The trouble with tabbing: editing rich text on the Web

Matt Pearce, who joined the Flax team earlier this year, writes:

A recent client wished to convert documents to and from Microsoft Office formats, using a web form as an intermediate step for editing the content. The documents were read in, imported to a Solr search engine, and could then be searched over, cloned, edited and transformed in batches, before being exported to Office once more.

The content itself was broken down into fields, some of which were simple text or date entry boxes, while others were more complex rich text fields. We opted to use TinyMCE as our rich text editor of choice – it’s small, open source, and easy to extend (we already knew we wanted to write at least one plugin).

The problem arose when the client explained to us that they wanted to use the tab key in rich text fields to create consistent spacing in the text. These needed to display as closely as possible to the original document format, and convert to actual tabs in the Office documents. This presented a number of problems:
By default, the tab key moves the user to the next field on a web page, and needs special handling to prevent this behaviour, especially when it only needs to be applied to certain fields on the page. The spacing had to be consistent, like a word processor’s tab stop. This is tricky when working with proportional fonts, especially in a web form.

The client didn’t want to use an indent feature. The tab only came at the start of the paragraph – beyond that point the text could wrap around to the start of the line. The tab needed to be recognisable in our processing code, so it could be converted to a real tab when it was exported to MS Office.

The preferred solution would have been a document editor like that used for Google Docs. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the time to write the whole input and presentation layer in Javascript as Google have! We also wanted to keep the editing function inside the web application if possible, rather than forcing the user to edit the documents in Microsoft Office and then re-import them every time they needed to make changes.

I started with TinyMCE’s “nonbreaking” plugin, which captures the tab key and converts it to a number of non-breaking spaces. This wasn’t directly suitable for our needs – I discovered that the number of spaces is not always consistent, and they are sometimes converted to regular (rather than non-breaking) spaces. In addition, it doesn’t act like a tab stop – it inserts four spaces wherever you are on the line, which didn’t match the client’s requirement.

I adapted the plugin to insert a <span> into the text, using variable padding to ensure it was the right width. This worked reasonably well, after a not insignificant amount of head scratching trying to work around issues with spacing and space handling. Unfortunately, we struck usability problems when trying to backspace over the tab. The ideal situation would be that a single backspace would remove the entire tab, leaving the user at the start of the line (or the point before they hit the tab key). In fact, a single backspace would leave the user inside the span – two backspaces were required to visibly remove the tab from the editor, and the user could not tell that they were inside the span either. You couldn’t reliably select the “tab” with the mouse either. In addition, Firefox started to behave oddly at this point, putting the cursor in unexpected positions.

My final solution was ugly but workable. We switched to using a monospace font in the rich text editor and, after discussion with the client, started using a variable number of arrow characters to represent the tabs (we actually used , or a closing single quote, if you are reading and writing in German). This made life immediately simpler – dropping the proportional font meant that we didn’t have to worry about getting the width right, just the number of characters to insert. It does mean that in order to remove the tab, the user has to backspace over up to four characters, but the characters are clearly visible: you don’t find yourself inside a span that can’t be seen without viewing the underlying HTML.

While I’m sure this isn’t a unique problem, I couldn’t find anyone else that had been trying to do something similar. I am also not sure whether our choice of rich text editor affected how tricky this problem turned out to be. If anybody reading has suggestions of better approaches to this, we’d be interested to hear from them.

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