again.

Join the discussion!

Trending Stories Right Now