A better way to program iOS text fields that have maximum lengths and accept or reject specific characters

by Joey deVilla on May 24, 2016

In my last article on iOS programming in Swift, I showed you how to add some code to your project that would allow you to add a “Max Length” property to all its text fields, which you could set in code, or better yet, in Xcode’s Interface Builder, as shown below:

max chars text field

For more details, you should take a look at that article, iOS programming trick: How to use Xcode to set a text field’s maximum length, Visual Studio-style.

A key part of what made it work was the @IBInspectable keyword. When applied to a property of an object that can be displayed in Interface Builder, it makes that property available to the Attributes Inspector, which in turn provides a user interface for viewing and changing that property.

That got me thinking: could I apply @IBInspectable to the text field tricks I covered in my April 2015 article, How to program an iOS text field that takes only numeric input or specific characters with a maximum length?

In that article, I covered how to program text fields that accepted only specified characters or accepted all characters except a specified set, and it required making the containing view controller adopt the UITextFieldDelegate protocol and use itself as its own delegate, and then implementing the textField(_:shouldChangeCharactersInRange:replacementString:) method.

Wouldn’t it be nice if it were simpler? Consider the illustration below of an “Allowed Chars Text Field”. It lets me specify the following in Interface Builder:

  1. That characters that are allowed to be entered into the text field, and
  2. The maximum number of characters that are allowed to be entered into the text field.

allowed chars text field

This works if the set of characters that I want to allow into the text field is small. How about the case where I want to do the opposite: prevent the user from entering a small set of specified characters? That would be a “Banned Chars Text Field”, and it would allow me to specify the following in Interface Builder:

  1. That characters that are not allowed to be entered into the text field, and
  2. The maximum number of characters that are allowed to be entered into the text field.

banned chars text field

Let’s make these happen!

Limiting the number of characters that can be put into a text field

In the article iOS programming trick: How to use Xcode to set a text field’s maximum length, Visual Studio-style, we put the following code into a file named TextFieldMaxLengths.swift:

Once again, here are the annotations for the numbered comments in the code:

  1. There are two big things going on in this single line of code, which declares and initializes maxLengths, a dictionary that stores the maximum lengths of text fields:
    • First, there’s the private declaration. In many programming languages, private means “accessible only inside the class”, but in Swift, private means “accessible only inside the source file where they’re defined”. Any code inside TextFieldMaxLengths.swift has access to maxLengths, and any code outside TextFieldMaxLengths.swift does not. By putting maxLengths in the same file as our UITextField extension, we get a place where we can store the maximum lengths of text fields (remember: extensions can only add methods, not properties), and by making it private, we keep other code from messing with it.
    • Then there’s the matter of what to use as the key for the maxLengths dictionary. Swift lets you use anything that conforms to the Hashable protocol as a dictionary key, and UITextField does just that. It makes sense to use the text fields themselves as the keys to the values for their maximum lengths.
  2. Swift extensions let you add new functionality to existing classes, structs, enumerations, and protocols. We’re using an extension to UITextField to add two things:
    • maxLength, a property that lets the programmer set and get the maximum length of a text field, and
    • limitLength, a method called whenever the contents of a text field are changed, and limits the number of characters in that text field.
  3. By marking the maxLength property with @IBInspectable, we make it available to Interface Builder, which then provides an editor for its value in the Attributes Inspector.
  4. Get to know and love the guard statement and the “early return” style of programming; you’re going to see a lot of it in a lot of Swift coding. Here, we’re using guard to filter out cases where no maximum length has been defined for the text field, in which case, we simply return the theoretical maximum string size.
  5. We use addTarget in maxLength‘s setter to ensure that if a text field is assigned a maximum length, the limitLength method is called whenever the text field’s contents change.
  6. Another guard statement. Any case that gets past it is one where the text about to go into the text field is longer than the maximum length.
  7.  Cocoa sometimes likes to make things complicated. This line is the Cocoa way of saying “put the first maxLength characters of prospectiveText into text“. If you’re going to be playing with substrings, you need to get comfortable with Ranges and intervals.

max length text field

Any Xcode project containing the code in TextFieldMaxLengths.swift will have text fields featuring “maximum length” properties that can be set in either Interface Builder or in code.

text2 screenshot

If you’d like to see these “max length” text fields in action, download the Text2 project (the running app is pictured above) and try them out!

AllowedCharsTextField: A text field that allows only specific characters

Let’s build on our new, improved text fields by creating one that accepts only characters from a defined set. You might need a text field that accepts only digits, or punctuation, or the letters A, C, G, and T. We’ll make setting up such a text field easy by creating a subclass of UITextField, which we’ll call AllowedCharsTextField. Since it’s a subclass of UITextField, it inherits all its capabilities, which includes any extensions, including the “max length” one we created.

Use File → New → File… to create a new Swift File. Give it the name AllowedCharsTextField.swift, and once you’ve created it, enter the following code into it:

Here’s what’s happening just after the numbered comments in the code:

  1. Our class inherits from UITextField to get the capabilities of a text field, and it adopts the UITextFieldDelegate protocol to be able to respond to the textField(_:shouldChangeCharactersInRange:replacementString:) method in order to intercept changes to the text field just after they’ve been input by the user, but before they’re committed to the text field.
  2. allowedChars stores the characters that we’ll allow in the text field, and @IBInspectable makes its value editable in Interface Builder. Interface Builder takes the code-cased allowedChars property name and displays it as Allowed Chars in the Attributes Inspector.
  3. This indicates that this class is the UITextFieldDelegate and will implement at least one UITextFieldDelegate method — in this case, textField(_:shouldChangeCharactersInRange:replacementString:).
  4. We disable autocorrection because it has a tendency to bypass the the textField(_:shouldChangeCharactersInRange:replacementString:) method that we use to detect allowed characters. I’ll admit it; this is a quick a dirty fix. That being said, you probably don’t want “autocucumber” in a text field like this anyway. I’m looking into ways to allow autocorrection and still have this text field work as designed.
  5. This method gets called after the user has made changes to the text field, but before they’re committed. It gives us a chance to cancel those changes. The method should return true if we want to accept the changes, and false otherwise.
  6. We’re only concerned about cases where characters are added, so if this string has a length of 0, exit early.
  7. Here’s where the real work is done:
    • ?? is Swift’s nil coalescing operator. It returns the left operand if it’s not nil, otherwise it returns the right operation (e.g.: x ?? y returns x if it isn’t nil, otherwise it returns y).
    • We create prospectiveText, which is the text that would result if we accept the user’s changes.
    • If prospectiveText contains only the allowed characters, we return true; otherwise, we return false.
  8. We’re using an extension of String to give it a containsOnlyCharactersIn function, which returns true if the string contains only the characters in the given string, false otherwise.

That’s all the code we need to create AllowedCharsTextField. To use it, drag a plain ol’ text field onto a view in the storyboard and do the following:

allowed chars 1

1. Select the Identity Inspector.
2. Select the text field.
3. Change its class to AllowedCharsTextField.

By default, the underlying class for a text field in the Storyboard is UITextField. However, the Identity Inspector lets you change the classes of things on the storyboard to other classes related by inheritance. If you got to the Custom Class  menu in the Identity Inspector and expand the Class drop-down menu, you’ll see that you now have two choices: AllowedCharsTextField and UITextField. Changing this value to AllowedCharsTextField marks the text field as an instance of our new AllowedCharsTextField instance instead of a regular UITextField.

You’ll know it’s working in the next couple of steps:

allowed chars 2

4. Select the Attributes Inspector.
5. You can now define allowed characters and maximum length in Interface Builder.

You can also define allowed characters and maximum length in code:

BannedCharsTextField: A text field that bans only specific characters

AllowedCharsTextField works well for text fields where the set of characters that we want to allow into it is relatively small. There may be times when you want the opposite: a text field that accepts all characters, except for a certain few specific ones. Let’s build one in the same way we built AllowedCharsTextField and call it BannedCharsTextField.

Use File → New → File… to create a new Swift File. Give it the name BannedCharsTextField.swift, and once you’ve created it, enter the following code into it:

Here’s what’s happening just after the numbered comments in the code:

  1. Our class inherits from UITextField to get the capabilities of a text field, and it adopts the UITextFieldDelegate protocol to be able to respond to the textField(_:shouldChangeCharactersInRange:replacementString:) method in order to intercept changes to the text field just after they’ve been input by the user, but before they’re committed to the text field.
  2. bannedChars stores the characters that we’ll allow in the text field, and @IBInspectable makes its value editable in Interface Builder. Interface Builder takes the code-cased bannedChars property name and displays it as Banned Chars in the Attributes Inspector.
  3. This indicates that this class is the UITextFieldDelegate and will implement at least one UITextFieldDelegate method — in this case, textField(_:shouldChangeCharactersInRange:replacementString:).
  4. We disable autocorrection because it has a tendency to bypass the the textField(_:shouldChangeCharactersInRange:replacementString:) method that we use to detect banned characters. I’ll admit it; this is a quick a dirty fix. That being said, you probably don’t want “autocucumber” in a text field like this anyway. I’m looking into ways to allow autocorrection and still have this text field work as designed.
  5. This method gets called after the user has made changes to the text field, but before they’re committed. It gives us a chance to cancel those changes. The method should return true if we want to accept the changes, and false otherwise.
  6. We’re only concerned about cases where characters are added, so if this string has a length of 0, exit early.
  7. Here’s where the real work is done:
    • ?? is Swift’s nil coalescing operator. It returns the left operand if it’s not nil, otherwise it returns the right operation (e.g.: x ?? y returns x if it isn’t nil, otherwise it returns y).
    • We create prospectiveText, which is the text that would result if we accept the user’s changes.
    • If prospectiveText contains only the allowed characters, we return true; otherwise, we return false.
  8. We’re using an extension of String to give it a doesNotContainCharactersIn function, which returns true if the string doesn’t contain any of the characters in the given string, false otherwise.

That’s all the code we need to create BannedCharsTextField. To use it, drag a plain ol’ text field onto a view in the storyboard and do the following:

banned chars 1

1. Select the Identity Inspector.
2. Select the text field.
3. Change its class to BannedCharsTextField.

By default, the underlying class for a text field in the Storyboard is UITextField. However, the Identity Inspector lets you change the classes of things on the storyboard to other classes related by inheritance. If you got to the Custom Class  menu in the Identity Inspector and expand the Class drop-down menu, you’ll see that you now have three choices: AllowedCharsTextFieldBannedCharsTextField, and UITextField. Changing this value to BannedCharsTextField marks the text field as an instance of our new BannedCharsTextField instance instead of a regular UITextField.

You’ll know it’s working in the next couple of steps:

banned chars 2

4. Select the Attributes Inspector.
5. You can now define allowed characters and maximum length in Interface Builder.

You can also define allowed characters and maximum length in code:

“Allowed + Banned Chars Text Fields”: A sample project showing text fields with maximum lengths, AllowedCharsTextField, and BannedCharsTextField in action

allowed - banned chars app screenshot

You’re probably raring to try out the code from this article. Here’s a project you can play with that presents a quick-and-dirty single view app with 4 text fields:

  1. A text field a maximum length of 6 characters.
  2. A vowels-only text field with a 5-character maximum length, with the Max Length and Allowed Chars properties set in Interface Builder.
  3. A no-vowels-allowed text field with a 7-character maximum length, with the Max Length and Banned Chars properties set in Interface Builder.
  4. A text field with a 10-character maximum length that accepts only the characters from the word freaky. Its maxLength and allowedChars properties were set in code in the view controller’s viewDidLoad method.

Give it a try, learn what makes it tick, and use it as a jumping-off point for your own projects!

xcode download

You can download the project files for this article (37KB zipped) here.

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

1 deepthi September 4, 2016 at 1:05 pm

Thanks for this. How can I restrict the number of times a particular character is used? e.g. decimal point should only be used once in a number.

2 Joey deVilla September 4, 2016 at 11:44 pm

deepthi: That’s a good question! I have a solution for you, and I’ll post it in an article this week.

3 Ivan September 6, 2016 at 8:21 am

Doesn’t the dictionary create a memory leak by holding references to the text views?

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