Customizing the iOS keyboard

Posted on by in Mobile

Our applications need input and the default iOS keyboards are often not optimally suited to providing the sort of data we want. When we find that we really wish the keyboard had some extra controls or want to help our users enter a specific set of symbols it is time to customize our apps’ keyboards.

What controls the keyboard anyway?

Our first exposure to different keyboard types probably comes from UITextField and UITextView. Both provide conform to the UITextInputTraits protocol which gives us options to set the keyboard type, return key type, keyboard appearance, and other behaviors. Those options cover many of the types of text input we might want to support; plain text, passwords, email addresses, urls, and so on. That’s a good place to start customizing our keyboard options but UITextInputTraits itself doesn’t present the keyboard so when we need behavior the protocol doesn’t provide we will have to keep looking.

Traversing up the class hierarchy we see that UITextField, UITextView, and indeed all UIView objects inherit from UIResponer. All of the responder objects in our views form a responder chain, a sequence of objects which will be given a chance to respond to non-touch input events. (If this isn’t a familiar topic then take a look at “Responder Objects and the Responder Chain” in the “Event Handling Guide for iOS” for a full discussion of how the system works.) Whenever a responder becomes the first responder (see -becomeFirstResponer) it determines what, if any, keyboard needs to be shown.
UIResponder gives us two read-only properties for controlling the keyboard’s appearance; inputView which provides the keyboard itself and inputAccessoryView which controls the accessory view attached to the top of the keyboard (containing the “next” and “previous” buttons when editing a form in Mobile Safari for example). By returning our own views from these properties we can replace the system keyboards with any custom UIView we care to construct.

Start simple: customizing UITextView

UITextField (and UITextView) redefine their inputView and inputAccessoryView properties to be readwrite instead of readonly. When working with these view classes we can therefore set their keyboard easily from some other class, like our view controller.

Suppose we were want to support editing markdown formatted text in our app. The system keyboards work well for this but it takes three taps to enter a # or * and \ doesn’t appear on the keyboard at all. That’s going to make it difficult for our users to emphasize text or insert code blocks. Let’s add an input accessory view to give them “emphasize”, “strong”, and “code” formatting controls.

Given a simple view controller with UITextView *textView and UIView *accessoryView outlets we can set the text view’s inputAccessoryView in our -viewDidLoad.

@interface MarkdownViewController : UIViewController

@property (nonatomic, strong) IBOutlet UITextView *textView;
@property (nonatomic, strong) IBOutlet UIView *accessoryView;

@end

@implementation MarkdownViewController

@synthesize textView;
@synthesize accessoryView;

- (void)viewDidLoad
{
    [super viewDidLoad];
    self.textView.inputAccessoryView = self.accessoryView;
}

- (void)viewDidUnload
{
    [super viewDidUnload];
    self.textView = nil;
    self.accessoryView = nil;
}

@end

Now when the text view becomes the first responder we see our accessory view added to the top of the keyboard.

Responding to input

Showing our accessory view is only half of the solution. We also want to make changes to our text view's content when a user taps one of the accessory view's buttons. Let's create a custom view class for our accessory view and give it a reference to the text field.

@interface MarkdownInputAccessoryView : UIView

@property(nonatomic, weak) id <UITextInput> delegate;

- (IBAction)toggleStrong:(id)sender;
- (IBAction)toggleEmphasis:(id)sender;
- (IBAction)toggleCode:(id)sender;

@end

@implementation MarkdownInputAccessoryView

@synthesize delegate;

- (IBAction)toggleStrong:(id)sender {
    UITextRange *selectedText = [delegate selectedTextRange];
    if (selectedText == nil) {
        //no selection or insertion point
        //...
    }
    else if (selectedText.empty) {
        //inserting text at an insertion point
        [delegate replaceRange:selectedText withText:@"*"];
        //...
    }
    else {
        //updated a selected range
        //...
    }
}

- (IBAction)toggleEmphasis:(id)sender {
    //...
}

- (IBAction)toggleCode:(id)sender {
    //...
}

@end

Our controller can then set the delegate property and the accessory view will be able to update the text field.

//...
@property (nonatomic, strong) IBOutlet UIView *accessoryView;
//...
- (void)viewDidLoad
{
    [super viewDidLoad];
    self.accessoryView.delegate = self.textView;
    self.textView.inputAccessoryView = self.accessoryView;
}

Adding complexity: keyboards for a custom UIView

Adding a custom input view is much the same as adding a custom input accessory view. When we're working with a UITextField or UITextView we can create the custom view and pass it to the appropriate property's setter.If however we have built a custom UIView subclass then we have to do a little more work.

If it still makes sense for a view controller or other class to provide the view with its input views then we can redeclare inputView and inputAccessoryView as readwrite properties, exposing setters so that the view can be given references to the input views it should use. Alternately we can override the inputView and inputAccessoryView getter methods to return appropriate views. I tend to prefer the latter option because it allows a view to how its own input controls should be presented but if selecting an appropriate input view depends on factors like the current interface idiom or language then it may make more sense for an external service to provide an input view for the current view.

If we wanted to build a view for displaying a score of sheet music we might build something like the following.

@class MusicScoreView;

@interface MusicScoreInputView : UIView

@property (nonatomic, weak) IBOutlet MusicScoreView *delegate;

@end

@interface MusicScoreView ()

@property(nonatomic, readwrite, strong) IBOutlet UIView *inputView;

- (void) loadInputView;

@end

@implementation MusicScoreView

@synthesize inputView;

- (id)initWithFrame:(CGRect)frame {
    self = [super init];
    if (self) {
        [self loadInputView];
    }
    return self;    
}

- (id)initWithCoder:(NSCoder *)coder
{
    self = [super initWithCoder:coder];
    if (self) {
        [self loadInputView];
    }
    return self;
}

- (void)loadInputView {
    UINib *inputViewNib = [UINib nibWithNibName:@"MusicScoreInputView" bundle:nil];
    [inputViewNib instantiateWithOwner:self options:nil];
}

@end

@interface MusicScoreInputView : UIView

@property (nonatomic, weak) IBOutlet MusicScoreView *delegate;

@end

@implementation MusicScoreInputView

@synthesize delegate;

@end

Visual styling: reacting to the keyboard

Now that we can display a custom keyboard we still need to make sure to adjust our views when it appears. Since the actual presentation of our input view is handled by UIKit we need to observe and react to the notifications the framework sends to announce changes in the input view's position. Apple provides a set of NSNotifications we can observe:

  • UIKeyboardWillShowNotification
  • UIKeyboardDidShowNotification
  • UIKeyboardWillHideNotification
  • UIKeyboardDidHideNotification

Each of these notifications includes a user info dictionary which describes the frame of the keyboard before and after its transition and the timing of the animation which will be used to show or hide it. When we rotate a device the keyboard may be resized to better support the new orientation. In that case we'll need to update the insets or positions of our other views as well to reflect these new dimensions. Again UIKit provides a set of notifications we can observe to determine the changing bounds of the keyboard and react accordingly.

  • UIKeyboardWillChangeFrameNotification
  • UIKeyboardDidChangeFrameNotification

Given these we can respond to the appearance or disappearance of the keyboard as needed.

- (void)viewWillAppear:(BOOL)animated {
    [[NSNotificationCenter defaultCenter] addObserver:self selector:@selector(updateScrollInsets:) name:UIKeyboardWillShowNotification object:nil];
    [[NSNotificationCenter defaultCenter] addObserver:self selector:@selector(updateScrollInsets:) name:UIKeyboardWillChangeFrameNotification object:nil];
    [[NSNotificationCenter defaultCenter] addObserver:self selector:@selector(resetScrollInsets:) name:UIKeyboardWillHideNotification object:nil];
}

- (void)viewDidDisappear:(BOOL)animated {
    [[NSNotificationCenter defaultCenter] removeObserver:self];
}

In most cases we will want to respond by adjusting the contentInset and scrollIndicatorInsets of a UIScrollView to add enough padding to the bottom of our scroll view's content view that all of its content can scroll to a position above the top of the keyboard. Alternately we might adjust the frames of some of our views directly but this is less desirable because it might leave a blank region on the screen (rather than showing the scroll view's background color), especially on an iPad where the user can choose to split the keyboard.

To calculate the appropriate insets we need to be aware that the keyboard is presented anchored to the bottom of the window, which is not necessarily flush with the bottom of the current view controller's view (for example we might have a tab bar or tool bar visible). We should only add insets equal to the height of the portion of our view which is being hidden by the keyboard.

- (void) updateScrollInsets:(NSNotification *)notification {
    //determine what portion of the view will be hidden by the keyboard
    CGRect keyboardEndFrameInScreenCoordinates;
    [[notification.userInfo objectForKey:UIKeyboardFrameEndUserInfoKey] getValue:&keyboardEndFrameInScreenCoordinates];
    CGRect keyboardEndFrameInWindowCoordinates = [self.view.window convertRect:keyboardEndFrameInScreenCoordinates fromWindow:nil];
    CGRect keyboardEndFrameInViewCoordinates = [self.view convertRect:keyboardEndFrameInWindowCoordinates fromView:nil];
    CGRect windowFrameInViewCoords = [self.view convertRect:self.view.window.frame fromView:nil];
    CGFloat heightBelowViewInWindow = windowFrameInViewCoords.origin.y + windowFrameInViewCoords.size.height - (self.view.frame.origin.y + self.view.frame.size.height);
    CGFloat heightCoveredByKeyboard = keyboardEndFrameInViewCoordinates.size.height - heightBelowViewInWindow;

    //build an inset to add padding to the content view equal to the height of the portion of the view hidden by the keyboard
    UIEdgeInsets insets = UIEdgeInsetsMake(0, 0, heightCoveredByKeyboard, 0);
    [self setInsets:insets givenUserInfo:notification.userInfo];
}

- (void) resetScrollInsets:(NSNotification *)notification {
    UIEdgeInsets insets = UIEdgeInsetsMake(0, 0, 0, 0);
    [self setInsets:insets givenUserInfo:notification.userInfo];
}

- (void) setInsets:(UIEdgeInsets)insets givenUserInfo:(NSDictionary *)userInfo {
    //match the keyboard's animation
    double duration = [[userInfo objectForKey:UIKeyboardAnimationDurationUserInfoKey] doubleValue];
    UIViewAnimationCurve animationCurve = [[userInfo objectForKey:UIKeyboardAnimationCurveUserInfoKey] intValue];
    UIViewAnimationOptions animationOptions = animationCurve;
    [UIView animateWithDuration:duration delay:0 options:animationOptions animations:^{
        self.textView.contentInset = insets;
        self.textView.scrollIndicatorInsets = insets;
    } completion:nil];
}

Summary

We've seen how to define custom input and input accessory views to enhance or replace the system keyboard. How to add those input views to existing text fields, text views, and to our own custom view classes. When an input view does appear we can also now appropriately adjust the rest of our content to accommodate it. With these tools we should now be ready to build custom input views tailored to the type of data we need and the context in which it will be gathered.

The examples given above are also available at https://jonah-carbonfive@github.com/jonah-carbonfive/CustomInputViewDemo.git


Feedback

  Comments: 19


  1. Great!

    Can I control the position of keyboard? iMessage seems to control the exact position of keyboard. While touching and dragging down the conversation view slowly it re-position the keyboard according to the touch.


    • I believe you can adjust the input view’s frame within its window to create a similar effect but I haven’t experimented with that enough to know if there are major pitfalls.


  2. I am developing an app for a specific type of emoticons keyboard but Im uncertain how to do this I want users to be able to download the keyboard after purchase and use in txt FB twitter and so on..Im familiar w/XML and coding but I am having a hard time any suggestions..or source codes for this type of app?


  3. Thanks for this helpful post!

    Do you know how I can get native looking keys like in IA Writer?


  4. Do you know if it’s possible to customize the insertion point color?


  5. Hi where can i download sample project?
    Thanks.

  6. Carbonfive Com


    Hey Jonah,

    thanks for the very helpful post. I was struggling with the textviews and the keyboard and your code Just Works. Excellent, thanks very much.

    Huib


  7. Fantastic post. Thanks so much.


  8. Thank you , from the bottom of my Heart


  9. Great article so far (I’m not done reading it.) However, it seems there is a typo.

    When you say:
    //…
    @property (nonatomic, strong) IBOutlet UIView *accessoryView;
    //…
    – (void)viewDidLoad
    {
    [super viewDidLoad];
    self.accessoryView.delegate = self.textView;
    self.textView.inputAccessoryView = self.accessoryView;
    }

    I think you mean that you need to change the property definition to:
    @property (nonatomic, strong) IBOutlet MarkdownInputAccessoryView *accessoryView;

    Otherwise, your implementation of MarkdownInputAccessoryView won’t even get called.


  10. For the Markdown Keyboard when you insert the bullet’s format * when the user types and hits enter, is there a way for the new line to start with the next bullet * ?

    Any suggestions for Markdown to HTML convert to an iOS/Mac app?

    Thank you for this great tutorial.


  11. Wow this is really cool Post!. Thanks Jonah!


  12. Great example… Can you suggest way to actually renter the Markdown text?

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