Is Google Lost? A Reflection On Android Navigation
I remember my first Android device, and how it differed to the ones I have now in one major point: navigation keys. My old Motorola XT316 (a mid-range phone for Latin American markets) came with Froyo 2.2 and featured 4 TFT capacitive navigation keys: menu, home, back, and the long gone “search”. Android phones have come a long way since that OS, and since the early days of archaic UI design and choppy performance. Now we have the most beautiful and smoothest Android, and arguably one of the best Operating Systems… But there’s something that I really think has not improved all that much despite all the optimizations, and that is navigation.
By navigation, I mean the tools and means you’ve got that encompass all of your options for moving around your interface, or interacting with it. The most notable part of Android’s navigation would be, without a doubt, the navigation keys. Other aspects include the notification bar and shade, and the recent applications panel. While one could argue that the enhancements to speed and smoothness are the most significant improvements one could make to navigation, there are some other functions, additions and usability tweaks that also grant you a better sailing through your vast OS. There’s more to good navigation than just the bare basics and simplicity of the button offerings of Android.
While the 3 bottom keys are intuitive enough, I think Google really should have stretched a little more towards fundamentally improving the Android experience in its latest OS. I personally think that Material Design, and consequently Lollipop, feels more of a skinpack than it is a new iteration of Android, or the revolution in usability that some fans wanted it to be. I guess that when an OS gets to a certain point, there’s not that much to improve other than tweak the user experience through the aesthetics and direct interactions with the UI… but if this is the case, why was navigation neglected, given that there are many good navigation alternatives or concepts out there that could be incorporated? Let’s explore how Google could have done more for a better navigation in Android.
Software keys, Functions
The 3-key setup in Android is beautifully efficient. It works, and I think few people would have complaints with it. Like previously mentioned, my first device had 4 keys, and some were known to have 5. The removal of the Search button first, and the Menu button later meant a simpler, more efficient Android user interaction. The functions aren’t gone, but now have to be incorporated into the apps that feature them – because this was the problem all along; some apps didn’t need a Menu button, and even more apps didn’t need a Search button. This was a great fat trim by Google.
The movement from capacitive buttons to on-screen buttons allows for a lot of versatility that hasn’t been fully exploited: the keys are no longer tied to a graphic or icon, and thus their function isn’t predetermined to the user. In theory, having on-screen keys means that the keys can take many shapes and do many things, dynamically adapting to the context of the screen. You don’t see much of this on Android. The back key turns into a “Down” key when your keyboard is up, but that’s about it. I’d love to see more things like this, but with more creative context-sensitive functions.
The problem with this is the fact that there are just 3 keys. While you could have some nicer functions appear when the context is right, that would mean some other keys would have to go for the time the new option is available – and we don’t want that. After all, it’d be terrible to not be able to go home or switch apps when a certain element is on the screen. Regardless, I think something else can be done to maximize the possibility of on-screen buttons. Which leads me my second point about the bottom keys: Customizability.
The LG G3 had something that almost every reviewer loved about it, even if some didn’t use the feature: you could customize the navigation keys! Something so simple had taken almost 3 years (since the first software keys on the Galaxy Nexus) to be incorporated by any official phone maker. On LG’s flagship, you could set how many keys you wanted at the bottom, and what keys you wanted there, including access to useful features like multi-window, the deceased menu key, and something we didn’t even know we wanted in the form of a key to bring down the notification panel. Now, the best part about this is that the phone has a large display – and most phones are going this way – so it has the room to accommodate for more buttons without sacrificing much. We’ll talk a little more about phablets in a bit.
As another note, there’s still a lot of functionality ground Google hasn’t explored with their softkey offering. For example, ROMs like Cyanogen, Omni, Carbon, and Paranoid Android have had the “quick-switch” on the recents key for a while, allowing you to long-press the recents key to quickly access the app you opened before the current one. A little thing like that can do wonders for navigation and can really trim a second or two out of the transition. Things like sliding up software keys have also been known to be incorporated in ROMs. And much more could be thought of and added if Google employees sat in front of the drawing board (with a nice paycheck incentive, of course!) to come up with the future of Android navigation. Things like letting us link a few keys or functions to a single key slot, then swiping the software keys up to swap between them for when we need them, maybe having a nice little menu pop up for visual aid as to what key we are selecting. Not the best idea, but it took me a few seconds of unpaid thinking to come up with… I’m sure a software designer could do much more.
Recents panel, Animations
The new recents panel is beautiful. Simply beautiful! The Lollipop dev preview had me in awe at the sight of such a pretty, colorful and smooth stack of cards for me to file through. But now that I’ve been using Lollipop on multiple devices for a few months, it doesn’t feel all that special, and the initial magic is gone. The old panel, albeit uglier, worked a little better. I find myself spending more time scrolling through the cards back and forth than I did with my older panels. SlimKat and Paranoid Android, for example, also had very efficient recents panel alternatives, that worked well and fast. And I had added in a rather unconventional one for my Note 3’s ROM (pictured) that worked surprisingly well for a phablet.
The motions of the card-stack aren’t confusing enough to warrant a redesign, and admittedly I don’t have a big gripe with the new system, as looking at it is pleasing. But what I think of it when I see it is something that I feel Google is increasingly adopting: style over function. The long animations of Lollipop are pretty, but like hundreds have already pointed out before, they are just way too drawn out. I keep my animations either disabled or set to .5 speed, as I’m sure many here do. Without faster animations, I feel like I’m waiting for my processor-powerhouses of phones to do things I know it can do in a pinch. This also detracts from navigation, as the point of efficient navigation is to save time, not look cool.
Another big point of navigation is the cardinal location of objects in the interface. I think that Google has a weird double-think on this front. On one side, they are pushing bigger screens to our pockets with their affinity for phablets, given that they opted for a 6 inch device with their latest flagship, often coined their “vision of Android”. At the same time, Google has been doing very little (read, nothing) to incorporate phablet features into Android. And most importantly, phablet navigation. If anything, I feel like they are doing the opposite with their apps.
The bane of a (right-handed) phablet user’s user experience is objects located to the upper left corner of the screen. Which is, coincidentally, where Google’s guidelines place the action bar, the heart of modern apps. If it wasn’t for the Note’s one-handed mode (which shrinks the entire screen), I’d be forced to risk my phone’s integrity by doing hand gymnastics worthy of the power-user olympics Gold Medal. That is just not cool.
Then there’s the fact that, like previously mentioned, phablets can efficiently house more than just 3 software keys, like the G3 proved. But another big issue for navigation on phablets is the fact that the bottom edge of a phablet also requires some hand gymnastics, particularly the bottom left corner. All of this detracts from navigation, as you have to re-adjust your hand to reach certain aspects of the screen. Even Apple had the foresight to incorporate a feature to make one-handed reachability easier on their phablet.
There’s many solutions to this problem. The easiest would be hiding the navigation keys, like their immersive mode already allows for, and adding PIE controls. Many ROMs have incorporated PIE controls already, and there’s Playstore alternatives out there too. The problem with the latter is that they aren’t officially supported, they can be pushed out of RAM and some functions like Menu and Back require root. That already makes it not as good as a built-in solution, which Google has already patented, but never applied!
And finally, there’s some additional features that greatly enhance phablet navigation, such as keyboards that adjust to the side of the screen (like featured on LG and Samsung phablets), or Samsung’s previously mentioned one-handed mode, which comes handy more often than you’d think. But the other very overlooked Samsung feature that just makes handling navigation so much more organic is their multi-window. If there is a reason to have a phablet, multi-window would be it. Some bits of multi-window code were found in AOSP code, and everyone expected Lollipop and its host phablet to bring it, but it didn’t. And Samsung’s solution in particular has fundamentally changed the way I see apps on my phone. If I am watching a YouTube video, and I want to navigate to the chat I had opened previously, rather than switching apps and missing out on the video or audio by pausing it, I can just swiftly resize it and leave it playing on a corner as I type my message. I never thought it would be as useful as it is, but I use it literally all the time and it brings the mobile OS closer to a fully fledged desktop replacement. It’s something you’ve got to try and get used to in order to fully appreciate, and I can’t imagine daily driving a phone without it now.
Finally, having the 480 DPI standard on a phablet is a little ridiculous, specially when Google insists on the Nexus 6’s default launcher to have 4×4 grids of immense icons. It looks like a stretched out phone, and with more room for more content you can also have a better effective navigation, as more options are available to you at any given time without necessarily sacrificing much intuitiveness or ease of use and reach.
Where are you going, Google?
So here I am wondering why Google’s software designers haven’t addressed some of these issues, added some of these features, and adapted their software to their new vision. There are hundreds of multi-tasking solutions I haven’t talked about, many of them on the Playstore or on XDA ROMs. Switchr, for example, works great and I used it for a while. There are also ways to access apps without visual aid, such as gestures. Why can’t Google look at their developer community and draw inspiration from them? Why can’t they act on their own patents? And why don’t they try to push navigation forward, in a time where we want our experience to be more efficient and pleasant? I love Lollipop, to the point where I can’t go back to my old KitKat ROMs and all the Xposed goodness. But in my sweet love for Lollipop’s optimizations and new features lay some grips and annoyances with its setbacks and conformities. Let’s hope the next version makes the OS as fluid and organic as it can be.