The Unlearnable Spell Checker

Update: 12 July 2018

The latest release of Synology Office has addressed the major issues raised in this post. The spell checker now uses the natural right-click action which is good.  On the downside, if you use UK English settings the spell checker is completely ineffective. That issue is being worked by Synology.

In the meantime, I have raised a Feature Request to ask them to make any even more substantive change. The application is entirely browser based, and all browsers have a fully functional spell checker.  Therefore there is no point in Synology replicating that functionality. My browser spell checker has a comprehensive custom dictionary that I have built over the years.  Why would I not want to use that?  Why would I want to have to recreate it in Synology Office?  It makes no sense and is a waste of precious development time.

Many parts of Synology Office already use the browser spell checker, so you are in the strange position where, for example, if you use a custom word in the body text of a document, and again in a comment, you have to add the custom word to Synology’s custom dictionary and again to the browser’s.  That is just daft.

Paul Barrett

Synology Office’s spell checker access sucks. 


Every time I use it I do the wrong thing. 


I’ve done the wrong thing hundreds of times and yet I continue to do the wrong thing. 


Sometimes my internal “dumb-ass” alert kicks in while I’m in the process of doing the wrong thing but by then it’s too late – I’m already committed to doing the wrong thing. 


I can’t stop my middle finger from clicking the right-hand mouse button.


Am I being particularly dumb?  Why can’t I learn to do the right thing?  Am I turning into my father on yet another level – my inability to handle tech?  Actually, no. Turns out I’m not alone.

Essential Reading

A colleague tweeted a link to an article on this very topic, by Christina Wodkte – The Intuitive and the Unlearnable.  It’s worth reading.  If you’re a product manager / designer it may be an uncomfortable read.  But you need to read it and heed it.  If you’re not ready to read I’m going to cover some salient points because it encapsulates my thinking on software design in general, and Synology Office spell checker access in particular.

Why does Synology Office’s spell checker access suck?

It boils down to two things:

  • It requires you do do the unexpected
  • But only sometimes

The unexpected is that when this  , my instinctive reaction is to right click to correct it.  

You too?  Well we’re wrong.  In Synology Office the product designers decided that you should left click the word to select it then hold down the shift key and right click the word to correct it. Three unexpected actions instead of one universal and expected practice.

But you don’t do this all the time.  In Documents and Slides > Comments, the right click method applies. In Sheets the right click applies to the basic app itself! Meanwhile companion apps to Office, most notably MailPlus, Calendar and Chat, use right click.

Why is this wrong?

Users have learned that right click = spell check  To be required to learn a different way in Synology Office is absurd.  To be inconsistent in using that rule inside Synology Office is perverse.  To be inconsistent with companion products to Synology Office just adds to the confusion.  Wodtke says:

I nominate Synology Office spell check access.

Why is it hard to learn the Synology  Office method?

For an app to be intuitive (or more correctly, intuitable) it must be consistent with the end-user’s experience

Christina Wodtke

Look at the apps that use right click to invoke spell check.  Microsoft Office is the dominant force with 1.2 billion users and a quarter of a century of precedent.  Google Docs is next.

You can only understand something relative to something you already understand.

Richard Saul Wurman

If you design something that flies in the face of common understanding, you are creating the “unlearnable design”

What do we understand already?

We understand that right click will show us the spell check options because we already understand the wider principle that right click will present a context sensitive menu.  It’s been doing that for 25 years. That practice exists in just about every software package on the planet.  It even exists in Synology Office:

The reason Sheets behaves “normally,” and presents us with a right click spell check is that Synology haven’t replaced the browser’s behaviour with their own, unlike in Documents

Design for the USER

But the right click options they have provided make no sense.  Right click menus are all about quick access to commonly used functions.  None of the highlighted functions are that commonly used…

… and all of them are available on the Office toolbar when they’re needed.  Meanwhile, the top four options which are commonly used are all available on the browser’s native right click menu.

So replacing the browser right click has zero benefit for the end user.  ZERO.  And it comes at a high cost because it reduces their productivity.

It is baffling. It’s inconsistent inside the Synology world.  And it’s inconsistent with the world outside Synology.

Great consistency means being consistent with the world of the user, which does not begin and end with your company.

Christina Wodtke


I reported this issue to Synology in January 2018.  Let’s hope they fix it soon.  In the meantime, the one lesson I have learned is that when this , it’s easier to correct it manually than to faff around with their unlearnable alternative.


Paul Barrett


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