Android N: Multi-Window is Great, but the Recents Menu and Multitasking Got Worse
Two steps forward, one step back
Multitasking on Android has changed over the years, but most of the results have been noticeable only on the surface. The biggest changes in recent memory come from changes in the “recents menu” interface, specifically towards the side of apparent simplification.
Early last year I took a comprehensive look at the ways Android allowed one to navigate the UI in KitKat and Lollipop, with multi-tasking, or navigating between used apps, being one of the topics of discussion. In the article I noted that Lollipop’s multitasking menu changes meant a very different experience from the right-biased vertical thumbnail list we had seen up to KitKat. I had pointed out that the new system was undeniably attractive, and also surprisingly fluid with parallax scrolling. The main concern I had raised was the fact that each application “card” now had a different size and thus, a different area of input. Quickly enough I learned that this system actually had its merits, and I’ve used it for over a year with few complaints.
Android N is bringing massive refinements to Android, and after a deep dive we found that much of what the preview shows us is what users have been requesting for a long time. Finally bringing multi-window and the integration of a dark theme are among my favorite features, but the UI as a whole looks and feels more mature, with better use of space and a higher density of information. There is one thing that I think changed for the worse, and as you’ve read the title, you probably know I mean the recents menu.
At a first glance and from memory, the system doesn’t look much different. After all, it is still a card stack, it still scrolls non-linearly, and it still looks pretty. The first subtle difference one can see is at the fact that the width of all cards is equal, unlike in Lollipop. This is somewhat consistent with the rest of the aesthetics of Android N where cards stretch from edge-to-edge for a very clean, straight look. The biggest problem comes with the redesigned proportions of this panel, as well as the way it relates to the new ways through which Android N can switch between apps. Let’s go over those first:
You can now double tap the recents key to access your last application
Tap the recents key within the menu to initiate a timer to open the app and card scrolling with subsequent presses
This is, of course, excluding the multi-window functionality and the long-press and swipe-up features of the recents menu; the new multi-window is great, but the changes to traditional multi-tasking are worth looking into. The first of the aforementioned modifications is an extremely welcome addition. Double tapping recents to switch the last application is something XDA users have enjoyed for a long time in their custom ROMs, and opening up the feature to all Android users undoubtedly strengthens Android multi-tasking.
“XDA users have been enjoying the double-tap to last app shortcut for a long time now”
But while I am counting two new ways of entering the last application in a pinch, the traditional way of opening the last used application has gotten even better. If you can’t tell from the screenshot above, the recents menu is now very biased towards displaying singe applications, and upon launching it, the last used application takes a massive amount of space. Indeed, let’s have a look at how this menu evolved over the years:
We’ve color-coded the applications for easier identification of their order and surface, with yellow being the “current app” and blue being the “most-recent app”. These images put into contrast the differences in dimensions that each system brings to their apps. All of this makes a big difference to the UX, especially when you consider the popularity and prominence of the recents menu as a way to multi-task. From the pictures above, it’s clear that KitKat employs cards of the same dimensions, giving the same level of priority to all applications. The three-dimensional approach of Lollipop gave depth to the cards and consequently changed the priority bias towards the more recent applications. Android N’s system is a different beast altogether, and as you can see, it has a huge bias towards the most recent application.
This is a problem because of a very specific reason: it increases the amount of user-input required to access anything but the most recent application, while simultaneously favoring the one application that has special or preferential treatment through other navigation bar shortcuts (double-tap, tap-scrolling). The most recent app in this menu takes close to three-fourths of the screen, while the less-recent applications have been reduced to mere fractions if the screen with surprisingly commensurable length, thus given no priority over each other except for the height of the application.
I hope that you begin to see the problem I see: the recents menu, as soon as it launches, does not really allow you to access anything with a single touch but the current or most recent application. This means that if you wish to access the second-last application, you must scroll either through swiping or through the recents key, lest you want to reach to the very top of the phone and risk the wrong input, if you even recognise the app. The scroll function of the recents key is also problematic, because its first tap initiates the timer on the most recent application, not the one behind it. This is basically yet another way to access the last-used application, but it is slower than both the double-tap of the key and simply taping the gigantic preview of the last application.
The fact that the first timer of the key-scrolling is placed on the most recent app doesn’t break the functionality, but is pretty redundant when better ways now exist to access this particular application. The bias towards the most recent screen is, however, the most troublesome aspect here. Lollipop’s and Marshmallow’s systems conveniently place the most recent application under the position your thumb naturally lands after using the recents key, and the second-last application comfortable above it. Switching between both the last app and the second-last app is easy in MM. KitKat had equal heights for its last app and second-last app, while MM intelligently prioritizes the last app slightly, while de-prioritizing the second-last. This hierarchy in the card stack, I think, made sense — the stuff you have used most recently gets higher priority of accessibility, but you still have easy and immediate (that is, no additional input needed) shortcuts to other apps.
The search bar is now missing, but the reclaimed space was not well invested
So far I’ve focused on the recents menu as something static, which it is not. It is true that we all scroll through the beautiful stack of cards very often, but even then, the proportions chosen in Android N mean that you don’t have the same level of visibility you do in Lollipop and Marshmallow. Another issue I fear is that the setup will slow down the user’s identification process of cards, or at the very least, the time it takes to arrive at a particular card in such a way that it is easily identifiable and accessible. As you can see at the image at the top, LP and MM let you see the name of the last app, the second-last app (Drive) and the third-last app (Fit), and you can also see the color and part of the icon of the fourth-last app. On Android N, you can only see the name and logo of the last-used app — everything else requires additional input for mere identification excluding the card color. The same problem carries to tablets, where identification becomes particularly problematic. It’s also worth pointing out that there is no Google searchbar on N for phones, which would mean more space to worth with — sadly enough, the whole card stack does occupy more screen real estate, it just doesn’t do a good job at distributing it efficiently.
Another counter-argument is that the majority of users could focus simply on the last app, making their user experience simpler with this change. But if that is the case, then why introduce an amazingly handy shortcut to access the last application in less time and with easier input? Tapping twice on a single spot is faster, easier and more convenient than one tap proceeded by non-instant a tap at another location. The timer function, too, could use some extra work, and the dimensions of the cards make it a bit harder to predict or interpret which cards are coming next, and how close you are to the card you want.
What’s the Result?
Now I do realize it took me a while to understand why the card-stack system introduced in Lollipop was better than KitKat’s, and once I got used to it I found myself juggling between applications rather easily. I now use the recents menu fluidly and efficiently, but that didn’t happen overnight — like every system, one must get used to it. Once the user becomes aware of the specific areas he must tap to do a particular action, he can execute a shortcut without the slightest delay. For example, I find myself juggling between three applications at once every day, and I intuitively know which area of the screen results in which shortcut to which application. With Android N, switching between more than two applications (current and last) without extra input is unnecessarily clunky
This is a problem when you consider that the recents panel is an integral part of the Android user experience, that it is something we use every day, multiple times — even hundreds of times depending on one’s usage. To add extra input to a big percentage of usage scenarios, which might repeat themselves multiple times a day, while at the same time adding features that contradict the re-design, is a step back in my sincere opinion. I really hope that Android N readdresses the dimensions and behaviors of the recents menu, because I feel like it’ll get obnoxious in the long run.